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By 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. To avoid an explosion of cars, which creates air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, congestion, and traffic deaths, new, more sustainable patterns of urban development are needed, with higher-density urban cores and “sustainable transportation systems at the heart of these places,” said Zanny Minton Beddoes, The Economist, before introducing World Bank Group President Dr. Jim Yong Kim and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at this year’s Transforming Transportation conference, which was co-organized by the World Bank Group and the EMBARQ program of the World Resources Institute (WRI).

For the past 10 years, WRI has been hosting this conference, but this was the first time a World Bank president had ever attended, perhaps indicating that sustainable urban transportation is finally moving up in the list of priorities worldwide. Kim said that in his recent conversations with the incoming Chinese president he found that the new Chinese leadership is increasingly focused on “green growth,” and sees urbanization and sustainable transportation as central to their efforts. Beyond China, more of the world’s poorer countries are also focused on urban transportation, given “clean, effective public transit gives people an opportunity to have a job, a livelihood.” Kim thought that new public transit systems — from subways to bus rapid transit (BRT) to bicycle share systems — “provide jobs while bringing order to cities and helping to tackle climate change.”

Mayor Bloomberg, who also runs his Bloomberg Philanthropies and the C40 Cities: Climate Leadership Group, also offered a global perspective, arguing that traffic is now the 5th largest killer of people worldwide. In many cities, he added that car pollution (including carbon emissions) account for up to 80 percent of the total. In contrast with these global trends, Bloomberg said NYC now has the lowest level of traffic fatalities on record and cars now only contribute 20 percent of emissions (this is because buildings are the real source of emissions in the city). The mayor is increasingly focused on redesigning roads so they work for “people, not just cars.” All the modes — “bicycling, walking, trolleys, buses” — are now in the mix. Times Square was recently closed to traffic and has become a permanent pedestrian mall (see image above). The initiative, which cab drivers hated, has been a huge success. Foot traffic is way up. “Rents on the ground floor of buildings in Times Square are now up because more people visit.” Bloomberg told representatives of developing countries in the audience that investing in public transit and creating spaces for pedestrians is the way to go because “traffic hurts your economy.” But to create demand for these public systems and spaces, “cities need to make people feel like they will benefit.” To show the benefits in NYC, Bloomberg collects immense amounts of data. He shows communities how being near highways, interstates “explains who gets asthma” and who will ultimately benefit from more sustainable forms of transportation.

Kim agreed with Bloomberg, his golf pal, arguing that cities are now the world’s biggest polluters and where “the battle will be fought” in the coming decades. The key challenge will be “improving the living conditions of the billions in the world’s mega-cities.” While cities themselves must make the hard decisions, the World Bank, he said, is here to provide policy advice and financing. Smart policies can have an impact. In Hong Kong, the number of cars doubled over the past few decades, creating significant air pollution problems. The city undertook policy changes and the number of cars were reduced by half. “It doesn’t have to be an expensive intervention. We can intervene to save lives.” Kim also agreed with Bloomberg’s approach: get data, see where problems are happening, and tackle the problem there.

On China, where car ownership has exploded, making it the country with the most number of cars, Bloomberg was less than positive. There, “the leadership is pursuing economic development at any cost. The environment is not part of the equation.” In front of a recent Congressional hearing, Bloomberg said one Republican congressman asked him why the U.S. should reduce its pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, when China continues to pollute at a high rate. Bloomberg said that’s like asking, “why should we stop killing our own people when other countries are killing theirs?” Bloomberg said this was the “single stupidest thing I’ve heard.” The mayor thinks things will change in China because the middle class (and really every class), wants “water that isn’t yellow, traffic that moves, and air you can’t see.” For their part, the Chinese government needs to “be able to answer the demands of their people.” Increasingly, they are showing that they can do this. The next five year plan of the Communist Party calls for increasing renewable energy to 15 percent of the total, which will equal more energy than the UK uses in total. The World Bank president was more sanguine  on China. His experts are now working with the Chinese leadership to collect best practices, like Hangzhou’s bike share system, canal-based transportation systems, and BRT and show the rest of the country how to do it.

Still, Bloomberg’s primary concern seemed to be the millions of people who die from bad air in cities and traffic fatalities worldwide every year. Once again advising mayors in developing countries, Bloomberg said the first step should be a “campaign aimed at the public, explaining how many people are getting killed by air pollution and congestion.” The key is to “build constituencies, build capacity, and then create laws.” Education was also seen as key. Educating kids in schools so they go home and tell their parents to ride helmets with their motor-scooters has proven effective. In Vietnam, traffic deaths are down 300 percent because people are riding with helmets now.

Being a true NYer, Bloomberg is a mayor with some strong opinions. He believes that “mayors can’t get help from national governments anywhere in the world.” At the local city levels, mayors want to get “national bureaucrats the hell away from their programs.” On climate change, national governments may be particularly useless. “They meet every 20 years and have done almost nothing.” Cities have made the  most strides. “The federal governments of the world can give tax credits, loans, finance research, but cities are where you are actually going to get things done.” The role of the federal and state-level governments is to “move money around. They don’t understand the local level.” Mayors are “executives and decide who wins and who loses. That’s what we’re elected to do. Legislatures create programs that are not practical, designed to be implemented.”

The mayor added that what works in one city may not work in another, so sharing best practices has limited utility. “There are different political structures and institutions.” Ultimately, though, mayors can share personal experiences on trying to make change happen. “Mayors around the world have the same job. People want services but they don’t want to pay for them.” Kim thought that the World Bank can bring best practices to those poor developing countries that don’t have high levels of local expertise. Both Bloomberg and Kim agreed that the private sector, which accounts for 90 percent of all jobs, will be critical to taking on the big challenges facing cities. Kim said that urban transportation must help these businesses create jobs.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for cities will be addressing climate change. Cities will have to prepare for more extreme climate events like Hurricane Sandy, said Bloomberg. “These hurricanes are going to happen more often.” Sandy, which claimed 43 lives, destroyed more than 500 homes, and created billions in damages, was a sign that climate change is happening. “Storms get their energy from the oceans. More heat means more energy.” Beyond storms, floods and droughts are expected to affect food production, leading to more “food and water wars.” The environment is “clearly changing and global warming can’t be reversed.” Those transportation systems of the near future then also need to accommodate a shifting climate.

Image credit: Times Square Pedestrian Mall / Dtolman. Flickr