Public transport is one of the best, most cost-effective solutions available to address today’s climate and development challenges.
Buses and trains can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by up to two-thirds per passenger, per kilometer compared to private vehicles. The UN’s latest climate action report says that shifting more trips to public transit is “essential” to curbing climate change. At the same time, increasing access to reliable public transport brings important benefits to society, such as lower traffic fatality rates, more active city residents and broader access to jobs, education and urban services. This makes it a key driver of equitable, sustainable development in cities around the world.
But despite slow and steady infrastructure growth in recent decades, the public transport sector is well off track from where it needs to be to meet climate and development goals.
Estimates say that global public transport capacity must double by 2030 — in just seven years — if the world is to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) and avert the worst impacts of climate change. Cities and countries will need to start building much more infrastructure at a much quicker pace and take steps to boost ridership, which has yet to recover from COVID-driven declines in many places.
The road ahead may be steep, but cities and countries can look to others leading the way on public transport for lessons and inspiration. Here’s a look at the current state of the public transport sector and how to get it on the right track.
Public Transport Is Still Recovering from the Pandemic
Public transport ridership plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic, falling by as much as 90% in some cities. Since then, it has rebounded to at or near pre-pandemic levels in certain places. Full recoveries were most common in low- and middle-income countries such as Indonesia, Mexico and South Africa, where a significant percentage of the population relies on public transport to access daily necessities. Some countries, including Colombia, Kenya and India, even saw ridership surpass pre-pandemic levels.
But the recovery has been much slower in high-income countries across North and South America and Europe. Some, such as Canada, Japan, Sweden and the United Kingdom, continue to see ridership levels below what they were in February 2020 before the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
These drops can have long-lasting impacts on public transport systems. Low ridership often means less revenue for transit operators due to a loss of fares. This, in turn, can lead to a reduction in employment, services, routes and quality and thus further drops in usage, creating a downward spiral. This can be especially harmful to vulnerable communities and low-income individuals, who cannot afford personal vehicles and may be left stranded from accessing job opportunities and other important services.
In Brazil, for example, government support for public transport has historically been low and most funding for operational costs comes from fares. When ridership dropped during the pandemic, driving down fare revenues, it had a big impact: Between March 2020 and February 2023, 55 bus operators shut down and over 36 billion Reais ($7.3 billion) were lost, as well as an astonishing 90,000 jobs in the urban bus sector. In response, the country has since increased support for its public transport sector to maintain services. Fewer than 10 cities had subsidies prior to the pandemic, while in 2023 more than 163 receive some support for covering operational costs. For example, two cities in the south of Brazil, Porto Alegre and Novo Hamburgo, have sought alternative sources of financial revenue by directing revenues from parking fees toward public transport, potentially leveraging an additional 20 million Reais ($4 million) per year.
Many other transport systems around the world received government stimulus funding during the pandemic. However, these grants did not fully cover the amount of revenue lost from fares and were only temporary. As stimulus funding dries up, governments and public transit agencies will need innovation in how they operate and finance their systems in order to maintain frequency of services, improve access to jobs and opportunity for residents and act as a solution to climate change.
Leveraging Public Transport as a Climate Solution
The Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLOCAT) recently released its Transport and Climate Change Status Report, the world’s flagship report on the role of transport in combatting climate change. WRI experts authored the chapter on public transport and provide key takeaways on the best actions to maximize the sector’s climate potential. Learn more here.
Public Transport Infrastructure Is Growing Globally, but Not Fast Enough
Despite budget cuts and delays during the pandemic, public transport expansion projects continued in all major regions and across country income levels. Between 2020 and 2022, new metro lines were constructed in China, Ecuador, France, the United States and several countries in Africa, including Algeria, Nigeria and Egypt. This includes breaking ground on a new system in Cairo, one of the largest cities in the world which was previously without a significant metro network.
While growth was slower than in pre-pandemic years, 2022 also saw new bus transit corridors begun in six cities, adding nearly 90 kilometers globally. (By comparison, the year with the most global growth, 2013, saw 400 kilometers of new bus transit corridors built.) Notable examples include Guadalajara, Mexico’s 42-station, 45-kilometer Periferico BRT — which transformed a car-oriented beltway orbiting the city into a major rapid transit corridor — and Africa’s first 100% electric bus route which will soon open in Dakar, Senegal, spanning 18-kilometers and 23 stations throughout the city.
But while the world continues to expand public transport infrastructure, it is not growing nearly fast enough. WRI’s Systems Change Lab finds that cities need to grow their rapid transit networks six times faster by 2030 to shift enough trips away from private vehicle travel to align the transport sector with 1.5-degree-C climate goals. In the world’s 50 highest-emitting cities, rapid transit needs to double between 2020 and 2030.
This increase will also be critical to ensuring that urban residents worldwide have access to jobs, healthcare, education and other critical services. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 state that the world should “provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all … notably by expanding public transport.” Progress is measured by the percentage of people within 0.5 kilometers of public transit running at least every 20 minutes. As of 2022, just over half of the world’s residents met these criteria and only 37% of urban areas were served at all. The lowest performing region was sub-Saharan Africa, where only 23.3% of urban areas are served by public transport.
Harnessing Informal Transport Systems
Many people around the world rely on privately run “informal transport” systems as their primary mode of transport rather than formal, government-run systems. As cities and countries work to increase and improve public transport access, especially in lower-income regions like sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, these systems could play an important role. Learn more here.
