Sustainability Blog

Three Challenges of Sustainable Public Transport

By Kristen Kisor - Sep 07, 2021

COVID-19 has had a severe impact on the long-term sustainability of the public transport sector throughout the world. In developing countries, where personal vehicle ownership is lower than developed countries and mass transit is crucial for keeping people and the economy moving, the effect has been even more pronounced.

The World Bank predicts that due to the pandemic, the African economy will contract by up to 5.1% and points to reduced mobility as a major contributing factor. It found that public transport has been one of the worst-affected sectors, with the average number of journeys declining by 40% compared with pre-pandemic levels.

“Lockdown measures and the subsequent reductions in mobility and vehicle occupancy have resulted in a sharp shortfall of revenues, leading to a deep financial crisis that is threatening the formal and informal public transport sector in most cities,” the bank said in a report.

There are a number of challenges to the sustainability of public transportation for developing cities and how COVID-19 has affected the market. Here are three.

Why do some operators ignore COVID-19 restrictions?

When much public transport in developing countries is privately owned and operated, livelihoods are at stake. Millions of people rely on such mass transit modes, such as Istanbul’s “dolmuş” minibuses or their Kinshasa equivalents called “matatus.” Operators are also fearful their incomes will vanish if they adhere to strict anti-infection measures.

This creates a dilemma whereby operators who ignore travel restrictions mean people who cannot work remotely will be able go to their jobs while at the same time increasing the threat to public health. 

How can public transport keep up with population growth?

Municipal transit authorities must balance the need for sustainable, affordable public transport networks that keep carbon emissions to a minimum with the transport needs of quickly growing populations.

According to the OECD, demand for public transit will more than double by 2050, and this means an increase in the numbers of vehicles, too. Moving millions of commuters sustainably is a challenge in developed economies, where there is infrastructure in place and money to invest in development. In the developing world, the challenge is even greater.

How can environmental issues be balanced with sustainable public transport?

Transportation is the fastest-growing end-user of energy in the developing world and accounts for about a quarter of global CO2 emissions. City authorities must balance environmental impact while maintaining sustainable, affordable public transportation.

Johannesburg, for example, has a plan that includes initiatives on public transport systems, improving urban air quality and health, and reducing emissions.

Key to Growth

With passenger numbers are slowly climbing from historic lows, a healthy public transport sector is key for sustainable social and economic growth, especially in developing cities. It’s more critical than ever for cities to strategize and implement a sustainable plan for public transport as the population grows.

The best way to move forward is not to promote more autonomous ridership but to implement policies that balance environmental issues, population growth and operators. These include e-buses and other sustainable forms of mass transit.

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