A Sustainable Future Requires Smart, Data-Driven Public Transport Networks

Devin de Vries, CEO of WhereIsMyTransport, makes the case for new and improved mobility as a tool for sustainability and equitable economic development.

Read Time: 4 minutes

September 14, 2022, 5:00 AM PDT

By Devin de Vries


Subway riders in Bangkok wear masks during the pandemic.

Riders are surrounded by technology on the Blue Line in Bangkok, Thailand. | Image copyright of WhereIsMyTransport (republished by permission)

In recent years, people, leaders, and organisations have prioritised sustainable development to address the worsening climate crisis and build a better quality of life for the future. As a result, economies around the world are making significant progress in sustainability across healthcare, education, gender equality, and climate action in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

However, populations are continuing to grow at a rapid pace and urbanisation is increasing as people, particularly young people, move from suburban and rural areas into the cities to find and access better opportunities. There is now an urgent need to intensify efforts to establish more sustainable cities. Effective public transport is critical to successful urban sustainability, especially as current economic challenges, such as rising inflation and fuel prices, continue to pressure people in emerging economies.

Recently, residents in Panama held eight consecutive days of protests to urge the government to curb inflation after the cost of food, medicine, electricity, and fuel shot up. In India and South Africa, the steep hike in fuel rates have made it difficult for people across these countries to manage their household budgets, and private transport is quickly becoming unfeasible and unsustainable.

Therefore, it is imperative that emerging economies pursue more sustainable and accessible public transport by significantly improving public transport networks. Emerging economies across the world are starting to leverage advanced technologies like Artificial Intelligence, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things to drive progress on urban sustainability goals. The same innovations must be adopted in the transport sector, but new solutions to tough, unique sustainability challenges facing public transport in emerging markets will require a deeper understanding of current public transport environments.

Transit and mobility data have a significant role to play in achieving this deeper understanding, particularly as economic growth, development, and urban structures change with the creation of new business districts, the construction of new residential areas, and the continued growth of informal settlements. Mobility data also provides decision makers with the relevant and vital information needed to understand and improve transport networks.

So, with unreliability, inaccessibility, and poor infrastructure plaguing public transport networks in emerging economies, how can we shift towards more sustainable transport, and how can data enable that shift?

Increasing Accessibility

Accessibility is a crucial component to sustainability. By enabling more accessible public transport we can ensure that everyone is able to access critical community resources and services such as employment and healthcare.

Creating more accessible public transport networks will require more inclusive and diverse public transport systems. For example, people living in informal settlements rely on informal public transport such as minibus taxis and tuk tuks, which have no scheduled arrival or departure times and no formal pick-up areas because other transport modes such as buses and trains are pass infrequently or do not stop near these areas.

Expanding public transport networks to service key economic areas such as these will significantly improve not only the perception of public transport, but also the wider economy. To do so, we need to be able to identify and understand how and where people are travelling in underserved areas. Through the utilisation of point of interest data, policy and decision makers can gain valuable insight into the informal economy and key economic locations. That insight can then be used to inform the modelling and planning that ensures more inclusive and accessible public transport.

The integration of mobility data can be vital to helping achieve accessibility in transport systems by integrating informal neighbourhoods into city networks, thereby ensuring access to critical services and job opportunities, as well as better connecting communities.

Identifying Investment Opportunities and Building Better Infrastructure

In emerging economies, transport infrastructure plays a key role in enhancing economic activity by boosting productivity, ensuring safety, and lowering the cost of mobility. However, transport infrastructure in these markets is often inadequate, and emerging economies have unique spatial challenges that need to be mapped to address infrastructure gaps.

By utilising accurate and reliable transit data that maps every transport mode and operational style, cities and decision-makers can identify opportunities for improvement and growth in public transport infrastructure, while closing the infrastructure gaps, such as insufficient power supply, that hamper the development of transport networks. More importantly, having a clear overview of the risks and opportunities of public transport networks will encourage increased investment in infrastructure, which continues to lag behind the pace of technological advancement.

Data is a powerful tool in the success of sustainable public transport networks: it helps to draw important insights into how current transport systems work and to identify challenges and opportunities within current systems. With emerging economies bearing the burden of rising costs and climate temperatures around the globe, it has never been more important to unlock the value of data to achieve better, more sustainable public transport, especially as it invariably leads to sustainable economic development that ensures equitable benefits for communities through improved access to mobility, improved health, and reduced congestion.

Devin de Vries is CEO and co-founder of WhereIsMyTransport—an industry-leading technology company and central source of mobility and location data for emerging markets.


The Hyperloop’s Prospects Dim

The media is coming around to the idea that the hyperloop is not a near-term solution for the country’s transportation woes. It’s too little, too obvious, too late.

September 27, 2022 - James Brasuell

Suburban Homes

Where Housing Costs Are Falling Fastest

Although median home prices remain close to record highs in many cities, some of the country’s priciest metro areas are seeing home prices plummet.

September 23, 2022 - Bloomberg

Orange Line train pulling into station with one woman waiting to board in Boston, Massachusetts

When Transit-Oriented Development Is Missing the ‘Transit’

Cities, residents, and developers have a renewed interest in building more housing near transit stations—when they actually provide safe, reliable transit.

September 21, 2022 - Boston Globe

Runway and plane taking off at Paine Field, Everett, Washington

Will Snohomish County Light Rail Bypass the Airport?

Some county leaders rejected two proposed routes that would skirt Boeing and Paine Field, citing the area’s high potential for travelers and jobs.

September 30 - HeraldNet

Aerial view of small rural community in Kentucky with ild rolling hills and sparse development

Senate Bill Would Support Rural Tenants

With housing costs skyrocketing, a proposed bill would extend assistance and help preserve affordable rental housing in rural areas.

September 30 - The Daily Yonder

Rendering of Innovation QNS with landscaped open public space on corner and glass-clad building

2.7-Million-Square-Foot Astoria Project Approved

The development will include over 2,800 housing units and 2 acres of public open space.

September 30 - Urbanize New York

New Case Study Posted on HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

The World’s Leading Event for Cities

Smart City Expo World Congress

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Hand Drawing Master Plans

This course aims to provide an introduction into Urban Design Sketching focused on how to hand draw master plans using a mix of colored markers.