Rio + 20: What if Transportation is an Afterthought?

Two weeks ago Mexico City added a new bus rapid transit line; low-carbon transit is helping the city become more sustainable. Metropolitan Planning Council

For the past two weeks, members of the international sustainability community have been meeting to discuss a 19-page document that outlines ideas for the world’s commitments at the upcoming Rio 2012 Earth Summit. Pulled together from over 10,000 pages of submissions from more than 670 entities, the Zero Draft Outcome Document will essentially serve as the framework for discussion when the conference takes place in June.

What exactly does the draft document propose?

It dedicates a sizable portion of its words to the green economy. Here’s a little UN-ese on the topic:

We view the green economy as a means to achieve sustainable development, which must remain our overarching goal. We acknowledge that a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication should protect and enhance the natural resource base, increase resource efficiency, promote sustainable consumption and production patterns, and move the world toward low-carbon development.

The document also calls attention to the importance of local governance in creating sustainable communities:

We recognise the need to integrate sustainable urban development policy as a key component of a national sustainable development policy and, in this regard, to empower local authorities to work more closely with national governments. We recognize that partnerships among cities have emerged as a leading force for action on sustainable development. We commit to support international cooperation among local authorities, including through assistance from international organizations.

But Cornie Huizenga of the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT) smartly noted while “transport was mentioned over 1000 times in the compilation document it was mentioned only once in the Zero draft document. In comparison energy is mentioned 15 times.”

Really? Just once? This is pretty problematic, Huizenga writes:

The imminent danger is that the Rio+20 process will turn out to be a non-event for the sustainable transport community; an event they cannot use to draw inspiration from in the promotion of sustainable transport. Ignoring the role transport and mobility in providing access to markets, goods and services will make it hard, if not impossible, to realize poverty eradication and sustainable development which are the two ultimate goals of developing a Green Economy.

The importance of sustainable public transportation in cities cannot be overstated. It is the backbone of any sustainable city. Without it, all of our cities are doomed to inefficiency, and to fail at their other goals of livability, economic prosperity and social justice. We need transportation to get to jobs, to schools, to access any number of opportunities within our cities. And because of the massive infrastructure needed to support transportation, moving toward more low-carbon transit options will make cities more sustainable at a much greater scale and speed.

I just returned from a study trip to Mexico City to examine the Metrobus bus rapid transit system and the Ecobici bike share system. While cities like Philadelphia dither about how to fund a bike share system or make other transportation improvements, Mexico City is building public-private partnerships that have greatly reduced the city’s dependence on cars, alleviated congestion and cleaned the air.

The facts about Metrobus are astonishing: There are 345 buses riding along 95 kilometers (about 50 miles) of BRT in the city. They service 750,000 passengers a day, cutting commute times in half and saving 180 million manhours per year — time which people can then spend to do what they want rather than spend it on the road. Carbon dioxide emissions have been cut by 47,000 tons per year, earning Metrobus almost $150,000 in carbon credits from the Spanish Carbon Fund. Plus there’s the added health benefits of less benzene and carbon monoxide in the air. Due to Metrobus, there are 122,000 fewer car rides taken per day, and 91 percent of people who ride the bus say they are satisfied with the service.

These are remarkable facts and figures that should make any city envious. This work is being done because of a forward-thinking mayor and a smart public-private partnership that has made this huge BRT system affordable (Next American City will be publishing a longer piece on the topic this summer), but it is altogether too rare. If Rio +20 doesn’t make transportation a priority, the conference will have missed possibly the most important issue facing urban development today. After the first draft of the outcome document was released, a dozen countries including, the United States, Mexico and Japan, submitted comments noting that transportation should be a “priority area” for the summit. At this point it’s unclear whether those comments will make it into the final document.

Colin Hughes of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) says that while the outcome document isn’t actionable by law, it gets everyone on the same page. And ITDP, EMBARQ and other coalition members of SLoCaT are trying to build interest in transportation before the conference to hopefully garner more national commitments to sustainable transport. According to Hughes, “Rio +20 is important not just for national governments to make commitments, but to align all stakeholders including development banks.” By gathering policy and finance leaders with the NGOs that are doing most of the technical work to plan and implement these transportation systems, the summit can serve as a catalyst for development patterns in the future.

Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.

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Tags: infrastructurephiladelphiabike-sharebus rapid transitmexico city