UN’s Habitat III: To Have Sustainable Cities, We Need to Get Away from the Car

Last week thousands of people converged in Quito, Ecuador for the United Nations’ Habitat III conference, known as the UN’s Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, held every 20 years since 1976. The conference is dedicated to finding solutions to encourage the sustainable development of cities, including transport. The UN notes that currently, 54.5% of people live in urban areas and that will increase to 70% by 2030. The figure below from the UN shows the urbanization rate 2014-2030.

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The conference adopted the “New Urban Agenda” which sets out numerous global standards and principles, “rethinking the way we build, manage, and live in cities through drawing together cooperation with committed partners, relevant stakeholders, and urban actors at all levels of government as well as the private sector.” The agenda takes into consideration:

  • Embracing urbanization at all levels of human settlements, more appropriate policies can embrace urbanization across physical space, bridging urban, peri-urban, and rural areas, and can assist governments in addressing challenges through national and local development policy frameworks.
  • Integrating equity into the development agenda. Equity is an issue of social justice, ensures access to the public sphere, extends opportunities, and increases the commons.
  • Fostering national urban planning and planned city extensions.
  • Deciding how relevant Sustainable Development Goals will be supported through sustainable urbanization.
  • Aligning and strengthening institutional arrangements with the substantive outcomes of Habitat III to ensure effective delivery of the New Urban Agenda.

What does any of this have to do with transport, more specifically, low carbon fuels and vehicles? In the preparatory work leading up to the conference, which consisted  of research, multi-stakeholder dialogues, high-level meetings, issue papers on a range of themes were developed. Transport was included as a subtheme under the topic of  “Urban Housing and Basic Services.”

Following are some comments on transport from participants and out of the issue papers coming out of last week’s meetings:

  • Public Transport and Low Carbon Mobility: “Participants encouraged the use of public transport and non-motorized modes of transport. Discussions touched on the need to involve the private sector, putting in place innovative financing mechanisms to enhance efficiency, and reduction in travel demand by encouraging a better integration and use and transport planning. Progress in low carbon mobility, particularly examples of car sharing to reduce the need for individual car ownership and the need for greater uptake of electric mobility were discussed.”
  • Electric Vehicles: “The growing market for electric cars may not necessarily improve the situation, as the increased demand for electricity is often met by burning coal. Electric Mobility – encompassing public transport, e-bikes, and cars should be promoted in the context of better and more compact urban planning and a transition to cleaner sources of energy. A transition to post-carbon mobility systems was suggested as critical solution to the New Urban Agenda.”
  • Access and Health: Transport equity and urban health were also cited as key topics in urban transportation and development. “Transportation equity refers to the extent to which any given urban transportation system provides equal access to people of varying age, fitness, gender or income group. Moving on foot or bicycle are the least expensive and easy to access means of individual transport…Transport and mobility were discussed as key drivers for urban health, actively promoting physical exercise of urban populations, as well as providing a means to manage and (positively) influence levels of air pollution in cities.”
  • Walkable and Bikeable Cities: Many comments supported the creation of compact, walkable neighborhoods that combat socioeconomic inequalities related to health, education, and jobs…Other participants referenced “polluter pays” principles, including congestion charges, tolls, and parking fees. City inhabitants could be still further encouraged to use alternative forms of transport by reinvesting these funds in schemes for shared city bicycles which are particularly common in Europe.
  • Emissions Reductions: “Fuel pricing and taxation on vehicle import fees, in particular for private vehicles, should be mentioned as specific examples of effective national policies to reduce emissions. In addition, there is need for favorable taxation policies for clean fuels, which in particular can be prioritized for use by public transport. 
One area that should also be included as a driver for action is social marketing, as it is critical that the inhabitants of cities support policies that will benefit them in the long term. Hence, strategic communication campaigns that change social norms and behaviors will be critical.”

None of these measures, or indeed, even the Habitat III agenda, is legally binding. However, UN initiatives like this are very influential on policymakers in countries outside the U.S. And it’s clear what they think needs to happen in transport to deliver air quality and GHG emission reductions as well as help improve the quality of lives for those living in cities: more walking, more cycling, more public transport, less cars (unless they are electric vehicles) and by extension, oil and biofuels.

To that end, below is a statement from the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT):

“Concerted and comprehensive action is needed to cope with the additional 2.3 billion people expected to be living in urban areas by 2050. A rapid expansion and transformation to urban mobility systems based on walking, cycling and public transport is required.  Without a significant step up in action and support by national governments on urban transport cities will suffer from growing congestion, road deaths/injuries, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.”

SLoCaT with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) announced a new initaitive during the conference, the “Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative” (TUMI). The initiative follows four main goals:

  • Economic growth and wealth: supporting partner cities to reduce congestion by strengthening public transport and infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians.
  • Social integration: supporting partner cities to make public transport accessible to all social groups in the city, which includes affordable prices, and to make pedestrian infrastructure safe.
  • Healthy and clean cities: supporting partner cities to make sure that less people die in traffic accidents, and to reduce traffic-related air pollution.
  • Climate-friendly and resilient development: supporting partner cities to reduce GHG emissions generated by traffic, and to build resilient systems for mobility.

TUMI will provide capacity building for policymakers, provide investments and develop pilot projects to implement those four goals.