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Sustainable Transportation Services for the Urban Poor

Comparative Urban Studies Project (CUSP) hosts a seminar to discuss sustainable transportation services for the urban poor.

Date & Time

Feb. 20, 2007
1:00pm – 3:00pm

Sustainable Transportation Services for the Urban Poor

On February 20, 2007, the Comparative Urban Studies Project (CUSP) organized a seminar to discuss sustainable transportation services for the urban poor. Ellen Brennan Galvin, lecturer & senior research scholar at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University and CUSP advisory board member, pointed out that the links between poverty and transportation have long been ignored. Nevertheless, new transportation technologies have spread rapidly all over the world, particularly the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, the most successful example of which is the Transmilenio in Bogotá, Columbia. Former Bogotá mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, was the prime architect of Transmilenio, bringing shortened travel times, connecting feeder buses to poor neighborhoods, and addressing issues of equity through transportation policy. Brennan-Galvin emphasized the importance of branding in fostering the popularity and success of a system like Transmilenio.

BRT systems are an important alternative to metro systems that are expensive and reach a much smaller percentage of the population. While in many cities across the world, buses are frowned upon because they are unhygienic and inefficient; BRT's have encouraged the middle class to use public transportation. As ridership increases, so does the overall success of the system.

Dr. Brennan-Galvin discussed other transport systems and alternatives to the BRT. In Asian cities, heavy rail systems attract riders and work well without subsides. In Delhi, India, the metro system is controversial because the system was geared to serve the middle and upper classes but ridership is very low. The majority poor in Delhi rely upon the city bus system that is less expensive and extends into low-income neighborhoods.

Ellen Brennan-Galvin also discussed para-transit in developing countries. In many African countries, 2-stroke vehicles pollute, and combined with different types of combis, create a dangerous and chaotic traffic scheme. In Latin America, the ‘penny wars', in which different transport systems compete for passengers by cutting each other in traffic lanes or violating traffic laws, are responsible for traffic congestion, pollution, and a dangerous atmosphere for drivers and pedestrians. Mexico City is trying to resolve this problem by getting rid of para-transit—a challenge in face of their prevalence--and moving towards higher capacity buses. However, para-transit serves the poor and other systems entail greater costs.

Brennan-Galvin concluded that non-motorized transport is a win-win situation, offering non-polluting, low cost mobility that is suited for short trips in most cities and offers access to jobs. Although they can be dangerous, non-motorized transport plays a crucial role in cities; for example, waste management in Shanghai is conducted by non-motorized transit. In Hyderabad, rickshaws are widely used to take children to school and they supply jobs for the poor. Although cycling is a great way to encourage exercise and transport, it is largely thought of as a recreational activity. The greatest challenge to implementing non-motorized transport in many cities across the developing world is the perception that these systems are backward. Many policymakers are biased against non-motorized vehicles, concerned primarily about minimizing disturbances to motorized traffic rather than helping the poor become mobile. If these systems are going to be successful at all, Brennan-Galvin stressed the fact that governments and cities need to put in place the infrastructure and laws to implement alternative systems of transport and integrate them into the public space.

Ralph Gakenheimer, professor of urban planning at MIT, highlighted six major challenges to providing low-income groups with transportation services. 1) He discussed fragmentation between mobility and land use systems, emphasizing the need for systems that allow auto-users and non-users to co-exist. 2) The coverage of transit systems to low-income neighborhoods in sprawling urban areas is a growing problem. Poor settlements, frequently located on undesirable, steep grades, can be isolated and difficult to reach. As a result, the poor depend upon informal transit vehicles that are unreliable. 3) Gakenheimer discussed the problem of equipment financing. Institutional lending to transit operators has slowed in recent years, said Gakenheimer, noting that the value of medallions for taxis and buses is diluted by corruption in the system. Gakenheimer urged mutual responsibility schemes similar to those offered by the Grameen Bank. Another obstacle is import duties for vehicles and parts for public transportation. 4) Reflecting upon system integration, Gakenheimer described a pendulum swing in cities between public and private operation of transport systems that has created instability. 5) In a discussion of pollution associated with the 2-wheelers that are popular in cities of the developing world, Gakenheimer stressed the importance of correlating mobility systems with the environment. 6) Gakenheimer discussed the new concept of creating infrastructure corridors. In the next 20 years, the population of many smaller cities throughout the world will double. Infrastructure corridors can be developed to provide thoroughfares for continuous streets, streets at adequate width and grade, and also provide right of way for other types of infrastructure systems. Gakenheimer discussed how this system could give form to the expansion of cities by making it possible for continuous roads to exist and by preventing developers from putting in uphill and straight across roads that divide land easily but produce bad transit situations. In addition, corridors on the urban fringe provide informal systems with right of way for roads and infrastructure. Finally, concluded Gakenheimer, corridors don't require technical skills and negotiations that are often the standard for general use planning.

