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Why Developing Countries Need Sustainable Transport

Crowded street in New Delhi, India

A crowded street in New Delhi, India, demonstrates the need for sustainable transport solutions in many developing countries. Dr. V. Setty Pendakur is the Founding Chair of the Transportation in the Developing Countries Committee at the Transportation Research Board (TRB) – the foremost research body promoting innovation and progress in transportation. Photo by Rob de Wit.

Here at TheCityFix, we emphasize the importance of sustainable urban transport and improved urban development every day. Recently, I had the immense pleasure of speaking with an esteemed individual who reminded me, very articulately, why sustainable transport is so crucial – especially in developing countries. Thus, here follows Part I of my interview with Dr. V. Setty Pendakur, President of Pacific Policy and Planning Associates and Founding Chair, Current Secretary, and Emeritus Member of the Transportation in the Developing Countries Committee at the Transportation Research Board (TRB) – the foremost research body promoting innovation and progress in transportation. It's worth a read.

Why do we need to focus on implementing sustainable transport systems in developing countries?

Cities in developing countries are growing at a very fast rate. The number of cities with over 1 million people in China alone is over 250, and in India there are another 180. When you consider the growth of population, growth of cities, and challenges of poverty, then sustainable transport in the context of both environment and economy becomes extremely important. Otherwise, the poorest of the poor will spend nearly half of their income on transport that is unsafe and unhealthy not only for themselves, but for everybody else.

Several developing countries have already made mistakes similar to those made by many North American cities. However, there are cities in the world – primarily in Europe, Australia and Canada, like the city in which I live, Vancouver – that have developed sustainably over the past 50 to 60 years. They've shown how that it's possible – at a lower cost – to support sustainable public transport. But, it's important to remember that there are many ways of making this happen outside of what Canadians or Europeans do.

There are essentially three very important issues in developing countries: a job, a place to live, and the ability to travel from home to work at a low cost without causing environmental or other problems for fellow urban residents. If this last need isn't met, consider the experience of Beijing: there's enormous prosperity, a very high increase in the number of automobiles per year – despite the auctioning of license plates – and the air pollution problem is so bad that the government itself is now admitting that combating this trend is one of its highest priorities.

Where does the Transportation Research Board come in?

Automobiles and other motorized vehicles do have their place in society, but not necessarily for commuting to work every day. So, the role of TRB and the Transportation in the Developing Countries Committee is one of research, education, and a means to establish a broader network in each of the countries where students, professors, professionals, and government officials gather to learn from each other and push the frontiers of knowledge. TRB is a research group of like-minded individuals interested in a common topic – sustainable development. Because there are different issues at play in different countries, the TRB is like the New York Stock Exchange for sustainable transport. It's a forum where people can meet and learn from others.

How did the Transportation in Developing Countries Committee get created?

We started the process of creating the Developing Countries Committee way back in 1989. At that time, there was a pedestrian committee and a bicycling committee, but no one was paying much attention to developing countries. The context of the TRB and the United States was very different then. We operated for two to three years under the umbrella of the pedestrian and bicycling committees, and began getting a substantial response, so the TRB looked into the potential of establishing us as a new committee. First, we operated as a task force for another three years before attitudes really began to change based on our performance. We were attracting large audiences to our workshops and sessions comprised of Americans, Europeans, and participants from developing countries. Finally, TRB at the top level recognized it was time to establish us as a committee. We've been the Transportation in Developing Countries Committee for the last 18 years.

How has the Committee worked to make the TRB more inclusive and further its impact on the ground?

About 12,000 people attend the TRB conference, and of those are about 1,100 foreign nationals from outside the United State and Canada. 600 are from Latin America and Asia, and a limited number also attend from Africa. This is a considerable increase from about 10 years ago when there were only 300 participants from Latin America and Asia, and for that substantial increase we take credit. We also take credit for an increased awareness of TRB through our annual review of about 80 to 95 research papers, a process that involves 178 reviewers from around the world. We also sponsor podium, poster, and workshop sessions at the annual TRB conference in addition to our co-sponsored events, committee and sub-committee meetings.

We're very happy about where we are today, but we hope to double the attendance from Latin America and Asia within the next five to ten years – and not just in attendance, but also in participation of speakers who have implemented transportation programs in developing countries. Things are going in the right direction and we look forward to doing more and more!

Dr. V. Setty PendakurStay tuned for Part II of this interview next Tuesday on TheCityFix, which will discuss how transport lessons can be exchanged between developed and developing countries.

Dr. V. Setty Pendakur is the President of Pacific Policy and Planning Associates and Founding Chair of the Transportation in the Developing Countries Committee at the Transportation Research Board. He was recently awarded DARPAN Magazine's Extraordinary Achievement Award for "Breaking Barriers," an honor that recognizes a South Asian individual for extraordinary achievements as an influential leader, educator, and contributor to society who continues to inspire future generations.