After two years of unprecedented disruption to transport globally and two years of virtual conferences, Transforming Transportation returned to Washington, DC, March 14-15. More than 900 policymakers, experts and leaders in transport gathered at the World Bank Headquarters to explore how to recover from crisis and accelerate towards green and inclusive mobility.
Building on increased global engagement facilitated by the switch to virtual during pandemic, more than 1,500 virtual attendees also joined lively sessions that featured city and national leaders, development bank heads and researchers at the annual event co-hosted by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities and the World Bank Group.
“It really is extraordinary to be back in person – and also to see how the enormous challenges from the past two years have changed how we think about transport,” said Rogier van den Berg, Global Director of WRI Ross Center. “I see many changes, actually, and it gives me hope that we can really push this conversation forward.”
Moving Fast, But Not Fast Enough
A common theme across the two days was reconciling the rapid pace of change in transport over the last few years with how far there still is to go.
The last two years have both set records for number of electric vehicles sold, including e-buses, e-bikes and e-motorcycles. During the pandemic, hundreds of cities installed new bike lanes and converted road space to pedestrian areas, many of which are making such changes permanent. Guangzhe Chen, Vice President for Infrastructure said the World Bank set a record last fiscal year with $8.3 billion in transport sector funding while making a “decisive shift” towards supporting sustainable mobility. Ani Dasgupta, President and CEO of World Resources Institute, noted that the U.S. committed $5 billion toward electric school buses last year while India tendered a purchase of 5,000 e-buses across five cities while aiming to procure an astounding 50,000 e-buses by 2030.
Yet considering the size of the sector and its continued growth, transport is still lagging behind the pace of change needed to reach climate and development goals.
In terms of decarbonization, transport is behind power and heating in estimates for when greenhouse gas emissions might peak. In 2020, 72% of transport-related greenhouse gas emissions came from road transport; the world is on its way to 1 billion more cars by 2050 and a 60% increase in transport emissions. Among current national climate commitments codified in Nationally Determined Contributions, just over half mention transport at all and less than a third include measures to shift from private vehicles to shared or public transport.
On the roads, 1.3 million people die each year as a result of traffic crashes, most of them vulnerable users, like pedestrians and cyclists. Due to the confluence of rapid urbanization and motorization trends, many cities are experiencing a decline in access to jobs and services, key to economic vitality and quality of life.
Of the 14 indicators of systems change for transport tracked by WRI and the Bezos Earth Fund’s Systems Change Lab, though many are heading in the right direction, none are moving at the pace needed to meet 2030 goals.
“The current system we have built for automobiles is not working,” said Claudia Adriazola-Steil, Director of Health and Road Safety at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. “It is not working for carbon emissions, it’s not working for quality of life, it’s not working for health, it’s not working for equity. We need to challenge that.”
A Systems Approach
“We know how to get there, but it is very, very difficult,” said Andrew Steer, President and CEO of the Bezos Earth Fund. He called for an all-hands-on-deck approach to support changes across the spectrum, from vehicles to fuels to land use and policy.
A systems approach – not focusing on one silver bullet or another – was a common theme across the conference. A systems approach builds resilience, can reduce expenses and increase returns, and ultimately is required to make solutions like electric vehicles, public transit and active mobility lead to better results for people and the planet.
Mohamed Mezghani, Secretary General of International Association of Public Transport, quipped “I prefer to have a diesel bus on an exclusive lane versus an electric bus stuck in traffic.”
“You have to look at the whole system,” said Francois Bausch, Deputy Prime Minister of Luxembourg, who noted the country is “investing in roads now not only as space for cars but [as space] for multi-modal mobility.”
Focusing on transport systems, with the experience of users at the center, can also help surface consistent problem spots, like the invisibility of the paratransit or informal sector and the experience of women, the disabled, the young and the elderly.
