Translating National Climate Commitments Into Local Action for the Transport Sector

By Holger Dalkmann and Alyssa Fischer (Pic by NYC DOT/Flickr)

Over the past two days, we have witnessed heads of state ushering in the COP21 negotiations with meaningful, promising statements of purpose. However, as decision makers make commitments for their countries, they should be mindful of the wealth of opportunities for leveraging local action to achieve larger goals. Initiatives like the Compact of Mayors and Covenant of Mayors highlight just how important these municipal level actions are.

And while more cities are committing to creating change, more actions are needed to enable a true paradigm shift, especially in the urban transport sector. Research has shown that $3 trillion could be saved over the next 15 years through investment in more compact, transit-oriented urban infrastructure. However, to achieve these savings, cities must demonstrate leadership, bringing together public and private actors and implementing innovative transport policies.

The Economic Case for Sustainable Mobility

The benefits of a city connected by sustainable transport are clear. Research from the New Climate Economy (NCE) has shown that a strong economy goes hand in hand with climate-sensitive development – and the case is even stronger urban transport development. The NCE’s new work demonstrates that urban sprawl costs the US more than US$1 trillion per annum, including $400 billion in public costs and more than US$600 million in costs related to private vehicles. Authorities should plan urban growth around people rather than cars, and scale up public transport, cycling, walking, and low-carbon vehicles to simultaneously boost local economies and reduce congestion costs and private vehicle use.

Despite the evidence, most cities still rely on private vehicles. For example, in 2010, there were more than 1 billion motor vehicles registered globally, up from just 130 million in 1960; since 2010, the number of vehicles increased by 20 percent, reaching 1.2 billion today. If this pattern continues, we will likely see an 80 -100 percent increase in global energy consumption and GHG emissions from the transport sector by 2050. Beijing, for example, has over 5.5 million registered vehicles on its streets and adds 600,000 new vehicles every year—accounting for 31 percent of its legendary air pollution. To tackle this challenge, Beijing is rolling out a number of reforms, the most recent of which will implement new car emissions standards by 2017 and is anticipated to be the “toughest in the world.”

The Benefits of Transport Demand Management

A paradigm shift is needed to tackle this challenge, and that shift must include all three aspects of the Avoid-Shift-Improve framework. While the Shift and Improve aspects of sustainable transport are fundamental, greater emphasis on restriction – Avoid – is needed to handle congestion at the same time. One way cities can make restriction more attractive politically and economically is through transport demand management (TDM) schemes. For example, cities can reform fuel subsidies and introduce new pricing mechanisms such as road user charges to reduce and eventually eliminate incentives to fossil-fueled vehicle use. Similarly, charges from TDM schemes, like parking restrictions and licensing fees, can raise both capital and demand for investments in public transport and transit-oriented development. London implemented one of the first globally discussed TDM policies with its congestion charging scheme in 2003. In the first 3 years of the program, the city reduced vehicle traffic by 16 percent and journey times by 14 percent.

In addition to congestion benefits, TDM can also result in significant health benefits for citizens. In Beijing the total social cost of motorized transport, including congestion and air pollution, is estimated at 7.5-15 percent of GDP. After Beijing restricted the number of cars on the road in 2008, the concentration of PM2.5 fell by 31 percent, and asthma-related doctor visits reduced by 50 percent.

Parking restrictions are another effective TDM solution. Enrique Peñalosa, newly elected mayor of Bogota, implemented the “Pico y Placa” program, which reduced congestion at peak times by regulating the number of private vehicles on the road based on their license plate numbers. As a result, the city saw up to a 40 percent reduction in private vehicle use on week days. Bogota also managed demand through restricting private vehicle parking and being stricter on vehicles parked in green spaces and on sidewalks.

International Collaborative Initiatives Provide a Practical Path Forward

This paradigm shift will require more than city actions; it will also demand close collaboration between city actors, global institutions, and the private sector. The first step is to create the financial and political environment necessary for implementation. To do this, decision makers can introduce new mechanisms to finance upfront investments in smarter urban infrastructure and new technology. These can include dedicated national, regional, or city-level investment platforms that prepare and package investments to attract private-sector capital into the transport sector.

Turning commitment into reality will also require support from partnerships and international collaborative initiatives. Initiatives like the Paris Process on Mobility and Climate (PPMC)—which is an open platform initiated by SLoCaT for action on transport and climate change—are raising awareness of the importance of sustainable transport here in Paris and throughout the UNFCCC process.

As a final example, consider the Compact of Mayors: the world’s largest coalition of city leaders addressing climate change and launched at the UN climate Summit in 2014. Through the Compact, city leaders pledge to reduce city-level greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, track progress, and enhance resilience to climate change through a transparent process that is consistent and complementary to national level efforts. The initiative demonstrates the commitment of city governments to take action towards national climate targets. The aspiration is that the Compact will trigger major changes in urban transport programs and policies in the participating cities.

COP21 is an opportunity for countries and cities to commit to sustainable mobility as a key for both a balanced climate and a prosperous economy, and the decisions that national decision makers—and especially local actors—take within the next 5-15 years will be critical to capturing these benefits.

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