Sustainable urban mobility: social, environmental and economic benefits
Urban mobility performs fundamental social and economic functions such as providing access to essential opportunities and services in cities. In a region characterized by inequality, deficiencies in public transport systems disproportionately impact the most vulnerable. Only 43% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean has convenient access to public transportation, and its users spend 70% more time commuting to work compared to those who use private vehicles (on average, 70 and 42 minutes, respectively, according to mobility surveys in six cities in the region).
From an environmental perspective, the transportation sector leads in greenhouse gas emissions in cities, which closely links climate action in urban areas to changes in mobility. In fact, urban mobility has gained relevance in the agenda of different local and national governments, with a focus on the electrification of public transport vehicles.
In this context, ECLAC considers electromobility as a driving force for a Great Boost for Sustainability, given that the energy transition in the sector also opens up opportunities for economic growth in different productive chains. The regional stock of buses, minibuses and similar vehicles, some of which are produced domestically, exceeds 2.7 million units, and has grown by more than 5% annually in the last two years.
However, how to ensure that this shift towards electromobility is an opportunity for a truly more sustainable urban development? And how to ensure that the urban mobility agenda is not dominated solely by an issue of changing vehicle technology?
The end of the fossil fuel-based model will require a series of adjustments in the way public transport systems are organized, which represents, fortunately, an opportunity to rethink urban planning and promote a comprehensive approach to mobility policy.
The characteristics of electric buses, such as higher acquisition costs and lower operating costs, suggest the need to evolve towards more structured public mobility systems, with longer concession terms and requiring greater investment capacity. In short, the need to adapt new business models that stimulate the entry of actors with greater availability of capital and with the capacity to offer better service conditions.
This should stimulate the debate on the financing of public mobility systems and the composition of fares. Public transport was facing a demand crisis that was aggravated by the pandemic, and faces a dilemma between the growing need for subsidies, which in some cities are already approaching a tenth of the local budget, and the complex political and social feasibility of balancing finances by means of fare adjustments. It is impossible to neglect that, except for the richest 20% of the population, spending on public transport is close to 5% of the household budget.
The technical and financial challenges of the systems reinforce the importance of managing mobility also on the basis of urban planning, which is, fundamentally, the determinant of travel needs. Local governments, even those that do not directly manage public transport, have the power (and the opportunity) to implement land management and urban design policies that define the location and characteristics of trip-receiving and trip-attracting poles.
Electromobility has placed public transport at the center of the political agenda. More than just making technological change viable, Latin America and the Caribbean must take advantage of the transition to integrate diverse urban agendas, ensuring that its cities adopt occupancy models that reduce the need for motorized travel and encouraging public transport to be more efficient.