Iman Abubaker, Urban Mobility Project Manager with WRI Africa, said that more than 90% of public transport trips in Africa are made on semi-informal or informal transit services, filling a major gap in services caused by a lack of investment in formal infrastructure. Informal transport is “demand responsive and adaptive, but not necessarily safe or efficient,” she said. Yet only one Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Climate Agreement – Angola’s – mentions paratransit or informal transport at all.
“Women are using public transportation most, but women are most afraid of using public transportation,” said Tonni Brodber, Representative of the UN Women Multi-Country Office – Caribbean. She noted consistent differences in access to private vehicles and perceived safety of public transport among men and women in the Caribbean region, with women losing out each time.
Lake Sagaris, Associate Adjunct Professor at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development, The Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, called for more interrogation of what is meant by “empowerment” in transport projects, with a focus on generating more citizen participation. “The most terrible kind of exclusion is of the power to make decisions about your life,” she said.
Financing the Big Shifts
Financing the big shifts needed is a key enabler to more rapid change, said Dasgupta. India’s innovative e-bus procurement process, which aggregated demand from several states, reduced the cost of a new bus to 27% less than a diesel bus, an extraordinary leap. “This is the kind of game-changing solution we need,” he said.
There are still bigger gains to be had, said Mahua Acharya, the outgoing Managing Director and CEO of state-owned Convergence Energy Services Limited, India. Solar power is already cheaper than coal in India, she said, and solar plus wind with additional battery capacity could be cheaper than all “brown” power. But more battery capacity is needed, capacity that could conceivably come from recycled EV batteries, with some creativity.
Mahua noted that financing for sustainable mobility has become easier to raise, as the e-mobility transition has accelerated and COVID has prompted new transport and climate investments. But the novelty of new technologies and business plans slows things down. “The conversation sounds a bit difficult,” she said, “because we are trying to finance things that were not financed before…and we are trying to correct for so many things in one shot and scale at the same time.”
Frannie Léautier, CEO of SouthBridge Investment, based in Kigali, urged more crossover with climate financing. “Africa receives only 3% of climate financing and the share of that related to transport is very little,” she said. Helping people understand the role of sustainable mobility in climate action could supply new revenue streams to accelerate change.
“Connect to People’s Lives”
Resilience was another watchword at Transforming Transportation 2023. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the criticality – and the vulnerability — of transport infrastructure in many places, while conflict and natural disasters continue to disrupt supply chains globally.
Oleksandr Kubrakov, the Vice Prime Minister for the Restoration of Ukraine, joined live to discuss rebuilding in the midst of war, keeping supply lines open and getting cities functioning again. Fardowsa Osman Egal, the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation for Somalia, noted “we can’t talk about resilience if we don’t have safety; we can’t build our roads if we don’t even have access to certain parts of the country.” Mayor Atiqul Islam said Dhaka sees 2,000 new people arriving every day because of the “three C’s”: COVID, climate change and conflict.
“We live in a moment of multiple crises,” said Benjamin Jeromin, Senior Policy Officer at BMZ. To get on track for the 2030 goals, we need general principles, like the quality infrastructure investment principles developed by the G20; policy, like the World Bank’s climate action plan; and contributions from across society.
Transforming Transportation celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Nancy Kete, then director of EMBARQ and co-founder of the conference with Dr. Lee Schipper, reminded the audience that the original intent was to test “what do we know and how well do we know it – and who’s ‘we?’” The conference was – and remains – a way to bring together a broader global transport community.
“I would suggest we use the excitement and enthusiasm and fantastic solutions illuminated here as a launching point,” said Rogier van den Berg, “as a push to do better at COP28, to go back to our respective organizations and cities and countries and commit to making the story of transport one that connects climate to people’s lives and wellbeing in a very real way.”
Schuyler Null is Communications Manager for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Taylor Symes is a Communications Specialist at WRI Ross Center For Sustainable Cities.
Photos by Courtney Babcock/WRI.