5 ways to help mayors build sustainable urban transportation

A Metrobus that is part of Panama City’s mass transportation system. How can the international community and its global development institutions help mayors create local ecosystems that support sustainable transportation? Photo by: Gerardo Pesantez / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Scores of local politicians, city planners, transportation officials and development professionals gathered at the World Bank’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. on Thursday to engage with one-another on a topic central to sustainable development — transportation in cities.

Building sustainable and climate friendly transportation systems in the world’s cities will be fundamental to reaching the climate goals laid out by last year’s climate agreement in Paris.

Speaking on stage during the kick off of the two-day Transforming Transportation conference, President and CEO of the World Resources Institute Andrew Steer said that moving away from cities centered on cars to cities centered around people is the sort of “disruptive” change necessary to tackle the climate problems of today.

Cities are like volcanoes that need to be covered, said Toni Lindau, director for Brazil at WRI’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, adding that while cities make up only 3 percent of the earth’s surface, they contribute to 70 percent of emissions.

With the critical role of cities coming to the fore of climate and sustainable development discussions, mayors are increasingly recognized as powerful development actors — capable of spurring on wide reaching transportation innovations and climate action.

“For many years we’ve seen that nations have been talking, cities have been acting,” Morten Kabell, Copenhagen’s mayor of Technical and Environmental Affairs told Devex.

Kabell added that mayors and local politicians at the city level are close to the citizens who feel the impacts of climate change, and that cities can engage with the international community for aid and partnership.

So what should be the role of the development professional? How can the international community and its global development institutions help mayors create local ecosystems that support sustainable transportation?

Below are five strategies that conference participants identified:

1. Connect cities to cities.

While every city is different and faces its own set of unique challenges, cities can learn from one another and be inspired by one another. Mayors need access to knowledge about innovative and climate smart transportation methods they can put into practice. The development community can serve as messengers and conveners of that knowledge.

Naoko Ishii, CEO and chairperson of the Global Environment Facility called for a global knowledge platform for mayors to access the latest knowledge, as well as data.

2. Move away from single sector investment towards integrated planning investment.

Transportation, energy, land and infrastructure are all sectors that inter-relate and feed off one another. And they are all priorities for mayors. As John Roome, senior director of Climate Change Cross Cutting Solutions at the World Bank pointed out, mayors don’t think of climate change and transportation as separate entities.

Investments that global financial institutions put into cities should be flexible and able to support integrated urban planning that encompasses several sectors at once, according to Ishii.

3. Understand local politics.

Understanding the political challenges and constraints mayors face is extremely important for zeroing in on financial support that is effective, according to Roome. “Unless we can explicitly address the linkage between the political economy and the technical solution to build the long-term institutions, we’re not going to get there,” he added.

It’s also important for development professionals to know what transportation legislation is already in place, both at the city and the country level.

One question leaders at the World Bank are already asking, according to Pierre Guislain, senior director of the Transport and ICT Global Practice at the World Bank, is whether they should be financing roads in countries without appropriate safety legislation — such as seatbelt or helmet requirements — that prevent death or injury.

4. Identify some ‘quick wins’ to help mayors and local leaders build confidence.

The Paris climate agreement finalized last month was based on country voluntary contributions that will over time become more and more ambitious, said Roome, who added that a country’s ability to keep up with its contributions will require “quick wins” at the city level, which build confidence.

Roome called on World Bank partners in the development community to help identify what those quick wins in the transportation sector might be. Something as simple as changing street lighting might be one example, he added.

5. Convene local stakeholders.

The city government, the private sector, car owners and other stakeholders all have to work together in order for innovative and climate-friendly transportation policies to work, according to Ani Dasgupta, global director of WRI’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Dasgupta said that organizations like WRI and others invested in building sustainable cities can work together to convene these stakeholders who have the power to create local change.

Have you seen promising examples of development organizations supporting smarter urban transportation solutions? Share them in the comments field below.

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About the author

  • Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.