By Anusha Chitturi
Developing world cities may have a unique opportunity to address climate change. They have the option of choosing growth trajectories that will help them meet both developmental and sustainability goals. Many global cities with mature and developed economies might not have the same choice, forcing them to restructure and rebuild their highly carbon-dependent economies to achieve their climate goals. Cities have stepped up to this challenge by voluntarily declaring commitments to reduce carbon emissions alongside the NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) of their national governments. The mobility sector, which contributes to about a quarter of global CO2 emissions, has been a key focus in these commitments.
This summer, I had the opportunity to work with the Department of Transportation and Public Works of the City of Buenos Aires, which is one of the cities pioneering bold climate action in the Global South. Through its latest Climate Action Plan, Buenos Aires aims to achieve a 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050—a goal more ambitious than what was outlined in its previous action plans. Mobility is a key focus in the plan, with 6 of 19 actions directly targeted toward reducing transportation-based emissions. These actions are focused on both reducing automobile trips and transitioning to cleaner fuels. Here are the city’s key priorities.
Faster and Cleaner Public Transport
About 30% of Argentina’s 45 million people reside in the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires. While the city itself has 3 million residents, an additional 3 million people commute to it daily from the metropolitan region. Buenos Aires enjoys a high public transit modal share. About 78% of trips are completed through its fleet of 18,000 buses, subways, and trains. Without a good public transit system, the region’s working poor would not have the same access to jobs and opportunities and the city would see dangerous levels of air pollution—as in cities where more people use private modes of transport to get to work. Buenos Aires’ current focus is to reduce transit times and get more people out of cars and onto public transit through expansion of Metrobus, the bus rapid transit system. Secondly, the city wants to switch 50% of its fleet to zero-emission buses by 2030 and sees biofuel as an intermediary option to smooth the transition.
Increasing Walking and Biking Trips
In 2013, the city converted Avenida 9 de Julio, an 18-lane car-centric roadway, into a complete street with exclusive bus lanes and space for walking and biking. Since its implementation, bus travel times have been reduced by half on this stretch of roadway. The city now wants to create 15 new pedestrian priority areas by 2030. The grid-patterned street network with smaller block sizes can facilitate such a change, encouraging more people to walk. The relatively flat gradient and favorable climate that Buenos Aires enjoys can also support a transition to biking. Between 2009 and 2019, the biking modal share in Buenos Aires grew from 0.4% to 4% as the city added 267 kilometers of bike lanes and introduced a public biking sharing system, Ecobici. By 2023, Buenos Aires wants to reach one million daily bike trips, which is more than double the number of daily bike trips that currently happen.
Cleaner and More Efficient Urban Logistics
Another key priority for Buenos Aires has been urban logistics. E-commerce has seen an exponential rise during the pandemic. Even as the permanent impact of this shift is yet to be seen, the city is preparing to optimize its urban logistics sector through better regulation and organization of its pick-up and drop-off zones. It is also actively supporting the private sector to shift to sustainable modes such as e-cargo bikes.
In addition, Buenos Aires is actively working toward changing the transportation culture and expectations of its residents through public events and campaigns. For example, in September 2021, the city held a mega fair to celebrate Sustainable Mobility Week, which featured walking, biking, public transport, and electric vehicles as better alternatives to cars. The fact that sustainable mobility features among the top priorities of political leaders is also a clear indicator of the city’s commitment.
While each of these goals effectively set a direction for the sustainable growth of the transport sector in alignment with the climate action plan, the success of these will largely depend on a few things. First is availability of capital. Argentina is facing a prolonged economic recession, which is further exacerbated by the pandemic. Large-scale investments in transportation projects can be fiscally and politically challenging when there are other competitive uses of capital such as social protection programs. Public transport services, which currently run on huge subsidies, have been impacted because of the pandemic and need to be sustained against challenges of unstable ridership. Further, electrification of the bus fleet and building charging infrastructure need large-scale and long-term capital investments. Leveraging funding from city-based sources such as congestion pricing and parking fees and mobilizing capital through private and multilateral institutions will, therefore, be crucial.
Secondly, a modal shift to bicycles and walking will require infrastructural changes and pricing mechanisms which discourage car usage. Both of these rely on reallocating priorities and introducing additional costs to car users. This requires a cultural shift on a fundamental level and communication strategies that can facilitate change at the scale imagined by the plans.
Thirdly and most importantly, interjurisdictional coordination is needed to effectively plan and manage these programs. The metropolitan region has around 40 self-governing bodies with their own mandates. The municipalities in the region, however, share strong economic ties with the city and therefore witness significant interjurisdictional commute. Aligning plans at the metropolitan and city-level is therefore crucial to avoid contradictory plans and redundancies. For example, the Climate Action Plan for the city should be extended to the metropolitan region since its implementation will obviously impact the surrounding regions. Further, the federal government manages the planning of public transport services in the city, including the routes and bus stops. This could, overall, lead to inconsistent and inefficient planning. These services can be more dynamically designed by delegating the authority to the local jurisdiction that is best-positioned to address the demands of the residents.
Decarbonizing the mobility sector will be an important avenue for cities to achieve their lofty climate action goals. Buenos Aires is on the cusp of reengineering how people travel—by shifting more people to sidewalks, bikes, and buses—and can serve as a model for other cities with similar ambitions.
Anusha Chitturi is a MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Fulbright Student. Before HKS, she worked with a global non-profit organization to devise and implement sustainable transport solutions in Indian cities.