Putting people first: Cities lead the fight against climate change
Bogota Cyclist

Better bicycle infrastructure is a sign of sustainability efforts in developing countries. Photo by Carlos Felipe Pardo.

Julia Thayne reports on the inaugural City Climate Leadership Awards Ceremony and Conference, September 4-5 in London.

In many places in South America, owning a car is equated with obtaining high socioeconomic status. During recent years, however, cities such as Bogota, Colombia, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, have been leading the way in altering public perception so that mass transit, cycling, and walking become equally socially acceptable modes of transport. The inaugural City Climate Leadership Awards Ceremony and Conference (CCLAC), co-hosted in London by C40 Cities and Siemens this September, was organized to provide global recognition for cities that are demonstrating climate action leadership. Speaking at the conference, Guillermo Dietrich, the Secretary of Transportation for Buenos Aires, declared, “With [the city’s] healthy mobility plan, we introduced [the idea] that we wanted to be Copenhagen.” Copenhagen is often cited as an ideally planned city, complete with great bicycle infrastructure and plenty of green public spaces. Dietrich acknowledged that the two cities have little in common where geography and demographics are concerned, but he suggested that Buenos Aires’ effort to emulate Copenhagen marks a positive shift in attitudes towards sustainability in the developing world.

Progress in cities around the world

Actions by the local government in Argentina’s capital city provide a testament to this shift. For example, the implementation of on-street protected cycling lanes and a bike-share program have helped raise cycling from 0.4% of all trips in 2007 to 2.5% in 2013. Nevertheless, as Dietrich recognized toward the end of his speech, Buenos Aires and other similar cities still have a long way to go in cultivating Copenhagen’s culture of sustainability.

The discussion of Buenos Aires’ sustainable transit initiatives was just one of four during a break-out session on urban transport at the conference. Dietrich was joined by representatives from Bogota, Colombia; Paris, France; and Stockholm, Sweden – each of whom spoke about efforts to advance sustainable transport in their cities. The representative from Bogota discussed how adaptations to the successful TransMilenio system aimed to make bus rapid transit more socially and environmentally sustainable. Marcelino Pera from Paris outlined how Autolib’– a publicly subsidized car sharing service – enabled the city to reduce vehicle emissions. Gustaf Landahl, head of the Planning and Environment Department in Stockholm, concluded the presentations by showing how the city’s congestion charge deterred unnecessary car use without angering drivers. These sessions underlined the importance of sharing successful initiatives and innovative ideas at forums like CCLAC – cities are eager to learn from each other’s experiences and can benefit greatly from evidence based on rigorous analysis and monitoring.

Three characteristics of successful urban projects

Holger Dalkmann, EMBARQ’s Director, moderated the talks, and his introductory remarks set an optimistic tone for the session. He emphasized the innovative ways in which cities of both developed and developing countries are working to combat climate change. Dalkmann noted three main characteristics connecting the four cities’ transport initiatives. Firstly, the primary focus of the successful projects was the people – not economics, not politics, not even necessarily the environment. Rather, local governments believed that acting to improve city transport systems should first and foremost benefit people. Secondly, implementing transport initiatives required political leadership that was consistent over time, despite changes in power and party. Without this consistency, little would have been achieved, as transport projects understandably take some time to implement in the city environment and to mainstream among urban inhabitants. Finally, all four projects demonstrated their city’s dedication to a wider vision of planning in which specific initiatives were components of larger plans.

The presence of representatives from four very different cities on a single panel regarding urban transport, in addition to Dalkmann’s comments linking the cities together, underlined that times really have changed. From the “Paris of South America” to the Paris of, well, Paris, city administrators are pushing forward policies and projects that will reduce urban transport’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

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