From issue: The Environment (Fall 2009)

AQ Feature

Five Ways to Fix Urban Transportation

Gonzalo A. Moyano

The next generation of public transit systems must be environmentally sustainable.

Cities need good public transportation systems to prosper and grow. But in today’s world such systems must also be environmentally sustainable. That is especially true in developing countries, where rapid urbanization is creating huge pressure on aging infrastructures. By adopting smart policies that incorporate environmental needs, a city can improve the quality of life for residents while ensuring that its growth does not overtax its resources.

It’s easier to prescribe than achieve. As urban populations swell with the influx of job-seekers from the impoverished countryside and high birthrates, many developing countries are hard-pressed just to pay for the infrastructure needed to provide basic services. The modernization of infrastructure—particularly transport—is crucial to development. Getting people to work safely and on time, and ensuring the swift and reliable delivery of goods and services boosts economic activities and job opportunities.1 Often, timing is crucial. Some studies have shown that the impact of infrastructure on economic growth is much higher during the early stages of development.2 This is one reason why infrastructure improvements have been regarded as important tools for achieving the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.

The high cost of urban transit infrastructure can be a barrier to growth. The components of a public transportation system—roads, buses, light rail—are expensive. So it is not surprising that when money becomes available, concerns about environmental impact take second place to getting the work done as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Improving urban transport infrastructure therefore poses tough choices for policymakers. Massive transit projects have a major ecological impact during construction, and require an intensive use of natural resources for long-term operation. They generally modify the urban landscape, altering a city’s natural resources such as urban forests and rivers. Moreover, these projects require significant land-use changes...

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