Accelerating Bus Electrification Will Be Critical to Meeting Climate Goals
In addition to expanding infrastructure and increasing funding for public transport, it will be critical for cities and countries to accelerate bus electrification.
While metro rail and light rail transit are largely powered by electricity, the world’s buses still mostly run on diesel or other fossil fuels. These not only cause significant emissions, but also contribute to air pollution and related health risks in cities. Impacts are often the worst in low-income and disadvantaged communities, which are disproportionately located near transport infrastructure. By contrast, public electric buses are a much cleaner option, emitting less than half as much carbon as gas-powered private cars per passenger-kilometer traveled.
According to WRI’s Systems Change Lab, electric and fuel cell buses should comprise around 60% of all bus sales by 2030 to stay in line with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C. While electric bus sales grew by 40% in 2021, they still comprised just 4% of the total global bus fleet. China continues to dominate the market, accounting for over 80% of electric bus sales.
Momentum is building, however, with some countries taking the lead. India plans to deploy 50,000 electric buses by 2030 and is already on its way there: The country’s recently announced National Electric Bus Scheme aims to bring 10,000 electric buses to over 100 cities in need of improved public transport, bringing its total up to 20,000 when combined with previous programs. Meanwhile, the EU announced a Clean Vehicles Directive in 2023 which mandates that 85% of buses in the EU must have zero tailpipe emissions by 2030, and 100% by 2035. Several Latin American cities and countries are also working to electrify their urban public transport fleets, with hundreds of electric buses already purchased and deployed and over 25,000 expected in the region by 2030.
These leaders have, in some cases, demonstrated innovative financing strategies to build out their electric bus fleets. This includes accessing private climate finance by using public funds to provide guarantees or otherwise “de-risk” electric bus initiatives for private investors.
Bogotá, Colombia, for example, purchased 401 electric buses using a blended financing model that combined public funds from the Inter-American Development Bank and the U.K. Sustainable Infrastructure program with private financing from the bank BNP Paribas for a total loan of 610,000 million Colombian pesos ($134 million). In India, the federal government and local governments have worked together to support electric bus procurement in multiple cities by pooling funds through a public-private entity established by the country’s energy companies. More of this innovation on the part governments and the finance sector can help overcome high upfront cost barriers.
What’s Needed to Get Public Transport on the Right Track?
Governments need to dramatically increase their public transport commitments to drive rapid growth in the sector. Key actions that national and local governments should take include:
- Setting clear public transport targets and pathways via national climate plans. A recent analysis of data from WRI’s Climate Watch platform showed that of the 177 countries with national climate commitments under the Paris Agreement — called “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs) — just 68 include measures related to public transport. Not all of these include specific targets; for example, 16 NDCs set targets for shifting private vehicle travel toward public transit and just four set targets to shift towards walking and cycling. Despite the growing feasibility and financial advantage of electric buses, only 12 NDCs contain specific targets for them. And 16 NDCs include measures to adapt public transport to the adverse effects of climate change. Countries should ensure that their updated NDCs, due in 2025, include goals and targets for the public transport sector that are aligned with efforts to double the share of fossil fuel-free transport by 2030.
- Expanding transit agency capacity and support. As countries strengthen their public transport commitments, they must also increase support to the agencies responsible for implementing these goals. Transit agencies around the world will need to simultaneously improve service, build more infrastructure and electrify bus fleets to meet ambitious goals by 2030, which will be no small feat. They’ll require additional funding to expand ridership capacity and accommodate growing urban populations, technical support for integrated mobility systems, and increased finance from public and private sources to get the transition right. Countries can draw on lessons from places like China, where most public buses are already electric, or from Salvador, Brazil, which is simultaneously adding new bus rapid transit infrastructure and electrifying its bus fleet.
- Increasing targeted and innovative finance for public transport, including from the private sector. Governments, multilateral development banks and other global finance institutions must look for new and innovative ways to increase finance for public transport infrastructure and operations. This includes devising new financing mechanisms to de-risk investment in sustainable mobility and attract more private sector finance. Countries can look to leaders such as India, where public investment in electric buses is accompanied by a private-public financing mechanism to support operating expenses. While the upfront cost of expanding and electrifying public transit may be high, this should be seen as a long-term investment: Estimates say that expanding public transport can lower the total cost of urban mobility by $5.3 trillion per year in 2050.
- Scaling up renewable energy investment and deployment to support transport electrification. Efforts to electrify bus fleets should come hand in hand with efforts to fuel transport through renewable energy. Electric public transport is more efficient when it is powered by solar or wind energy rather than fossil fuels. As the world seeks to triple renewable energy by 2030, the public transport sector can be part of this by supporting its scale-up, including forming Power Purchase Agreements (long-term commitments to purchase clean energy at a predetermined price). With this commitment, renewable developers can make further investments in greater capacity with lower risk.
The world has a narrow window to slash fossil fuel use and reduce emissions enough to prevent the worst of outcomes of global warming. Public transport is one train everyone must get on to make this happen.
To learn more about public transport as a climate solution and actions that can be taken in this sector, see the report How to Unlock Public Transport for Climate and Sustainable Development from Sustainable Mobility for All, as well as WRI’s recent article, “3 Ways to Reimagine Public Transport for People and the Climate.”
Ben Welle is Director of Integrated Transport & Innovation at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Anna Kustar is a Research Analyst for the Urban Mobility program at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Thet Hein Thun is Senior Transportation Research Associate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Cristina Albuquerque is Director of Global Electric Mobility for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities and WRI Brasil.