How private businesses can help place sustainability at the heart of city transport

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In Part One of SALT’s investigation into urban planning policy, we learned how the advantages of public transport are often ignored. Now, Giles Crosse asks José Viegas, Secretary General of the International Transport Forum at the OECD, how private businesses can help to change this picture.

Duration : 4 min to read

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Glocal CEO: What opportunities are there for cities to involve the sustainable, private sector in provision of better urban transport systems?

José Viegas: Cities are where a major part of the shift to sustainable transport needs to happen. Sevilla in Spain has increased cycling from near zero to a significant 6.6% in the urban mobility mix. It is now the cycling capital of Spain, even though it is hilly and hot. Bogotá, in Colombia, is another example of a similar scheme. Such successes are enabled through public investment in cycling-friendly infrastructure, but also bike-sharing systems, which are often commercial. Urban car-sharing is another area where business opportunities and public interests coincide. Car manufacturers like BMW and Mercedes have branched out into providing shared individual mobility through their DriveNow and car2goservices. At the heart of the matter is a decision by mayors on whether they want private transport-driven urbanization with high emissions, pollution and congestion, or public transport-driven urbanization based on shared and sustainable forms of transport.

 SALT: In what ways must overall transport become more innovative to mitigate climate change?

José Viegas: There is a lot of focus on innovative powertrain technology. And there is a lot of potential in that. Electric vehicles are no longer exotic, and will become even less so as battery technology improves. Hydrogen may turn out to be a viable fuel for some transport solutions. Not least, technological progress will make the good old internal combustion engine vastly more efficient.

What is less eye-catching, but at least as important is what experts call “avoid shift”. Avoiding unnecessary mobility and shifting the necessary mobility to modes that are less damaging to our climate and our health. This is not an engineering challenge. It is a policy challenge upstream of behavioral changes.

Elected officials have to set policy priorities and put in place incentives that change behaviour to reflect societal priorities. So, while technological innovation is important and helpful, it can be a bit of an excuse, as in ‘Sorry, but we’ll have to wait until the engineers solve this problem’.

We need more policy innovation, where political decision-makers take bold steps in new directions and find ways to bring the public along. Milan, in Italy, was one of the 10 most congested cities in Europe until the city government introduced a congestion charging system that was approved, and in fact extended, by the citizens in two referenda. We gave Milan an award for that at our last summit of transport ministers in Leipzig last May, and deservedly so. 

SALT: What responsibilities does the corporate world have to push for change in cities’ transport?

José Viegas: In many ways, CEOs are like mayors. They have a mandate to lead change and implement visions for a socio-economic organism, their company, within the context of a larger community. Many companies today actually think of themselves as corporate citizens, and make great efforts to be good corporate citizens, to contribute to the well-being and functioning of the society that enables them to do business.

One of the areas where some companies have done great things, but that has not been sufficiently mainstreamed is to rethink all aspects of corporate mobility. Companies should look well beyond providing parking spaces and bus passes as a fringe benefit, even beyond providing showers and lockers who cycle to work. It should strike us as odd that a company would invest heavily into logistics for input materials and products to ensure the most efficient transport, but leave its human capital to its own devices to organize their work-related mobility. If you give an employee who travels a lot a BlackBerry, also giving him a company car will make that investment less productive than if you make it easy for him to use trains. There, he could actually use the Blackberry. 

SALT: Overall, what key shift must we make for the future? Who can catalyse this and why?

José Viegas: In a broad sense, the shift that needs to happen is to establish a sustainability mindset and develop a coherent policy agenda in that framework. The question, “Is this sustainable? If not, how can it be made sustainable?” should be the benchmark for strategic decisions.

In a more narrow sense, the key shift we need is ending transport’s dependency on fossil fuels. And we need to clearly understand that with oil prices tumbling and transport demand exploding, the indication, on a global level, is more in the opposite direction. Policy-makers will have to take the lead here, as market price becomes less of an incentive to replace carbon-emitting fuels.

They were elected to provide strategic direction beyond market signals alone. But they will be wise to create business opportunities in the strategic areas they want to move into. Then they will have the support from business communities, and then this partnership can be a catalyst for positive change.

About José Viegas
José Viegas has been Secretary General of the International Transport Forum since August 2012. Professor of Transport at the Technical University of Lisbon, he served as Director of MIT-Portugal’s Transport Systems focus area and founded TRANSPORTNET, a group of eight European University Research Groups in Transport Systems. He has advised governments and international institutions including the World Bank and the European Commission.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Jarek Jarosz on flickr

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Giles Crosse is a journalist with specialist interest in the developing world, corporate social responsibility, and technical solutions to environmental challenges. His career has taken him to exotic destinations, such as the Peruvian Amazon, and Shallow Waters in Cambodia. He is looking forward to an inclusive planet, where greener business, happier people and better managed resources co-exist.