WRI Ross Towards a More Equal City shows how closely access to opportunities and transport options are linked

WRI Ross Center, May 2019

Crawling traffic, honking horns, choking smog. A dreaded daily commute is not just a nuisance. Failing urban transport systems are stalling the economic engines of cities.

New research from WRI finds that congested and expensive commutes are making it harder for people to access jobs, services and other benefits of urban areas. Too many are now “stranded” from these opportunities or are forced to pay a steep cost, both in time and money.

In the latest working paper of our Towards a More Equal City series, we analyzed two cities to illustrate how closely access to opportunities and transport options are linked. In Johannesburg, the average resident has access to just 49% of jobs within 60 minutes of travel time by any mode. In Mexico City, it’s only 37%.

Cities have largely focused on improving mobility, expanding roads to move more traffic faster. But evidence shows that we need to prioritize accessibility instead, helping residents reach more opportunities efficiently and affordably. Our research recommends building more democratic street networks, making it easier to use multiple modes of transport, and implementing congestion and parking policies.

Another critical challenge is carbon neutral transportation. Transport produces a quarter of all CO2 emissions globally. With zero tailpipe emissions, electric buses hold the potential for outsized impact on both climate change and deadly air pollution. Before the launch of Shenzhen’s all-electric bus fleet, conventional buses were responsible for 20% of CO2 emissions though they accounted for just 0.5% of vehicles.

New research explores 16 case studies of cities that were early adopters of e-buses, laying out challenges such as financing and rapidly changing technology. The twin reports share lessons learned and provide step-by-step direction on achieving e-bus adoption targets based on the best evidence to date.
Ani Dasgupta
Global Director, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

From ‘Mobility’ to ‘Access for All’ 

Many cities are experiencing a decline in access to jobs and opportunities due to rapid urbanization and motorization. The latest paper in the World Resources Report, Towards a More Equal City, highlights how access to opportunities depends on safe, affordable and reliable transportation. Read the blog.

TheCityFix Labs México Launches First Technical Workshop  TheCityFix Labs México kicked off in Mexico City, convening seven project teams chosen from a competitive field to begin a year-long program of technical assistance. TheCityFix Labs is supported by the Citi Foundation, and the workshop highlighted the financial tools that can be used to develop innovative, sustainable infrastructure investments.

How to Get Electric Buses in Your City 

Electric bus adoption is critical for sustainable cities. But many struggle with implementation. Two new reports break down lessons learned and provide step-by-step guidance on how to achieve electric bus adoption using examples from 16 cities around the world, from Shenzhen to Philadelphia

Is Your City Serious About Road Safety? Look for These 3 Things

While Washington, D.C., has committed to end traffic deaths by 2024, the number of road deaths and serious injuries are increasing. Photo by Elvert Barnes Photography/Flickr

Thirty-six people died in traffic crashes in Washington, D.C., last year, a 20% increase from 2017. Eight people, six of whom were walking or biking, have already been killed this year, prompting a major public rally just two weeks ago. Residents are angry that the city isn’t succeeding in curbing road deaths, despite the fact that Mayor Muriel Bowser committed to end traffic fatalities entirely by 2024.

It’s a common plight. While more than 40 cities in the United States and many more around the world have committed to Vision Zero, a global movement to end traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries by taking a systemic approach to road safety, many are struggling to turn this vision into a reality. Citizens themselves can pursue road safety at many levels – in their schools, workplaces, streets and communities. But it’s the elected leaders who control budgets and priorities for their jurisdiction who really have the responsibility to catalyze lasting improvements that will save people’s lives. As UN Global Road Safety Week kicks into gear this week, it’s time to ask the question: What does political leadership in road safety really look like?

Three factors are important:

1. Achievable Targets to Reduce Road Deaths

Research on 14 countries that set quantified road safety targets between 1981 and 1999 led to significant improvements in road safety. A target of zero deaths sets the stage for action, but city leaders need to also set ambitious and realistic intermediary targets. This allows policymakers to monitor and evaluate progress, and then adapt programs as needed.

