Sustainable transport in cities


Transport has always shaped cities. In Medieval times crossroads gave birth to thriving market towns. Venice was built up around its canals. Industrial Britain’s development followed the route of railways and waterways. Many North American cities were created for the car. But how are the cities of today being shaped by a need for more sustainable transport? 

Cities are now home to over half of the global population, and have a large role to play in reducing carbon emissions and improving air quality. This will need new technologies and new ways of organising cities, alongside efficiency gains.

Many local governments are accelerating change through policy initiatives such as integrated transport, congestion charges and low emission zones, sustainable procurement and lifecycle costing, and opening data up to companies and academics. And these city level policies can move markets in more sustainable directions. For example, London is requiring all newly licensed taxis to be zero-emission capable from 2018. This has resulted in five vehicle manufacturers committing to meeting that deadline, which is both in their own commercial interests and good for the environment.

There are three main ways cities can innovate to make transport more sustainable without increasing journey times:

  • Better land use planning: The least dense cities, for example Houston, have per capita carbon emissions nearly ten times higher than the densest, such as Singapore. City planners are using transit-oriented development to increase density while maintaining quality of life and property value. This involves clustering mixed use developments around a key transport hub, as with the KL Sentral area in Kuala Lumpur, built around the largest railway station in Southeast Asia.
  • Modal shift: Some cities, such as Delhi, are investing heavily in creating the mass transit systems needed to change how citizens travel. Others are using incentives and behavioural change to encourage people to choose more efficient – and often healthier - forms of transport. Copenhagen has a number of progressive cycling policies including the Green Wave, which allows people cycling at 20km/h to hit all green lights during rush hour. This supports commuting at a speed that keeps traffic moving, but is safe for the cyclist.
  • Making existing transport modes more efficient: Lightweighting and new engine and fuel technologies are helping to make existing road and rail vehicles more efficient. However it is not yet clear which technologies and fuels cities will back. The main options are hydrogen fuel cells, fossil fuel hybrids, and electric vehicles, and the optimum solution may well vary from city to city. Many options require city-level investment in new infrastructure – for example the city of Gumi in South Korea is currently piloting a scheme that embeds wireless charging for electric buses within the roads, helping to recharge vehicles on the move.

There are already some great examples of cities taking significant steps in creating sustainable transport systems. In Manila the Asian Development Bank is aiming to roll out 100,000 e-trikes to replace current fossil fuel versions, which is not just good for the environment and health, but increases take-home pay for drivers by around 15%.

Hangzhou in China, which already has the world’s largest bike sharing scheme, has embraced the electric car. It is now installing multi-storey “vending machines” for ultra-compact electric cars, with a 75 mile range and costing just $3 an hour. There are around 50 of these in the city today and plans for many more. The city also has battery swapping facilities for around 500 electric taxis.

The global need to cut carbon emissions and air pollution, at the same time as improving human development, has created the demand for sustainable and accessible transport systems. Through their actions, city governments are helping to shape the cities of the future, today.


This blog was first published on The Economist Insights.