By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities

The COP27 negotiations in Sharm el-Sheikh have come to a close. Global emissions continue to rise. Almost all of us – 99% of the world’s population – breathe unsafe, toxic air. We are living through a global energy crisis, a cost of living crisis, a food crisis, wars, drought and famine. Uncertainty and instability are a global reality, and require a global effort to address.

A solution to help tackle these interconnected crises is increased investment in expanded, electrified and improved public transport. Bigger, better and more sustainable public transport networks can create good, green jobs. They can improve wellbeing and public health. They can cut global emissions and help address the climate crisis. They can, quite simply, improve our lives, our cities, and our hopes for the future. 

That’s why it was disappointing that last year’s COP26, for all of its successes, was missing one major focus – expanding and electrifying public transport. Shifting private vehicles to electric is of course critically important, but at least as much attention needs to be devoted to halving the total number of cars, and doubling the amount of journeys made by public transport. 

In response, a coalition of C40 mayors and governors, union leaders, and city residents gathered to call on national governments to recognise the transformative power of doubling public transport usage and delivering a just transition to zero-emission transport by 2030, as an economic, social, public health and climate solution. Since then, much needed progress has been made in expanding and electrifying public transport, particularly in North America and Europe, where this has been a focus of COVID-19 economic recovery packages. 

Just one year later, and it has been encouraging to see sustainable public transport higher up the political agenda. COP27 saw the launch of a new initiative launching to drive global action at every level – the Low Carbon Transport for Urban Sustainability (LOTUS) The initiative presents an opportunity to activate systemic change to improve and decarbonise public transport in cities worldwide. Crucially, it has a particular focus on the Global South, where many countries have not been able to benefit from the same economic recovery packages, but arguably need even more investment in public transport infrastructure. 

Cities have long recognised the wide-ranging benefits of expanding sustainable public transport – and have taken action to ensure that it is prioritised. So what can national governments learn from cities as they oversee the development of the LOTUS initiative? And how can cities and national governments work together? 

City leaders understand that investing in green public transport is an opportunity to create tens of millions of new good green jobs worldwide – up to 4.6 million in C40 cities alone. At the C40 World Mayors Summit in Buenos Aires in October 2022, mayors and city leaders committed to drive the creation of 50 million good, green jobs this decade by delivering on their climate action plans. In a typical Global South city, investing the equivalent amount in public transport generates 30% more jobs than building roads.

Radical, systemic change is possible, and is being demonstrated in cities worldwide. Jakarta’s city government has almost doubled public transport coverage, from 42% to 82% between 2017 and 2021, contributing to a shift of 9.3% from cars and 21.7% from motorcycles to Bus Rapid Transit. Remarkably, the city is on track to provide 95% of all residents with public transport access within 500 metres of their home by the end of this year. Jakarta is a world leading example of integrating and supporting the informal transport sector, providing better working conditions in the process. 

In the US, Austin is transforming its public transit networks with a new rail system, a bus rapid transit line, and a transition to an all-electric bus fleet. The network will create new jobs and provide easier access to schools, healthcare and employment opportunities, in particular for low-income communities, communities of colour, and people with disabilities. 

Getting people out of private cars and boarding buses, trams and trains is proven to increase rates of walking and cycling, reduce air pollution, and improve public health. Shenzhen electrified its entire fleet of over 16,000 buses as early as 2017, and the city now has one of the lowest rates of air pollution in the whole of China. 

However, this year’s Emissions Gap report from the United Nations Environment Programme finds that, staggeringly, there is currently ‘no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place’ among world governments, and only an ‘urgent system-wide transformation can avoid climate disaster.’ It is worth reminding ourselves that expanding green public transport networks and designing cities around them, rather than cars, could contribute up to 45% of the total global emissions reductions required to limit global heating to 1.5°C. 

In the lead up to COP27, just 100 Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) mentioned public transport – and of these, only 26 identified any specific targets to expand or improve it. NDCs shift commitment into the action needed to deliver on the Paris Agreement. Without these tangible commitments, progress simply won’t be fast enough. The new LOTUS initiative must turn this situation around, and work with cities to deliver it. 

National governments must work collaboratively with city and state authorities to determine clear action plans and timelines. They must support local governments with necessary resources and funding, phase out sales of internal combustion vehicles by 2030, and support joint and multilateral efforts to put in place concrete targets for public transport expansion. National governments should also secure the financial support for operational running costs of public transport, that enable cities to expand services, keep fares affordable and support a just transition that reduces inequalities and protects jobs. 

There is tremendous public support for expanding, improving and protecting green public transport. Now that COP27 has come to a close, national governments have an incredible opportunity. By unlocking the transformative power of sustainable mobility, national governments have the power to ease the multiple crises that people around the world currently face. The future is public transport.

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