Building back inclusive, low-carbon mobility in Latin American Cities

To mark this week’s Transforming Transportation Conference 2022 on the theme “Climate-Centered Mobility for a Sustainable Recovery”, Ernesto Monter Flores and Stephen Perkins reveal urban changes in Latin America that maximise pandemic disruptions and allow more livable cities.

Better biking: Covid pushed the creation of new bike paths in Bogotá, Colombia

The Covid-19 pandemic saw demand for transport drop significantly. Demand has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, and urban mobility patterns might show a long-term impact. There could be fewer daily commutes to work for some types of employment, increased delivery traffic seems here to stay, and we should be able to capitalise on the gains made in active mobility.

Recovery from the pandemic requires investment that creates an opportunity to rethink mobility and accelerate progress on our strategic objectives, especially decarbonisation and inclusion. Decarbonising transport will not only reduce CO2 emissions but can create green jobs and will rely on more inclusive mobility. It poses challenges, however, in financing the transition and ensuring the financial sustainability of transport systems. 

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the International Transport Forum (ITF) recently concluded a study on the most effective measures to decarbonise transport in three cities in Latin America; Bogotá, Buenos Aires and Mexico City (PDF link). These cities are each unique in terms of the legacy infrastructure, financing and service delivery models that today’s mobility is built on, but each is implementing ambitious programs to promote cycling, walking, ride-sharing, electric vehicles and public transport. 

The joint study evaluates the potential of the mobility policies pursued by each city to cut CO2 emissions. The work uses a data-driven methodology designed by ITF, adjusted for each city with input from stakeholders, and developed in collaboration with the city mobility authorities.

The ITF’s Decarbonising Transport in Latin American Cities project: helping policy makers in Bogotá, Buenos Aires and Mexico City to achieve their CO2 reduction ambitions for the transport sector

The fundamental priority for each city is to deliver safer, more equitable and inclusive mobility. But there are strong linkages between decarbonisation and interventions to create safe and secure environments for vulnerable users and improve public transport and active mobility options. Indeed without these initiatives, electrification will not be sufficient to meet climate targets. The challenge is to scale up interventions well beyond current ambitions in each of the cities.

Basic investments are critical: in sidewalks protected from cars; in surfaced roads in peripheral suburbs so that buses can reach them; in maintenance of roads to be safe for cyclists; and in providing partially separated space for cycling. Particular attention needs to be paid to the approaches to public transport stops so that pedestrians can access buses and Bus rapid transit (BRT) safely, without dangerous crowding dangerous carriageway crossings.

Bogotá has long invested in safe cycling infrastructure and has much the highest share of cycling in daily trips among the cities. Biking is used for commuting across Bogotá’s population, not just for the young in wealthier quarters of the city. The one benefit of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the accelerated extension of protected cycling networks in all three cities. Temporary cycle lanes were established rapidly to cope with the shutdown of public transport systems during lock-downs. And most of these lanes are now being made permanent.

Tempus fugit: Mexico City’s informal microbuses don’t always move when you want

Public transport accounts for the largest share of daily trips in all of the cities; over a third in Bogotá and Buenos Aires and two thirds of trips in Mexico City. Buses and BRT account for most of the heavy mass transit services in all three cities, but in Mexico City half of all public transport trips are on microbuses. Microbuses operate under an incomplete regulatory framework that fails to control routes, frequency and quality of service. Services are inefficient, overcrowded and slow as drivers wait to pack in passengers before departing. Travelling from the periphery to centres of employment requires several changes. This can represent a significant share of daily wages even though fares are controlled and low in relation to operating costs.

The city is introducing GPS tracking to keep operators to agreed routes and investing in better public transport exchange stations. But more fundamental concession reform will be required for increased investment and to achieve the levels of planning control over routes and service quality of a city like Buenos Aires.

The key to making journeys better for the worst-off commuters is direct public transport from the periphery to the centre, where employment opportunities are concentrated. Providing targeted, time-based subsidies for the poorest users is also effective, as Bogotá’s Sisben travel card system demonstrates, even if it has difficulty in reaching citizens on the most precarious incomes. Targeted support has proven more effective than capping fares at low levels, which tends to drive a vicious cycle of underinvestment and declining quality.

Funding public transport is always challenging. A combination of fare revenue, general taxation and local property or business taxes is usually needed for operation and especially investment. The impact of Covid-19 on operator revenues is forcing authorities worldwide to look again at how they fund public transport to attract more car users and meet climate goals. Contributions from commercial property development is part of the answer. Examples range from Mexico City’s under-used provisions for betterment charges to London’s developer contributions, currently being used to fund extensions to metro lines.

Sparking innovation: Santiago de Chile’s electric buses thrive thanks to public-private partnerships

Looking beyond the three cities, Chile reconcessioned the bus services in Santiago during the period of study, building on the successful regulatory models of Singapore and London. Ownership of the vehicle fleets has been separated from the concessions to run services, which are let for short periods through competition. This has allowed electric utilities to invest in electric buses, rapidly establishing the continent’s biggest electric bus fleet. Bogotá has increasingly ambitious electrification plans. On the other hand, Mexico City has focused on upgrading and expanding its small existing electric trolley bus system. This is the right place to focus initially. However, the scale of electrification needed to decarbonise transport, in step with decarbonising power production, will require finance of the scale achieved in Santiago.

Urban transport demand is expected to grow 3.5-fold in Latin America to 2050. Under existing policies to shift travel to public transport and active travel, improve vehicle fuel economy, and electrify mobility, CO2 emissions may ‘only’ increase 1.7-fold. While this is encouraging, it is not in line with the global objective of reducing CO2 emissions to a level that will limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees. Emissions in the three cities have to fall by much more.  

Fast forward: Watch the ITF’s Transport Outlook team’s projections for transport demand to 2050

This requires investment to expand bus, BRT, metro and rail systems to reach the periphery with good quality services. Public transport electrification must be scaled-up alongside sales of electric cars, funded through taxation and innovative financing partnerships of the kind used in Santiago. Policies to manage demand for car use and reallocate road space to public transport and active mobility will also be critical. The rapid expansion of protected space for cycling in the three cities during the pandemic is a highly successful precursor of what is to come.

The policies pursued in Bogotá, Buenos Aires and Mexico City for safe, inclusive and environmentally sustainable mobility are effective. But they need scaling up if they are to match climate ambitions, and for that they need sustainable funding.


Ernesto Monter Flores is Principal Transport Specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank.

Stephen Perkins is Head of Research and Policy Analysis at the International Transport Forum


Further reading:

Decarbonising Transport in Latin American Cities: A Review of Policies and Key Challenges

Decarbonising Transport in Latin American Cities: Assessing Scenarios