Policymakers should also set context-specific targets and consider adopting additional indicators of success beyond reducing deaths and injuries, such as shifts in public perceptions or achieving systemic changes like setting appropriate speed limits. This allows policymakers to measure progress while waiting for the number of collisions, deaths and injuries to decline.

London is widely recognized as a leader in taking a holistic, systemic approach to road safety. After reducing road deaths by 45% over the past decade by improving street designs and reducing speed limits, Mayor Sadiq Khan formally adopted the Vision Zero concept in 2018. The commitment came with an Action Plan for eliminating deaths and serious injuries by 2041, including intermediary goals to reduce deaths and serious injuries 65% below 2005-09 levels by 2022, and 70% below 2010-14 levels by 2030. The plan also set many other measurable targets to meet along the way, such as specific reductions in fatalities involving public buses establishing speed limits of 20 mph on certain streets.

London has reduced road deaths 45% over the past decade by improving street designs and reducing speed limits. Photo by Max Pixel

2. Integrated Funding for Road Safety

As more people realize that traffic deaths are one of the leading causes of deaths globally, many multinational and philanthropic road safety funds and networks have emerged to help address the problem. However, local leaders need to back up their commitments to reducing deaths by directly allocating funding for road safety improvements. In addition to the ethical imperative to save lives, this investment is economical: Dangerous roads generate costs in terms of lost lives and productivity, as well as negative impacts on development.

A study by the International Road Assessment Program showed that it would only take 1–3% of road construction budgets to increase road safety, suggesting that the problem is more about awareness and perceptions rather than a lack of resources. Studies also show the benefits of shifting from costly urban highways to well-designed streets with public transport and pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure.

Because road safety is a multifaceted issue, budgets should not be allocated into road safety projects in isolation. Rather, any budget allocation for mobility – from street design to licensing to public transport planning – should be conditional on having a safety component. The Washington Area Bicycle Association (WABA) cited the lack of safe-street principles in major mobility projects as one of Washington, D.C.’s underlying barriers to achieving its Vision Zero commitment. The city currently lacks policies requiring that the millions of dollars to be invested in road infrastructure are spent on projects that achieve safe street designs.

Bogota, Colombia. Photo by EEIM/Wikimedia Commons

3. A Willingness to Make Tough Decisions to Prioritize Safety

Cities that have emerged as true road safety leaders have made tough but crucial decisions to prioritize safety, like installing speed cameras, lowering speed limits and redistributing street space. These decisions often face initial resistance, but as lives are saved and unexpected co-benefits like reduced congestion emerge, popularity tends to grow.

For example, Bogota, Colombia, recently developed a Speed Management Plan to help set and enforce safe speed limits. One of the actions involved reducing the speed limit from 60 to 50 kilometers per hour in five of the city’s most dangerous arterial roads, where about 150 traffic deaths are reported every year. The plan has already reduced traffic fatalities by 32%, saving 22 lives since late 2018. While the public and media initially criticized the move and worried it would increase traffic congestion, preliminary indications suggest that reduced speed limits may have actually improved traffic congestion by evening out traffic flows and reducing bottlenecks.

Many cities, such as Fortaleza, Brazil, are also experimenting with reallocating street space to better balance the space afforded to cars with areas for non-motorized and public transport. In order to mitigate public concerns, Fortaleza started with road safety projects that would have more community support, such as low speed zones around hospitals and schools and improving public spaces.

WRI Ross Center@WRIRossCities

The city only tackled traditionally unpopular measures, such as speed limit reductions, after the first projects yielded positive results and citizens had the opportunity to experience the benefits firsthand. For example, after 235 people died on two arterials between 2007 and 2017, the city reduced speed limits from 60 kilometers per hour to 50 kilometers per hour and installed new traffic lights, pedestrian signals, cycle tracks, a bus lane and more. The transformation reduced crash-related injuries 41% on one arterial alone.

