World Transit Leaders Find Common Ground

The crowded sprawl of São Paulo is very different than the bucolic charms of Stockholm. And Los Angeles, where car is king, is a world away from Singapore, where the government limits the number of vehicle registrations issued. Nevertheless, these cities have one thing in common: transit systems their residents depend on.

Last month in New York, 19 senior executives of those and eight other transit agencies representing nine countries and four continents got together to discuss the successes and challenges they shared. What they found was a surprising amount of common ground.

The three-day Transit Leadership Summit, organized by RPA and funded by the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations and C40, gave the chief executives of some of the biggest and most dynamic transit agencies from around the world the opportunity to meet each other in an intimate setting and off the record - a rare occasion in this day and age. (Several of these executives stayed on and spoke at RPA's annual conference, the Regional Assembly, held later that week.)

After three days of structured discussions and informal meals, a new network of peers emerged. And despite the very different urban, financial and political contexts in which the transit agencies operate, the common threads that weaved them together were unmistakable:

  • The quality of the transit experience cannot be underestimated. A convenient, attractive and comfortable experience on the train or bus is key to allowing transit agencies to grow their customer base - as well as their revenue. This is not just about frequency and speed of service: it's about amenities (comfortable seats, wireless data communications), communicating effectively with customers, and branding. Many transit systems offer wi-fi or cellular in stations or tunnels, allowing passengers to make more productive use of their commuting time. Montreal and Santiago have succeeded in knitting together a disparate set of transit services into one unified network from the customer's perspective. Washington, D.C., and New York are looking to adopt a new fare-collection system that would allow customers to swipe with their credit cards or cell phones, as London is planning to do this summer on its buses. Mexico City, Stockholm and others highlight the environmental benefits of transit use, a branding strategy that improves the visibility of the system and builds the political case for supporting transit with tax revenue.
  • It's difficult to raise fares everywhere. And yet, some cities are more successful at balancing the need for revenue with the desire to provide a service that is affordable to a range of users. In Hong Kong and Singapore, a formula is structured by an independent body every few years, with scheduled fare increases to reflect inflation and increases in labor costs, which helps to greatly cut down on annual political battles. Several cities, including Santiago, also have successfully designed fare systems that charge lower fares to those who need them. The emergence of "social fares" could be an important development for transit authorities, whose main form of revenue have always been considered regressive taxation.
  • Except for a handful of cities, public-sector funding for new transit construction projects is becoming more limited. But there are a number of compelling alternative ways to pay for capital projects: value capture, either by having the transit agency engage directly in redevelopment (Hong Kong, Los Angeles) or by setting up a special taxing zone (New York City) around stations; public-private partnerships (Barcelona, London, São Paulo and others), and congestion pricing (London).

RPA hopes to organize two more such gatherings, one each in Asia and Europe, in the next two years, to foster continued communication among transit leaders.