Three Ways Cities Can Prepare Their Transport Systems For Climate Change

Cities that continually invest in transport fundamentals like public transit and cycling are best positioned to reduce emissions and prepare for the future

sustainable mobility, climate change, electric vehicles, public transit, mass transit, bicycles

This article was originally published in the World Economic Forum on December 20, 2023.

Urban mobility is critical to a city’s economy, sustainability and quality of life. Communities that continually invest in the fundamentals – electrification, infrastructure and mass transit — are best positioned to reduce emissions and prepare for the future.

They also scored the highest in the fifth annual Urban Mobility Readiness Index, which was released in December 2023 by the Oliver Wyman Forum and the University of California, Berkeley. The research used 56 key performance indicators to rank 65 cities globally on how ready they are to navigate the evolving mobility landscape, while ramping up sustainable mobility. The report also included sub-indices on sustainable mobility and mass transit.

Helsinki, which climbed six spots since 2020, ranked first overall because of its long-term commitment to improving mobility and becoming more sustainable. But lower-ranking cities, such as Jeddah and Bangkok, also rose because of their efforts to boost public transit ridership by providing affordable fares and convenient service. Here are three ways others can learn from these leaders.

Focus on fundamentals

Cities must continually invest in their mobility systems or they risk falling behind, according to the Urban Mobility Readiness Index 2023. They can’t ignore the new technologies. Record-breaking heatwaves accelerated the need for greener modes of transportation and improved access to active mobility. Leading cities focus on expanding infrastructure; making mass transit affordable, accessible and efficient; and encouraging electric vehicle (EV) adoption by incentivizing purchases and increasing access to charging stations.

Helsinki has a multipronged approach that includes car-free zones, an advanced cycling infrastructure and a modern national railroad network that enables people to avoid using personal gasoline-powered vehicles. It’s also trying to boost mass transit ridership by making it more affordable with a roughly $3 ticket that enables commuters to ride on any mode of transport. The Finnish capital also added 200 charging points in 2023 as it aims to get electric cars to account for 30% of all vehicles by 2030.

Make it sustainable

Cities play a key role in the race to net zero. More than 700 cities worldwide have committed to halving their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to comply with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Transport accounts for a third of urban greenhouse gas emissions and could grow as cities expand.

Fortunately, many leading cities already prioritize policies and investments that increase active mobility, such as cycling and walking. The impact of electrification varies depending on whether a city’s energy source is decarbonized, but encouraging EV use with purchase incentives and increased access to charging stations is also critical. More than half of global consumers surveyed in late 2023 by the Oliver Wyman Forum said the availability of charging stations was the top factor in their decision on whether to buy or lease an EV, ahead of financial incentives.

Oslo, which leads the Sustainable Mobility sub-index, is focused on electrification and benefits from Norway’s plan for zero-emission vehicles to account for all new car registrations beginning in 2025. The city is also a world leader in air quality and has made progress at limiting light and noise pollution. It’s adding more stringent benchmarks when measuring air quality, maintaining speed limits of below 50 kilometres per hour (about 31 miles per hour) to reduce air pollution and building more anti-noise barriers along its roadways. Other leading cities are also implementing city-wide speed limits of 30 kilometres per hour because it reduces noise pollution and eases traffic flow, which reduces emissions.

Mass transit matters

Even though mass transit ridership in many large cities remains below pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels, cities need to keep investing in it to meet long-term climate goals. Ensuring that they are affordable and convenient is crucial. Nearly half of consumers surveyed in 2023 by the Oliver Wyman Forum cited affordability and accessibility as the most important factors when choosing how to travel.

Hong Kong, which topped the mass transit sub-index, is a good example to replicate. It has one of the highest public transit ridership levels in the world with 71% of all distance travelled within the city thanks to its efficient, accessible and affordable system. And Hong Kong keeps improving. It began work in 2023 on a new station that would anchor an upcoming railway loop to bridge a connection between the eastern and western parts of the New Territories, a major city region.

Other cities are trying to make public transit more affordable. Berlin and Munich, for example, benefit from Germany’s Deutschland Ticket, which enables commuters to use all local mass transit for about $52 a month. Riyadh lowered the price of its transit significantly and Seoul plans to release a mass transit pass in 2024 that enables riders to use all subway and bus lines and its bike-sharing service. Boston is also studying the feasibility of a flexible transit fare based on income levels.

Cities need affordable, convenient and sustainable mobility networks to thrive. That requires cash and commitment, but continued investment and improvement is critical. Every $1 billion invested in public transport generates economic returns five times as great and creates 50,000 jobs, according to C40, a coalition of 96 cities that advocate for climate action. Fortunately, policies that keep mobility sustainable, accessible and efficient also contribute to a city’s strength and vitality.