By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities

Last week, Transport for London’s emergency bailout funding received a seven-week extension, to keep the city’s vital bus, tube and rail services running until May. It is one of many global transport networks to be facing huge budget shortfalls since the dramatic drop in passenger numbers due to the pandemic. But short-term solutions are not enough. Proper investment in mass transit is absolutely vital to a green and just recovery from the pandemic, providing millions of good green jobs, cutting carbon emissions and improving equity in cities. Now is the time to be accelerating investment in public transport.

COVID-19 has dealt a huge blow to public transport systems in cities across the world. Revenues have dropped dramatically as commuters work remotely and people adhere to government mandates to stay at home. Last year, transit operations in Spain lost €250 million per month, while the New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Agency estimates a $6 billion deficit in 2021. In response, many transit systems have reduced their services: reducing bus frequency, cutting night services, or reducing services to the most profitable routes.

This threat to the viability of affordable and accessible public transport is happening just as the pandemic reveals how much we all depend on it. Mass transit is a vital service for those workers who need to travel to work during the pandemic, such as healthcare staff, care workers, teachers and those who keep food on shop shelves. Providing this service shows that transit staff themselves are frontline workers. It also means, in effect, that we all rely on public transport whether we are direct users of it or not.

Moreover, the alternative to reliable, affordable and well-connected mass transit is mass car consumption in cities, with all the consequences of that. Prior to the pandemic, surface transport was one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and one of the leading contributors to air pollution. An efficient public transport system provides an alternative to streets congested with polluting private cars. An increase in active transport, of course, remains key to cutting emissions, and cities across the globe have been doing incredible work expanding their walking and cycling infrastructure since the beginning of the pandemic. But public transport is still necessary to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Our research indicates that a mode share of active and public transport of between 40% and 80% by 2030 is needed for cities to remain committed to limiting global heating to 1.5°C. Put simply, you can’t have a sustainable city without mass transit.

The car-captured city is not a people-friendly one. Those who cannot afford to own vehicles would face reduced access to employment, education, and social and leisure activities, while space that could be used for greenery and leisure is wasted on parking. More vehicles on the roads also carries significant public health risks; our research has found that an increase in private cars following the neglect of public transport would lead to an increase in air pollution levels in all cities, compared to a green recovery. Last month, research revealed that, in 2018, 1 in 5 deaths globally was caused by air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. As we recover from the pandemic, we must do all we can to improve the quality of the air we breathe.

It is clear that protecting and championing mass transit is a key to a green recovery from the pandemic. C40 research published today shows that proper investment in public transport will not only improve equity, but will also create 4.6 million additional jobs in the next decade while reducing air pollution from transport in cities by up to 45%. It is central to the vision of our mayors, who have made delivering a safe and resilient post-COVID mass transit system one of the key actions of their Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery.

Sustainable transport offers significant employment potential — C40 research has shown that investment in transit infrastructure generates 30 per cent more jobs than building roads. But investment in public transport would go further than providing jobs for those that work in the transport sector, as it allows people to access job and educational opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise. This is particularly true for women, who are more likely than men to use public transport, and other groups working in essential services like hospitals, warehouses, and supermarkets, who tend to rely on public transport to get to work. These workers are disproportionately from low-income and marginalised groups. It seems likely that those who can work from home after the pandemic will do so more often than before, which offers an opportunity to refocus transport services from routes designed around the needs of city centre commuters towards the peripheral journeys that are used by a wider range of people.

We know that provision of public transport goes a long way to saving emissions in cities — one study in Montréal found that for every tonne of CO2 emitted by the city’s mass transit network, 20 tonnes were saved. Our research finds that a green recovery scenario would lead all cities to reduce their emissions from urban transport between 2020–2030 in line with the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement. Investment in public transport is a vital tool for achieving the emissions cuts we need.

C40 cities are committed to a green and just recovery from the pandemic, but they cannot do it alone. Together with the International Transport Workers’ Federation, C40 mayors are calling on national governments to make the historic global investments in public transport that will safeguard and create millions of good jobs and drastically cut emissions. Now is exactly the right time.

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