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Moving people, moving cities

01 May 2007

Cities and regions can only be sustainable if they have dynamic and efficient public transport, but at the same time public transport can only be dynamic and efficient if it is fully integrated with urban policies, argues Hans Rat

THERE IS A strong and reciprocal link between urban public transport and the cities and regions that it serves neither can be truly successful without the other. Cities need public transport to thrive, but transport systems can only be successful if they form an integral part of urban fabric. To underline this relationship, UITP has selected the theme 'Public Transport: Moving People, Moving Cities' for its 57th World Congress and exhibition which will be held in Helsinki on May 21-24.

The concepts of network and mobility have changed considerably in recent decades, challenging the traditional image of public transport. Today the average citizen's mobility requirements go far beyond simple journeys from home to work and back. Lifestyle changes have added complexity, such as leisure travel and shopping journeys, whilst changing work patterns have fragmented the need for the daily commute. Moreover, urban sprawl has increased the impact of this change as it has deeply affected the very structure of cities and urban areas, resulting in the dispersal of many activities. One of the effects is the development of travel between suburbs that does not match the centralised structure of most public transport networks.

Of course, this is not just a transport challenge cities everywhere are facing very real questions about the quality of urban life, sustainable development and even the survival of a dynamic community-focused urban civilisation. I believe that 'sustainable mobility' is more than just a buzzword it is the very foundation for a successful future.

If public transport is to continue to play a role in tomorrow's society, it must anticipate its users' changing needs. But this brings a difficult balance between providing high-quality services that will encourage modal shift and finding the appropriate funding when traditional resources may be scarce.

Amongst other things, this means co-ordinated planning of land use and transport, strengthening investment in public transport, ensuring that all modes are charged fairly for their use of land, energy consumption and environmental impact, and an efficient integration of the different mobility services such as buses and metros, but also taxis, shared cars and cycles.

Finding a champion

Reaching the optimum solution requires strong political will and whole-hearted commitment. Without political courage, it is not possible to develop or sustain an efficient public transport network, and hence, there will be no prospect of genuine sustainable mobility.

Behind every successful city held up as an example for its public transport system, there is a political figure with a vision, fully aware of the challenges ahead and taking the right decisions. The benefits of their actions have gone far beyond public transport to embrace mobility and the quality of urban life in general.

In turn, this political will leads to a clear vision and the definition of strong strategic objectives. Their translation into tactical and operational plans is essential, if we as an industry are to balance the responsibilities of different stakeholders - authorities, operators, suppliers and users. Representing their own specific interests, each group must keep in mind the main goal, as UITP set out in its Roma Manifesto in June 2005: 'public transport is mobility for all'.

Depending on the local political and social context, every city needs to define the most effective relationship between its organising authorities and operators to promote service quality and control operating costs. Integrated planning should aim to limit urban sprawl through a housing policy that encourages higher-density development around public transport hubs - particularly metro and suburban railway stations - the proper upkeep of existing housing stock in city centres and populous suburbs, and by curbing building on vacant land outside the city.

To this end, the responsibilities of the city authorities should be extended to include traffic, parking and co-ordination between urban planning and transport across the entire metropolitan area. Cities such as Helsinki or London have been successfully implementing such a strategy.

Rail's important role

Urban rail systems have an important role to play in such a co-ordinated approach. For more than 100 years, urban and regional rail networks have been designed and built to carry massive flows of passengers to and from their workplaces. Metro systems in particular have long served as the core of sustainable city and mobility policies.

But most high-capacity metros and railways radiate from the city centres, whereas today there is an increasing need for orbital suburb-to-suburb transport - a true network, if you like. Paris is a good example, with the opening of the Tramway des Maréchaux on December 16 adding a fourth orbital light rail link between radial metro and RER routes. Plans are also taking shape for an orbital automated metro (RG 11.06 p712).

Today, high capacity is no longer the sole criterion for assessing urban rail's efficiency. Rail's role is being transformed from a simple transport mode into an urban backbone, around which the city and its bigger multi-modal mobility requirements can be structured and developed. By integrating the metro with other modes, both public and private, we can offer our citizens comprehensive seamless mobility. In Europe, this means high-quality interchanges between rail corridors and feeder buses. In less-dense cities, such as Denver, experience shows the value of park-and-ride to serve sprawling outer suburbs.

Getting the investment right

Urban planning can only work within a proper investment strategy. The efficiency of capital investment projects, too, should be carefully measured to ensure that the best value for money is obtained.

At the same time public transport operators must adopt an entrepreneurial attitude, finding new sources of revenue and limiting their operating costs. Cities and their contractors need to develop simple and convenient fare structures that will attract new riders and retain them. But attractive fares imply proper funding support, which recognises in financial terms the role that public transport plays in improving the urban environment, local economies and social cohesion.

In recent years, various cities have successfully tapped new sources of finance to support both investment in and operation of public transport. Congestion charging has proven its efficacy in reducing road use in cities as far apart as London, Stockholm and Singapore, and could become a financial resource in years to come if its proceeds are used for the development of public transport.

Another approach is to harness the increase in property and land prices which follows the development of new public transport facilities. This has been demonstrated successfully in København, as well as in parts of the London Docklands development zone.

If done well, such a levy on land values can help pay back the capital cost of the new facilities, whilst the greater economic activity generated by the new line will create a revenue stream to support the operation in the longer term. The operators would have the financial resources to develop a high-quality service in terms of frequency and comfort, with good passenger information, qualified staff and a high level of safety and personal security. The city benefits economically and socially from its investment in public transport, and the transport mode shares the economic benefits that it has helped to generate. Truly a win-win partnership.