This post is co-written with Jose Luis Irigoyen, director for the Transport, Water, and Information and Communications Technologies Department in the Sustainable Development Network (SDN) of the World Bank.

The world is in the midst of unprecedented urbanization, with cities expected to hold 5.2 billion residents by 2050. One of the major challenges of the 21st century, therefore, is achieving a sustainable future for our cities. And transport – which connects people to economic opportunities, education, health services, and more – can make or break “The Future We Want.”

Decisions made at international summits this year and next will establish the framework for global action for decades to come. The transport sector’s future impact on mobility, congestion, economic opportunity, human health, and climate change will be determined by the choices we make today. To ensure transport contributes to poverty reduction and shared prosperity, a shift is needed in the way urban mobility systems are planned and designed. Building a sustainable transport future will require an integrated approach with the cooperation of multiple stakeholders: transport and city leaders, as well as the development and business communities.

In this spirit, the team of co-organizers and partner organizations behind Transforming Transportation – a two-day conference beginning today that convenes business leaders, policymakers, and city and transport officials – has identified five opportunities to move human society toward transport of the 21st century. These areas for action include: road safety, mid-sized cities, regional and local governments, finance, and data and technology.

Road Safety and Cities of the Future

First, road safety is a vital need to address in our cities. We lose an extraordinary amount of human and economic capital from the 1.2 million lives claimed globally by traffic crashes each year. Low- and middle-income countries account for 92 percent of those deaths, 45 percent of which occur in urban areas. This costs emerging economies between one and two percent of their gross national product – estimated at more than US $100 billion per year. And road safety is also a major issue in developed economies – in the United States, for example, 86 percent of traffic fatalities occur within 10 miles of urban areas.

We can help prevent this loss by making cities safer by design through sustainable transport projects and policies that aim to reduce car traffic, improve mass transport, and promote cycling and walking. There is a growing body of research that points to the safety benefits of sustainable transport, as well as its many co-benefits ranging from reducing air pollution, curbing climate change, and decreasing traffic congestion. If we take this holistic approach to urban development and accessibility, we can create better cities for people and the planet.

Second, we need a greater focus on mid-size cities. Huge megacities with populations of more than 10 million people – like Beijing, Mumbai, São Paulo, and Mexico City – are often the target of development finance and national attention. Mid-size cities, with populations between one and five million, are overlooked. We cannot address the needs of citizens around the globe by focusing only on capitals and the largest cities. Mid-size cities are where the next wave of urban growth will take place – they are growing faster than megacities and will contribute more to global economic growth by 2025. We must broaden our scope of action to cities like Jinan, China; Indore, India; or Belo Horizonte, Brazil – where booming population growth will be accompanied by an increasing demand for transport services. A greater focus on mid-sized cities like these offers the opportunity to avoid lock-in effects that have proved to be a barrier to designing sustainable transport systems. Early planning can also help mid-sized cities adopt a low-carbon, sustainable growth path.

3 Enablers to Scale Up Sustainable Transport

We can also tap into three enablers to help cities realize their full potential, benefit their economies, and improve quality of life for their citizens: regional and local governments, transport finance, and data and technology.

The strength of regional and local governments builds the political will and technical capacity to implement integrated transport and urban development solutions. Effective and transparent governance and leadership – which can be developed and strengthened through training and knowledge-sharing – are prerequisites to sustainable urban growth and inclusive development.

Finance is another crucial ingredient to successful implementation of sustainable development projects. Leveraging private finance, climate finance, and national investments are key to scaling up sustainable transport solutions in cities around the globe. In a first attempt to quantify global public and private investment in transport across all modes, WRI estimated annual transport investments to total between US$1.4 trillion and US$2.1 trillion. This analysis showed that annual private transport investment – which falls between US$814 billion to US$1.2 trillion – is greater than annual public transport investment, between US$569 billion to US$905 billion. This gap indicates a great leadership opportunity for the private sector to meet transport needs sustainably by shifting investment towards sustainable, low-carbon solutions – particularly in rapidly urbanizing and motorizing countries.

And last, but not least, the third enabler is data and technology. Transport-specific technologies—such as smart card fare integration and real-time arrival information available via mobile phones—are already improving network performance and quality-of-service for commuters. Widely spread technologies from developed countries can help improve efficiency at a low cost in developing nations. For example, GPS positioning helps boost the efficiency of auto-rickshaw fleets in India with 50+ vehicles, delivering better service to customers. Software and data management can also help decision-makers understand travel patterns and needs, as well as manage the operation of transport systems, among other feats. Technology and innovation can help cities in emerging economies leapfrog car-dependent transport and adopt integrated strategies that reduce pollution, energy consumption, and congestion. By compiling transport information and “big data,” technology promises to boost citizen engagement and empower city residents to co-design more responsive and sustainable transport solutions.

Achieving the Sustainable Cities We Want

The five opportunities we just described – safety, mid-size cities, regional and local leadership, finance, and technology – can leverage transport so that it delivers more inclusive and prosperous cities. It is only through an inclusive process that we can seize these opportunities before us, and every urban resident has an important role to play in this effort. As Transforming Transportation kicks-off today, we encourage you to contribute and influence the discussions we’re having. Let’s work together in a coalition for change toward transport of the 21st century – the sector with the potential to make our cities sustainable hubs of greater prosperity, health, and well-being for all.