Image: Electric bus in Mexico City, from BYD.

Why Cities Need Public Transport To Be Well Funded, Equitable, & Resilient

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Over the course of a year, the MOBILIZE Learning Lab convened by ITDP and VREF brought together a number of global transport researchers, experts, and advocates to discuss the future of public transport.

High-quality, reliable public transport is essential to all cities, especially in lower- and middle-income countries where it is often the only accessible mobility option for millions of people. High-quality transport is also critical to addressing the growing issues of emissions, congestion, inequality, and traffic violence that is most associated with an increase in private vehicles and driving. Four years ago, however, the COVID-19 pandemic led to clear and significant impacts on public transport systems in cities worldwide.

As the pandemic’s public health concerns limited the mobility of many, the International Energy Agency reported a nearly 50% fall in global road transport activity in the first few months of the crisis. Years later and post-pandemic, many public transport systems continue to face a decline in funding, labor, and public resources. At the same time, we still know that public transport is one of the most essential climate and equity solutions for reducing emissions and supporting inclusive mobility in urban life. A better future for our cities also means a future that is built on robust, quality public transport infrastructure and service that acknowledges the diverse needs of all communities.

To begin understanding what this future can look like, the MOBILIZE Learning Lab convened experts and practitioners  to discuss a central question: How can our urban public transport systems be improved to benefit cities, the environment, and everyday users? Transport and mobility experts and advocates taking part in the Learning Lab used a lens of equity, resilience, and financial sustainability to ideate around the potential future of public transport in our cities.  The primary conclusions and themes from the Learning Lab sessions are synthesized in a new white paper, The Future of Public Transport: Well-Funded, Equitable and Resilient, which includes key recommendations for cities seeking to ensure that their transport systems are responsive to the opportunities and challenges of tomorrow.

Building on the release of the 2024 Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Standard and ITDP’s year of the bus, the Learning Lab’s analysis of public transport is also, in many ways, about the future of our bus systems. It is estimated that more than half of public transport trips take place on formal and informal bus systems around the world, making buses the backbone of our urban mobility. Thus, it is important to understand the recommendations in the white paper through this lens while it also explores the concept of public transport more broadly. Certainly the ‘future of public transport’ can encompass a wide range of issues, and the Learning Lab chose to focus on themes of equity, resilience, and funding and financing as issues that are relevant and applicable to almost every city and area of public mobility.

In 2022 and 2023, the Learning Lab addressed these questions through in-depth discussions and workshops that culminated in an in-person site visit to Bogotá, Colombia in 2023 to learn first-hand from policymakers and planners in this major capital city. The paper presents details of these conversations and resulting themes from these meetings, centered on an overarching call-to-action to cities to give more attention to public transport as a public service in order to ensure greater access for more people. They also emphasized that improvements to public transport can boost climate and economic resilience, but it is only possible if cities address resource challenges to ensure more efficient, accessible, and sustainable systems for years to come. The Learning Lab developed several recommendations as a result of its convenings, outlined below.

Public transport is a public service, therefore, it needs public investment and public oversight. All public transport needs to be well funded and financed and well managed, with informal public transport being considered as part of this public service. For public transport to be a public service, it needs to reach all (coverage) and be affordable. Currently, financing is mostly focused on big infrastructure projects.

This misses the bulk of public transport that people typically use—buses and informal public transport—as well as the walking and cycling environment to reach those big infrastructure projects. In many cities, public transport operations are only funded through fare revenue, resulting in unaffordable fares for some, big gaps in times or places that services run, and low-quality service. Public funding and more financing for public transport are essential to ensure good coverage and affordability for the user.

Public transit must provide good service for all. Good service is the bedrock for a resilient and equitable public transport system, and it also requires adequate investment. Good service for all begins with frequency, but also means having a diversity of options within the public transport system supported by the first and last mile connectivity options, such as walking and cycling. This also means that services must be planned to meet a diversity of trip purposes, including caregiving trips as well as commuting. Achieving this requires establishing robust funding and management of all parts of public transport systems.

Public transport should be built on public participation and community-building. Public transport is not just a technical enterprise, but also a political and social one. Public participation can take many forms, and it can change depending on a place’s needs and capacity. Such participation can include activities like surveys, interviews, citizen councils, referendums, and public meetings that help residents voice their thoughts on new interventions.

It can also include a responsive social media or virtual presence that engages with the public and provides transparent updates and answers questions. Public input on transport planning is essential for several reasons because it ensures that projects consider the needs, desires, and concerns of residents, builds trust and public support, and builds social capital.

The TransMiCable is a gondola lift system implemented by Bogotá to provide connections to TransMilenio buses in mountainous regions. Photo: ITDP

Public transport must be improved and informed by data collection that is disaggregated, or separated from general categories into more specific groups. We cannot know where there are inequities and issues if we are not collecting data that is a combination of quantitative and qualitative. Data is, of course, a powerful and political tool that researchers must use carefully. Questions of data collection, ethics, and methodology will become more relevant as technology grows and big data becomes a greater force in research. Researchers must be mindful of matching data collection and analysis approaches with meaningful questions.

One powerful route for collecting data is often digital technologies, such as converting fare payment systems from cash to card or mobile app, or by using automated vehicle location tracking to update transit schedules in real time. Digitalization, in many cases, also helps systems become more convenient and efficient for passengers, operators, and regulators. While such technology makes data and efficiency more powerful than ever, cities need to consider the new frontier of privacy, equity, and inclusivity in data management.

Public transport planning should go hand-in-hand with land-use planning. The accessibility, equity, and resilience of public transport is very dependent on land-use factors such as density. One of the key factors in financially sustainable, equitable, and resilient transport is density coupled with a mix of land uses. Dense, mixed land use leads to shorter trip distances and more accessible and affordable services, supporting all three aspects of better public transport: funding, equity, and resilience.

Greater densities also promote more mode options, as people are more willing to walk and cycle for shorter trips, while also encouraging people to use public transport for longer distances. By encouraging shorter trips, such urban neighborhoods will support walking and cycling interventions that are less expensive than buses, trains, and related infrastructure. Density coupled with mixed land uses can also ease the funding and financing challenges of transport systems while increasing access for transit-dependant communities.

Ultimately, what unites the lessons from the Learning Lab is the core belief that the future of sustainable and inclusive cities relies on having high-quality, well-managed public transport combined with more walking, cycling, and dense planning strategies. While these conclusions do not aim to provide simple solutions to such complex questions, they do seek to help lay the groundwork for continued collaboration, ideation, policymaking, and advocacy amongst everyone in the transport sector.

Download the paper here for more detailed insights and access resources from the Learning Lab here.

Courtesy of Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP).

About ITDP: ITDP has eight offices on five continents, and has worked in more than 100 cities in 30 countries. We have expertise on a number of key issues in transport and urban development.

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