Walter Hook, executive director for the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, started his discussion with a few statistics about transit use in Africa: 46% walk, 44% use para-transit; and 67% use a private car. Developing countries have a great deal of transit congestion, with serious ramifications for the basic mobility of the poor. Little space is allocated for walking and cycling. Location patterns have a significant impact on the poor in terms of time and cost to use transit systems.

When states decide to build highway networks, they face massive relocation issues. In China, 120,000 families were forcibly relocated for World Bank projects alone. Fortunately, the compensation is good in China but people are left with increased travel times and inconveniences. In Mumbai, city officials are expanding roads and in the process relocated 6,000 families without just compensation. The processes of road construction and motorization are threatening to the urban poor, particularly with regard to housing. These vulnerable populations do not benefit from that kind of infrastructure and investment. Elevated highways are still being built in Mexico, according to Hook, who argued that the same investment in BRT could have solved congestion problems much better.

Poor families are much more likely to invest in a home or an informal lot--assets that are likely to increase in value over time--than in a motor vehicle. Hook concluded that accessible low-income housing is an important solution to the problem of transportation costs inhibiting the accumulation of assets in poor families.

Lee Schipper, chief of research, and Wei-Shieun Ng, research associate, at EMBARQ - The World Resources Institute Center for Sustainable Transport, discussed the work of their organization to relieve the problems of urban mobility world wide.

Schipper drew examples from cities around the world to highlight the problems of traffic congestion, pollution, and transporting poor urban populations. Schipper stressed the need for creating congestion dis-enablers. In Shanghai and Hanoi, bikes are banned on larger streets and alternatives cycling routes are not provided. The bus system is Shanghai is quite economical, but trip times are very inefficient. In India, there is a lot of private investment in motor vehicles, but very little investment in public infrastructure such as improvement in street paving.

Wei-Shieun Ng discussed the work of EMBARQ's Partnership for Sustainable Urban Transport (PSUTA) to strengthen the sustainability of low-emissions transport systems and mobility in Asian cities. She detailed the project's efforts in Hanoi, Vietnam; Pune, India; and Xi'an, China. To create schemes for sustainable transport planning, they identify gaps and indicators before policymakers make decisions about their transport systems.

There is an overall absence of governance in regulating the growth of motor vehicles in these various cities. As a result, it is difficult to find space in the city for pedestrians, said Ng. Transport infrastructure projects will not solve these problems; rather, creating more roads will only expand the area of congestion. There needs to be better collection and application of data to show ridership and use in order to produce better transport systems for the majority, particularly the urban poor.

The lessons from EMBARQ's PSUTA project are that most urban transport financing benefits a small, motorized minority; the prioritization of public and non-motorized transport equates the restraint of cars; and, there are few political resources to fight the poverty of transportation. Expensive transport projects make the leaders feel that they've solved the problem but they don't help the poor. "Bad urban transport is poverty. It severs rather than serves development, and the poor get the worst of the package," concluded Schipper.

Hosted By

Urban Sustainability Laboratory

Since 1991, the Urban Sustainability Laboratory has advanced solutions to urban challenges—such as poverty, exclusion, insecurity, and environmental degradation—by promoting evidence-based research to support sustainable, equitable and peaceful cities.  Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more


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