There’s no denying that city leaders face many complex pressures and competing demands from their citizens. Few parts of cities are more contested than the streets we live and travel on. Leaders can’t backtrack on safety interventions like speed limits in order to gain politically, nor should they sign up for commitments like Vision Zero if they don’t back up their words with action. The ultimate responsibility of leaders is to protect their citizens. Peoples’ lives should not be a political bargaining chip.

This blog was originally published on WRI’s Insights.

Anna Bray Sharpin is a Transportation Associate for Health and Road Safety at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

5 Things We Learned About Urban Transformation

Metrocable cars travel to and from the hillside neighborhoods in Medellín, Colombia. Photo by Kyle LaFerriere/WRI

Positive change happens in cities, but it’s often lost in a sea of bad news about air pollution, rising costs of living, traffic jams and inequality.

When we launched the WRI Ross Prize for Cities in February 2018, we aimed to spotlight projects that have had a positive transformative impact on their communities and cities. We ultimately uncovered five initiatives generating life-changing impacts.

SARSAI, the winner of the WRI Ross Prize for Cities, saves students’ lives in Tanzania by adding speed humps, pedestrian walkways, crosswalks and other safety features to city streets. Metrocable’s aerial tram connects impoverished hillside neighborhoods in Medellin, Colombia to the city center, giving residents better access to jobs and other opportunities. Durban, South Africa’s Asiye eTafuleni helped protect an informal market from being replaced by a shopping mall, and supported its growth into a thriving public market. Pune, India’s first waste-picker cooperative, SWaCH, allowed informal workers to partner with the city government and provide much-needed waste-collection services. Eskişehir, Turkey’s ambitious river restoration and sustainable transport project created a livable downtown that radically reinvented the city.

SARSAI, which works to save students’ lives in Tanzania, won the first WRI Ross Prize for Cities.

These projects counter the idea that big shifts only come from governments and require large-scale investment. They also shed light on what it really takes to change cities for the better. Here are a few insights:

1. They Don’t Accept Things the Way They Are

We created the WRI Ross Prize for Cities to discover a certain kind of change – the kind that starts at a human scale, with individuals and organizations that everyone can identify with, and grows to have an outsized impact. All the projects consist of persistent and often rebellious urban change makers. In seeking to create better cities, they challenge conventional wisdom and values, and work to overcome deep-rooted patterns of exclusion, injustice or degradation.

Durban’s Asiye eTafuleni grew out of a conviction that decades of racist apartheid-era urban design must be dismantled, and that those who suffered most from past injustices are key to reversing disinvestment and neglect. Pune’s waste picker cooperative, SWaCH, challenges the stigmatization and chronic undervaluing of a marginalized group that is nevertheless serving an important function for the city. And in Dar es Salaam, the non-profit Amend places the most vulnerable and disempowered road users – school children – at the heart of urban design.

2. They Are Ready

When administrations change, disasters strike or new policies mandate action, there is a window of opportunity. Seizing these moments to change systems requires deep knowledge of the local context and a strategic understanding of the opportunity at hand.

When an earthquake struck Eskişehir in 1999, the city had already endured many years of decline and decay. The new administration was led by a mayor who had spent years as a rector at a local university, where he had engaged in many workshops and brainstorming sessions about the future of the city. He and his administration knew their city’s problems and had already begun exploring potential solutions. When the earthquake hit and created a need for urgent action, they were ready to mobilize a broad base of civil society groups, NGOs and business leaders.

The Eskişehir Urban Development Project reinvented a polluted and crumbling city in Turkey.

In Pune, SWaCH emerged after a decade of self-organizing by waste pickers. When the state government introduced a deadline for door-to-door waste collection in every city, Pune’s long-time waste picker trade union, KKPKP, was ready to step up. Harnessing the relationships it had built among waste pickers, local academic institutions and city agencies, KKPKP quickly brought SWaCH to life as a “win-win” solution to the new policy mandate.

3. They Draw Others In

Transformation requires the involvement and collaboration of multiple forces shaping a city – policy, market, civil society and community.

