Going public: promoting sustainable public transport

30 August 2012

The UITP’s unremitting commitment to sustainable public transport is steeped in big-picture initiatives that fundamentally stem from changing people’s perception of public transport. Here, the organisation’s secretary-general Alain Flausch speaks to Urban Transport Agenda about encouraging populations away from reliance on the car.

Getting people to change their travel habits isn't easy, but it's the basis from which any substantial, forward-thinking changes to public transport can be realised. This subjective mobile shift is a top priority at the UITP and for its secretary-general Alain Flausch.

The first hurdle is to lessen people's emotional attachment to their cars, which is becoming more of a challenge as the proportion of people classified as middle class increases globally.

"The power of the car is still very much there," says Flausch, "and for people who aren't very affluent, the car is part of climbing up the social ladder. I'm trying to build up public transport to a level of service that makes it attractive to people who need to go from one point to another."

Equally challenging is getting the right authorities aligned in order to see tangible results as, at the moment, those pushing for change are still in the minority.

"As long as we rely solely on the green people of public transport, we are dead," Flausch says. "We have to return to the service-oriented culture - if the service is good, then people will use it; people will choose with their feet. That's how I think the industry should evolve."

It's also a matter of approaching it as a real business rather than an old-fashioned public service. Industry has to be aligned with government and other authorities, as they are the owners of inter-city public services, in order to push measures through. If they succeed in lessening the love affair with the car, then public transport, says Flausch, will have its way.

"As long as we rely solely on the green people of public transport, we are dead."

A key accelerator to success is practical use of social networking to not only reach people, but also convince them of better alternatives to urban travel. "It's an ongoing process and part of their lives, so we have an obligation to be there because people like to express their views through these kind of channels," he continues.

"Public transport is less direct in that you don't choose your own way like in a car. To help people accept public transportation, we need to use various digital services."

Shifting gears

Winning the hearts and minds of the public through technology is key. It's not, however, the only means of conveying the message of reducing carbon emissions.

"We are keen to develop technologies to help this, but don't believe that technology is the only option," says Flausch. "When you consider decarbonisation of world cities, the first major advantage would be the mobile shift: if you move people from cars to public transport, you already gain much more than any technological innovation could bring."

In order to reach that point, city-based public transport needs to be attractive for people to consider it. And to do that, says Flausch, it must operate at the right commercial speed, and journey times have to become competitive compared with the car, despite variances between peak and off times.

"Public transport needs to be more attractive for people to consider it. It must operate at the right commercial speed, and journey times have to be competitive compared with the car."

In concert with this mobile shift is robust investment into technology to make low-carbon emissions possible. "Then," adds Flausch, "we want to push for electro-mobility - buses need to be converted to electric, and the production of rail power should be taken into account so that coal-fired power plants aren't used to produce the electricity for trains back in the city."

A brighter Blighty

Taking London as an example - firstly with Ken Livingstone when he was mayor, and in Boris Johnson's hands now - the programme at Transport for London (TfL) has been forward-thinking in terms of climate change and electro-mobility. But, speaking of benchmark cities, Flausch thinks there are others in Europe that are advancing, such as Vienna and Zurich.

"Even in Germany," he says, "the national association of public transport is very much involved with electro-mobility. And with the help of Europe, which is pushing for this, many of the big European cities now understand that there is no other option but to go in that direction."

Yet London is still an important case study when it comes to the UK Government and TfL actively deciding to invest a lot of money in the renovation of old and long-neglected systems.

"Winning the hearts and minds of the public through technology and digital services is key."

"It goes a long way in the right direction, but the goal is to continue investing and make sure it is updated to the right level," explains Flausch. "It's a real British success story. In the 1970s, the car was considered the solution to the world's problems and there was no investment in the metro train or underground. In the past 20 years, however, there's been a lot of investment and it's getting better, considering the population increase and Crossrail.

There has also been major work on the Olympic Park so people can move there, and this will remain as part of the Olympic legacy.

"Even if there were differences between Mr Johnson and Mr Livingstone, there has been no stopping the investment. It's an example to be followed of how investing in public transport can be quite amazing."

Alain Flausch, secretary-general of the International Association of Public Transport (UITP).

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