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The role of sustainable transport in pro-poor mobility

In the ever-expanding urban landscapes of today's world, the pressing issues of congestion, pollution, and accessibility continue to disproportionately affect the most vulnerable segments of society—the poor. As cities grow and sprawl, traditional approaches to transportation planning have often favoured motorised vehicles, exacerbating inequalities and hindering mobility for those with limited resources. However, amidst these challenges lies a beacon of hope: sustainable modes of transport.

Understanding the challenges

According to the World Bank, approximately 56% of the global population resides in urban areas. Projections indicate that by 2050, urban populations will double in size. This leads to expansion of cities which inevitably results in longer travel distances. Despite advancements in urban mobility infrastructure, accessibility is becoming increasingly challenging due to factors such as time, cost, and convenience. In many cities, the proliferation of private vehicles coupled with higher urban densities has contributed to congestion, pollution, and a decline in public transport services. 

Over 81 million people in urban areas live below the poverty line in India. Due to unaffordable private transport, the poor opt for Non-Motorised Transport (NMT) modes such as walking and cycling for long distances. As Indian cities expand, the average travel distances have also increased, posing challenges for the economically disadvantaged who rely on NMT modes due to longer travel times. In urban districts with 10 to 20 lakhs, approximately 30% of work trips exceed 5 km. Similarly, in districts with 5 to 10 lakhs, this figure stands at 27%, while in those with 1 to 5 lakhs, it is 21%. City designs that prioritise vehicles over pedestrians and cyclists marginalise the poor, as these typically feature inadequate infrastructure for NMT. This impedes safe pedestrian and bicyclist movement. As a result of these, the urban poor face longer travel times, higher transportation costs relative to their income, and increased exposure to various risks such as accidents and air pollution.

When it comes to public transportation, buses dominate over 90 percent of the public transport sector in Indian cities. As urban areas expand, the proportion of urban trips served by public transportation increases accordingly: 30% in cities with populations between 1-2 million, 42% in cities with populations between 2-5 million, and 63% in cities with populations exceeding 5 million. This trend underscores the growing demand for public transport in the foreseeable future. Due to its relatively low cost, public transportation is often the go-to option for the economically disadvantaged. However, the current state of public transport infrastructure in our cities is largely inadequate, leading to issues like overcrowding, poor maintenance, and unreliable timings. Furthermore, despite affordable public transport fares, the lack of or expensive first and last mile connectivity options adds to the overall travel cost making it unaffordable and limiting access to essential facilities and opportunities for economic and social advancement.

The role of sustainable transport

Sustainable transport offers a promising solution to these challenges by prioritising modes of transportation that are accessible, affordable, and environmentally friendly. Investing in walking, cycling, and public transit infrastructure not only enhances mobility but also promotes social equity and environmental sustainability.

When discussing sustainable modes of transportation, the focus often centres on their environmental benefits, such as reducing carbon emissions and alleviating traffic congestion, while also promoting health through increased physical activity. However, there's a critical aspect that is sometimes overlooked: social sustainability. Public transportation and Non-Motorised Transport (NMT) modes are primary forms of transport for the economically disadvantaged, inherently aligning with sustainable principles. Financial constraints often dictate their use of these modes. Therefore, investing in road infrastructure primarily for motorised vehicles, rather than prioritising public transport and NMT modes, not only disregards environmental sustainability but also infringes upon the fundamental right to travel for the economically marginalised. Thus, advocating for sustainable transport is not just an environmental imperative but also a necessity for safeguarding the livelihoods and basic rights of the disadvantaged.

Public transportation systems, when reliable and affordable, serve as lifelines for low-income individuals, providing them with access to essential services and opportunities for employment and education. Non-motorized transport modes like walking and cycling offer cost-effective and healthy alternatives, particularly in densely populated urban areas. By reducing reliance on private vehicles and promoting sustainable modes of transport, cities can decrease congestion, improve air quality, and create safer and more inclusive environments for all socio-economic groups. Sustainable transport initiatives also contribute to reducing the time wasted in traffic, allowing individuals, especially the poor, to reach their destinations more efficiently.

Measures for pro-poor mobility

To ensure that sustainable transport initiatives benefit the most vulnerable members of society, it is essential to prioritise their needs in transportation planning and implementation. This involves implementing policies that favour non-motorized transport and public transit over private vehicles. Copenhagen stands as a prime example of a city excelling in bicycle usage, employing three key mechanisms to promote cycling: market-based instruments, command-and-control approaches, and soft policy measures. Market-based instruments, such as congestion pricing, involve collecting fees from vehicles accessing peak roads, acting as a deterrent to private vehicle usage while funding public transit. Soft policies encompass campaigns and awareness programs to encourage cycling, whereas command-and-control measures regulate various standards like physical infrastructure and service quality. Copenhagen's robust biking infrastructure includes green cycle routes, cycling superhighways, and specialised amenities for cyclists.

A comprehensive public transport network must be developed by focussing on environmentally and economically sustainable first and last mile connectivity solutions. Lack of affordable first and last mile connectivity can hinder public transport accessibility, particularly for the economically disadvantaged, due to increased overall travel costs. Furthermore, enhancing public transport accessibility in low-income areas, such as slums, requires studies on Public Transport Accessibility Levels (PTAL) to guide investment decisions. Transport for London employs PTAL to evaluate walking distances to transport stops, service levels, and broader connectivity.

Subsidising public transportation fares serves as another means to enhance affordability for low-income individuals. Initiatives like Tamil Nadu's free bus scheme for women subsidise public bus fares, predominantly benefiting low-income groups who form the majority of bus users. CAG studied the impact of the free bus travel scheme for women in Tamil Nadu and found that it helps women alleviate financial burdens by saving travel money and enhances access to transportation. Additionally, engaging with local communities, particularly marginalised groups, is vital to ensure transportation solutions are responsive to their needs and priorities.

Promoting social sustainability

Social sustainability lies at the heart of pro-poor mobility initiatives. By prioritising the needs of the urban poor and promoting inclusive and affordable transportation systems, cities can foster social cohesion, economic empowerment, and environmental stewardship. Through collaboration between governments, civil society organisations, and local communities, we can build a future where sustainable transport serves as a catalyst for inclusive development and a pathway to a more equitable and sustainable society.


As we strive towards building more livable and equitable cities, the role of sustainable transport in pro-poor mobility cannot be overstated. By investing in infrastructure and policies that prioritise accessibility, affordability, and environmental sustainability, we can create transportation systems that benefit all members of society, particularly the most vulnerable.

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