Public transport provides a myriad of benefits that can help countries reach climate and development goals. There’s no better solution to moving large numbers of people efficiently, cheaply and sustainably. Electric buses emit less than half as much carbon as fossil fuel-burning private cars per passenger per kilometer traveled. Quality public transport is linked to fewer road fatalities, with less than a tenth of the casualty rate as car travel per kilometer. Furthermore, data shows that metro areas with higher public transport use have lower traffic fatality rates and public transport helps bridge the “urban services divide” between the wealthy and least wealthy. These benefits are especially valuable because global goals to limit global warming set by the international Paris Agreement on climate change and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals are currently off-track.

The SuM4All (Sustainable Mobility for All) consortium, a partnership of more than 50 member organizations including WRI, recently released How to Unlock Public Transport for Climate and Development: Six Areas for Action. The report is a result of a working group on reimagining public transport co-chaired by WRI and the World Bank and identifies six areas for action to advance public transport, meet Sustainable Development Goals and raise ambition in country climate action policies.

The six actions countries can take include:

1) Embrace Public Transport as a Solution for Climate and Sustainable Development

While several of the Sustainable Development Goals relate to transport, Goal 11 is the only one with an indicator specific to public transport. Target two of Goal 11 says “by 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible, and sustainable transport systems for all, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations.” In its most recent assessment of this indicator, the United Nation’s Human Settlements Programme found that just over half of the world’s residents had convenient access to public transport while only 37% of urban areas are served.

The lowest performing region is sub-Saharan Africa where only 23% of urban areas are served by public transport. This is a clear indication that access to quality, reliable public transport remains a significant challenge, and one that if provided, can improve people’s access to economic opportunity, reduce road fatalities, grow walkability in cities, increase women’s mobility and improve air quality. 

When it comes to climate, as the Global Stocktake shows, country climate commitments, known as nationally determined contributions, need significant changes, including better inclusion of public transport. WRI research indicates that the world needs to reduce vehicle travel from its current trajectory by up to 14% to reach climate goals and that global electric bus sales should reach 100% of sales by 2030.

WRI’s research on the role of public transport in nationally determined contributions finds that of the 142 existing plans, 100 mention public transport but only 26 identify targets or specific goals on interventions such as shifting travel, building bus rapid transit or light rail transit or electrifying bus fleets. If we are to even come close to climate goals, countries, together with cities and states, need to significantly step up their commitments and corresponding investments in public transport infrastructure, services and fleet electrification. Likewise, with seven years left to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, it will not be possible to do so unless more frequent, reliable public transport in cities is implemented or improved, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

2) Ramp Up Public Transport Finance

Expanding public transport can lower the total cost of urban mobility by $5.3 trillion per year in 2050. To realize these gains, budgets need to shift focus from car-centered mobility systems to public transport. Stable funding can come from different public and private sources. On the local scale, public and private investments need to work together in an equitable way; both need to be supported with national climate and development finance to overcome high initial cost barriers. As well, in many countries, so-called “informal” transport networks, consisting of privately operated minibuses, matatus or for-hire two-and three-wheelers which provide services to millions every day, could also be improved to help meet such goals.

India’s national electric bus program, which recently announced the approval of 10,000 electric buses for over 100 cities, and Brazilian cities harnessing  parking revenues to help support struggling systems are two good examples of public and private collaboration to improve and support public transport service.

3) Shape Cities and Public Transport for Access and Attractiveness

An attractive city is one that provides its residents with access to opportunities and a livable, healthy environment. Public transport is at the center of these goals, as it is convenient to use, safe, affordable and accommodates different people’s travel patterns. Public transport is most effective when coupled with mixed land use planning, which clusters housing and businesses near transit stations, keeping cities compact and shortening the distance between daily travel destinations, saving time and emissions.

Since 2017, Jakarta, Indonesia has shifted from car-oriented development to one that prioritizes pedestrians, cyclists and transit users. The main transit provider, TransJakarta, has integrated minibus services (Mikrotrans) into one system, under one fare payment system to improve convenience to riders. Additionally, new Bus Rapid Transit lines, protected bike lanes and a bike sharing system enable affordable, safe, convenient and sustainable travel throughout the urban center.

4) Anchor Public Transport in Strong Institutions and Collaborations

Public transport and active mobility require a holistic approach linked to wider regional and national policy goals. Cross-sectoral collaboration creates benefits and synergies that link public transport development with affordable housing, economic development, public health and reduces energy demand. Collaboration of public health and transport, for example, can connect information on health impact of air pollution, traffic injuries and the benefits of active mobility, leading to well-informed urban transport policy making.

For example, by using air-quality data from the World Health Organization, cities with high levels of air pollution can be identified as priority areas for low-carbon mobility solutions.

5) Drive Public Transport to be Just and Inclusive

An equitable transit network is one that is focused on its users and workers, particularly for marginalized and most vulnerable communities. Effective transit networks offer connectivity at a lower price, so that lower income neighborhoods, often at the periphery of the city, do not face as many barriers accessing areas of employment and education.

In the Global South, paratransit or informal transport modes (also known as popular transport, characterized by privately owned vehicles operating under limited or no government control) provide a significant portion of shared transport. Experiences from the Philippines illustrate how minibus fleet modernization and reforming paratransit can benefit transport performance and working conditions.

Additionally, public transport has long overlooked the needs of female users, who often depend on public transport more than men, make more connected trips and are more likely to travel with children or the elderly. Increasing the number of women in the transit workforce, particularly in leadership positions, is a simple and effective strategy to design services with women in mind.

6) Equip Public Transport for the Future through Adaption and Embracing Technology.

With increased frequency of severe weather events, flooding, extreme heat and intense storms, public transport needs to adapt to potential hazards to be resilient as a long-term investment. The entire network’s resilience must be considered, including potential impacts on infrastructure, on operations and services such as power cuts or blocked roads, and on riders’ behaviors such as shifting away from public transport due to discomfort.

Data and technology are needed to predict hazards and assess potential interventions, as well as to communicate with riders when alternative routes are needed.

For example, cities in China have increased public transport mode shares over the years by incentivizing travel through navigation apps, integrating services such as public transport and bicycle sharing for a more convenient experience that also results in emission reductions.

Report link: How to Unlock Public Transport for Climate and Development: Six Areas for Action.