Rhein on Energy and Climate

Hundreds of thousands Brazilian citizens have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest against high public transport fares, publicly financed football stadiums, inadequate investments in education and health and, last not least, rampant corruption.

High transport fares have been the detonator of these unprecedented demonstrations in one of the most successful emerging countries; and the Brazilian government has reacted to the them by setting aside billions of Euro for improving public transport.

Public transport costs and fares are linked to individual car use: as people switch to cars demand for public transport falls and raises its costs. Developed countries have seen this happen until congestion levels made municipalities and citizens re-discover the advantages of public transport.

In the last three decades European cities have stepped up efforts towards improving their public transport services. This has induced increasing numbers of urban dwellers to abandon their car and rediscover urban living.

Emerging countries are increasingly confronted with urban traffic congestion. While promoting individual car ownership and building roads, they have ignored the consequences for urban sprawl, air pollution and health. This is not sustainable as trends in developed countries show.

They need to engage in forward planning for their rapidly growing cities, locate people nearer to their work place and minimise the need for cars by offering low-cost public transport systems.

To this end, they should provide incentives for using the bus or metro. The use of cars must be made more expensive, while bus and metro fares should become cheaper, if necessary through public subsidies.

European experience shows that this is possible to achieve with a comprehensive long-term approach.

China should be the first to make a forward leap towards more environment-friendly cities. Presently, its citizens suffer more than elsewhere from hazardous pollution, due to lax regulations and control. Urban traffic is the worst offender alongside heavy industry and excessive use of coal for heating.

The incoming government has committed to tackle the issue. It also aims to “urbanise” some 250 million people in the course of the next 15 years, the most ambitious organised migration programme ever launched. This will offer a unique opportunity for building proper cities with a minimum of congestion and traffic pollution and allow China to become the major trend setter for urban design and public transport in other emerging countries.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels.

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