May 26, 2015

The Role of Transport in the Sustainable Development Goals

Paris Louve

In 2000, the United Nations established the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), putting forth a vision of how to solve the world biggest issues. In 2015, the MDGs are set to expire, and the global community is working hard to develop the next 15-year agreement to guide economic growth, ensure an environmentally sustainable development and end poverty. Negotiations are ongoing, as representatives from countries around the world and civil society develop a common set of goals with targets and indicators. ITDP has been part of this process since the beginning. The work will culminate in September, when the UN General Assembly convenes to approve the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and set a new global framework.

Thus far, the vision put forth by the Sustainable Development Goals is ambitious. Perhaps exceedingly so. But it is also the right understanding of the issues and scale required to make progress on the world’s most pressing needs. The vision has been developed in one of the broadest consultative processes ever conducted by the UN. Because of this, there is hope that the high level agreement will have broad power, influencing lending patterns at development banks and guiding nations to consider how to achieve their goals. They will also help hold the global community accountable by setting indicators to measure how well countries are meeting these goals.


What’s in the new Goals?

Encouragingly, in the framework for the Sustainable Development Goals, both cities and transport take prominent roles. This is a historic step, as transport had not been recognized in the previous MDGs. Of the seventeen goals recommended by the Open Working Group to the UN General Assembly, seven of them include specific targets that incorporate transport (including both rural and urban infrastructure. See sidebar for details). This elevation of transport recognizes it as a key tool in reducing emissions, improving equity, and reducing poverty. Another historic first is the inclusion of a goal on cities, recognizing the increasingly valuable part cities are playing in global development.

Walking in Kampala cc Carlos PardoWomen in Kampala, Uganda walk along the road. The SDGs should create safer environments for pedestrians. Credit: Carlos Pardo

These transport targets, and the indicators proposed to measure them, address the right issues and set reasonable paths for improvements. (An upcoming blog post will explore specific indicators in more detail). They reward cities with good public transit, encourage strong transit-oriented development, and push for expanded social equity around transportation. These accomplishments are a significant victory for the transport and urban planning community.

Nonetheless, the SDGs have some room for improvement. Where the goals fall short is the lack of inclusion of cycling and walking- key parts of the sustainable transport mix. Both are low to no impact on the environment, and have far reaching benefits. Walking is the form most often used by lower income people, including women and children who often lack access to a vehicle or money.

Luckily, this omission can still be fixed. Adding language to target 11.2 about cycling and walking would ensure that these modes would be considered. One such option is the language proposed by Dario Hidalgo of EMBARQ. An indicator on road safety has already been proposed, and could also be used as a proxy to track investment in walking and cycling, as new investments have a direct influence on pedestrian and cyclist safety. To do this, data must be collected at the city level, not just at the state or national level.

Moving forward, while fine-tuning on several indicators is advisable, the sustainable development goals are a major step forward in integrating transport with other global goals.  By setting the stage with ambitious vision, the United Nations will allow world actors to pursue these ideals in a context with clearly articulated aims and institutional support for measuring and achieving improvements in these areas.


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