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The urban poor need better transit systems, study says

The bus rapid transit (BRT) system in Curitiba, Brazil. (Credit: mariordo59/Flickr)

Many of the world’s most important cities are expanding without adequate transportation planning, new research warns, making it more difficult than ever for the world’s poor to access jobs, education and other social services.

The report, released today by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), is the first to measure the number of urban residents who are within short walking distance to rapid transit (“People Near Rapid Transit,” or PNT) in 26 major cities worldwide.

Unsurprisingly, access to rapid transit systems was much lower in cities in developing countries (PNT score of 40.3 percent) than in those in wealthier countries (PNT score of 68.5 percent). In the greater metropolitan areas of developing countries, the average PNT score was just 23.7 percent, compared to 37.3 percent in developed countries.

In other words, major cities around the world are severely lacking efficient transit systems in their suburbs – which are increasingly becoming home for low-income populations – isolating the most vulnerable people from accessing resources in the city itself.

“Not only is rapid transit not keeping up with the pace of growth of cities, but the urban poor are disproportionately affected by that shortcoming,” said ITDP President Clayton Lane in an interview with Humanosphere.

He explained that most unplanned cities mistakenly cater to automobiles, making the city accessible only to those who can afford to drive. Since the vast majority of low-income populations get around by walking, cycling and taking public transit, “the poor find it very difficult to reach basic opportunities for jobs, education, health and so on.”

A man at a London bus stop. (Javi Sánchez de la viña/Flickr)

London bus stop. (Javi Sánchez de la viña/Flickr)

Although not included in the report, the PNT scores of the city of Curitiba, Brazil, have also been measured by the ITDP. The city is widely known for inventing the first high-speed, cost efficient bus system in the 1970s. By 1991, the city’s evolving system became the world’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) network, which soon began popping up in other cities across Latin America, the U.S., South Africa and China.

As Curitiba continued to grow as a city, however, the transit system did not. As a result, the city famed for its transport system now has a PNT score of just 23 percent, according to data from the ITDP, with the score among low-income residents only 13 percent.

Curitiba may foreshadow where many other cities are headed if cities don’t invest in wider, more efficient transit systems, according to Lane. He says that cities need to plan for rapid transit in coordination with city growth, and plan for people rather than automobiles; if they do so, the world could see significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector.

These recommendations would not only help with social equity and climate, he added, but would save cities somewhere around 100 trillion dollars in cumulative spending by 2050.

“It sounds counterintuitive that if you invest a lot of money into rapid transit, you save,” said Lane. “But it’s actually a lot more affordable, because a more compact city will require less infrastructure and highways also cost a lot of money.”

The report comes just days before the Habitat III summit, a U.N. conference taking place in Quito, Ecuador, next week that will focus on equitable urban development. Politicians and urban stakeholders from around the world will strive to use the summit as an opportunity to orient the global urban agenda in the right direction for years to come.

A 24-page final draft of the agenda for the meeting, released at the end of July, focuses on guiding national urban policies and systems of urban governance. The agenda is different from previous Habitat agreements in that it also highlights pressing global issues such as gender equity, urban informality, and disaster and climate resilience.




About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at