Nowhere is this truer than in the case of SARSAI in Dar es Salaam. The program’s engineers, sociologists and educators – some of them parents to young children themselves – brought to life a community of road safety advocates. Concerned parents, teachers, community leaders, government officials, construction workers, drivers and even financial institutions have all become a part of making roads safer for children and all pedestrians.

SWaCH is India’s first waste-pickers’ cooperative.

SWaCH is held together by a series of reciprocal relationships. Households rely on waste pickers for waste collection; waste pickers receive compensation for their service; and the municipality provides benefits to SWaCH workers as long as the electorate is happy with their service. SWaCH coordinators, often college students, act as the connective tissue between these parties by resolving disputes and ensuring all households receive trash collection services.

4. They Know Their Strengths

There are many paths and sources of urban transformation – whether it’s a municipal government, a shoestring non-profit or a well-resourced transit agency. And the entity that carries a project forward can ultimately evolve over time.

“In the long run, a road safety NGO can’t provide safe infrastructure for all schools in sub-Saharan Africa,” said SARSAI Program Director Ayikai Charlotte Poswayo in an interview with WRI. “It needs to be promoted and done by government.” SARSAI tries to set an example for public authorities and financial institutions, using data to demonstrate technical feasibility and civic buy-in, but ultimately aiming to shift budgets and policy.

Metrocable connects hillside neighborhoods in Medellín, Colombia, to the city center.

In contrast, Medellín’s transit agency understood just how much influence it had over the decision to introduce Metrocable, a new and untested mass-transit solution. No other entity could have pushed through a novel technical solution like aerial tram cars, while achieveing the technological, social and policy innovations needed to make it successful.

5. They Are Resourceful and Willing to Adapt

Urban transformation is filled with stops and starts and setbacks. It also has no clear finish line, in many cases. The capacity to improvise is essential.

The founders of Asiye eTafuleni (AeT) in Durban – former municipal officials themselves – responded to the twists and turns of urban change with perseverance and ingenuity. They had a vision for healing past social injustices through the inclusive governance of public space. That came under sudden threat when the city announced plans to demolish a section of Warwick Junction in the lead up to South Africa’s 2010 World Cup. AeT quickly pivoted towards community organizing, legal education and advocacy to preserve the market, a necessary step before resuming efforts to redesign the area.

Asiye eTafuleni preserved and improved Durban, South Africa’s historic Warwick Junction marketplaces.

Eskişehir’s Mayor Yılmaz Büyükerşen, too, is credited with almost legendary resourcefulness. Stewarding the city’s revival in a time of economic crisis in Turkey and in the wake of a major earthquake, he found resources and mobilized support through his university connections. He cold-called a premier financial institution and obtained Turkey’s only municipal foreign investment at the time. Local construction and infrastructure enterprises helped make priority projects a reality, enabled the city to meet its debt repayments, and earned revenue by selling services and goods to other cities in the region.

Open Questions on Urban Transformation

Transforming cities is a gargantuan task, but it is possible. Evidence shows that sparking and sustaining change requires many ingredients – vision, readiness, coalitions, resources and perseverance, among others.

However, there are some underlying questions that require more attention.

How do you know transformation when you see it,especially when it is just getting going? Not all change is transformational. Deep changes shift the way a city functions – not just its built form, but its underlying social systems, too. Overcoming inherited patterns of exclusion, neglect or risk is a key part of transformation, but we need a deeper interrogation of the hallmarks of transformative change so that we can support it more effectively.

Children play in the school yard of the Mikumi Primary School in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Photo by Kyle LaFerriere/WRI

We also need to better understand how external forces affect transformation. For example, how can technological innovation enable new business models like ride-hailing and the sharing economy? Conversely, a change in government can uproot existing policy agendas in an instant.

To create a better future for all cities, we need to understand both sides of the equation: how projects should be designed to be most effective, as well as how larger external forces can affect interventions. This will help us understand how to create lasting and meaningful change in cities.

This blog originally appeared on WRI’s Insights.

Anne Maassen is the Urban Innovation & Finance Associate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Jessica Seddon is the Director of Integrated Urban Strategy at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.