May 22, 2014

Meeting the Needs of Expanding Cities: ITDP Study Explores Performance of Key Countries in Urban Transit Growth

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Cities are growing rapidly, and their transit systems need to keep up. As the world’s urban population soars from 3.4 to 6.4 billion between now and 2050, cities must invest in high quality public transit to create sustainable, economically healthy, and livable cities. A new study released by ITDP evaluates nine key countries to see if their investment in urban mass transit has kept pace with the needs of their growing populations.

The report serves as a wake-up call, putting into relief the transit deficit many countries face. But it also suggests opportunities for building more transit quicker and cheaper, offering solutions for cities’ growing demand. The solutions, as well as the national policy structures that facilitate or inhibit the growth of transit, will be further explored in future parts of ITDP’s series examining Best Practice in National Support for Urban Transportation.

1. RTR Graphic

Looking at a sample of nine countries, the new study compares the type, cost, quality and quantity of urban transit growth. A key indicator of countries’ transit growth is kilometers of mass rapid transit per urban resident, or RTR, which measures whether a country’s mass rapid transit infrastructure is keeping pace with urban growth (see left). As the graph below demonstrates, France’s RTR, at 30.2, dwarfs all other countries’, including the US’s 8.8. This indicates that French urban residents are generally well connected to transit, and to all the employment, economic, and recreational opportunities it provides.

It is encouraging that, despite dramatic population increases in many of these countries, all nine had net positive RTR growth over the past 30 years. A closer look at those countries with lower total RTR reveals that in the past two decades, several have made significant progress increasing the coverage of mass transit for their populations. Colombia, Mexico, and China are exhibiting strong growth, and Brazil is expected to climb quickly to an RTR ratio of 8.0 between 2014 and 2016, as it builds rapid transit in advance of global sporting events. South Africa’s major RTR bump was also due to investments made for the World Cup in 2010, and it must now work to continue its strong trajectory.

Of course, cost is a key limiting factor is building new transit infrastructure. The study looked at the costs of building metro, light rail (LRT), and bus rapid transit (BRT) systems and found that BRT delivers more transit growth per dollar, yuan or peso. Relative to metro and LRT, even small investments in BRT result in large expansions of kilometers of mass rapid transit.

This opens the door and lowers the barrier for lower income countries to keep pace with their growing populations by focusing transit growth on BRT. Between 2000 and 2010, China increased its RTR ratio by 2.69, at a cost of $207 per urban resident. Colombia’s RTR ratio increase, 3.50, was 30 percent higher than that of China. However, because Colombia invested primarily in BRT and China invested primarily in metro, Colombia spent less than half as much as China per capita, and over 60 percent less per kilometer of mass rapid transit built on average.

2. Growth of RTR 1980- 2013

3. RTR of 7 Countries

By making smart investments in mass rapid transit, developing countries can catch up to developed countries. In fact, China, Colombia, and Mexico are on course to have a higher RTR ratio than the United States within five to ten years.

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The next report in this series will zoom in on how transport infrastructure is funded and financed in each of these countries, offering more clues to how to build the best transit networks. To read the first part of the report, with in-depth analysis of how the type, cost, quality and quantity of mass transit projects affect RTR, see Best Practice in National Support for Urban Transportation.

The growth of mass urban transit in the coming years will be critical to meeting the social, economic and environmental needs of cities. Without it, cities face falling quality of life, decreasing health, and increasing contribution to climate change. While many countries are on the right track, a renewed focus on building enough high quality mass transit to meet the needs of growing cities is needed. Luckily, as this report makes clear, through investment in low cost, high quality transit, cities can build for a stronger future.

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