Heather Thompson, CEO at Institute of Transport and Development Policy
ITDP, founded in 1985 works with cities around the world on everything from bus rapid transit systems, policies and infrastructure for cycling and walking, to mobility pricing and bus fleet electrification.
Heather Thompson has been involved with ITDP for more than a dozen years and has served on ITDP’s Board of Directors for the last eight years, with the last two years as Chair. Ms. Thompson also serves on the Board of the Gehl Institute and as the Board Chair for the Global Buildings Performance Network.
As CEO of the Institute of Transport and Development Policy (ITDP) can you please explain what ITDP’s aims and approach are; and also what you enjoy most about your role?
We work to increase access, and mode share of sustainable transport. What this means is a shift from private car use to more sustainable modes such as walking, cycling, and public transport. We go after this from all angles, working with governments to build these systems and adopt smart transport policies, on-the-ground advocacy and outreach, engaging with the private sector, and financing for these projects at the international policy level.
Just as important as what we do, however, is why we do it. Transport matters in so many ways big and small, for quality of life, access to economic opportunity, services, and community; for health, from air quality to the benefits of active transport; and the transport industry is one of the largest, and the fastest-growing source of CO2 emissions, and must be a part of any solution on climate change.
What I enjoy most about my role at ITDP is working with our brilliant and dedicated staff on the ground, and being able to see the tangible results of our work. Visiting our field offices and seeing people engaging with projects we helped create, it is really incredible to see what a difference a new busway, pedestrian zone, or bikeway makes to people’s lives.
Many examples of pioneering best practice in creating sustainable cities are now coming from South & Central America, Africa and Asia. Given ITDPs presence in these areas what do you think cities in Europe, North America and Australasia can learn from other parts of the world?
So many things. Probably the biggest lesson is the one we’re learning right now in real time, which is how cities manage rapid growth. We’re at a point now where the majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and the sort of growth that cities in the global south are experiencing is intense. Cities are grappling with major migrations at the same time as motorization is growing. Cities which were already congested are becoming completely gridlocked and unable to function.
There are many best practices in transportation that have been adapted from successful projects in the global south. Bike share, for example, is often credited to The Netherlands, but in fact it is China that demonstrated how modern bike share systems can work. BRT was invented in Curitiba, Brazil, and it was Bogota, Colombia that demonstrated how well it could work in a dense city.
The US probably has the most to learn from these cities – there are different but equally big problems in the US with transport. Namely, that the vast majority of Americans do not have access to quality, reliable public transport networks. Outside of a few major cities and some outliers, those networks just don’t exist. However, the main problem in the US is land use. Policies such as single family zoning and parking minimums have made it very difficult to have the kind of mixed-use density that makes it easy to use transit or cycle, or even walk. Take the example of India – there is great density and mixed use and the streets are incredibly lively and interesting, but there is no infrastructure for pedestrians or cyclists, so you have an unsafe situation. Whereas in many US cities, there is great infrastructure for walking, but few people walking, because the distances are too far, and the environment, along major roads in car-oriented areas, feels unsafe and unpleasant.
One of ITDP’s key issues is creating more socially and economically sustainable cities, how do you think this is best achieved to improve the quality of life of urban citizens worldwide?
The number one thing cities can do to improve quality of life is create high quality, high-capacity mass transit, and give that transit priority on the streets. We need to move past the 20th century model of urban transport, where everything is only about making cars go faster, and toward a future where people have options for every trip – they can walk for short distances, cycle for medium distances, and take transit for longer trips.
This is already the state of affairs in people-oriented cities such as Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Singapore, and is becoming more so in London, but in many cities this means major structural changes. It’s not enough just to build transit, you have to make that transit accessible. That means vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and people with disabilities, should be able to use it. Women need to feel safe throughout the whole trip, not just when they’re on the bus, but walking from home to the bus, waiting for the bus, etc. And most importantly, of course, it has to take people where they need to go. Not everyone has the typical “solo male commuter” needs that our weekday, peak-hour transit systems are planned for – people have all kinds of transit needs.
Of course, no matter how much we improve these options, some people will prefer to drive, and that’s fine. Private cars can be part of an urban transport system, they just can’t be the only option. We also need the disincentives, like congestion pricing and parking reform, to both encourage different behaviors, and to fund more public transit, so that driving is really a choice.
In addition to your role at ITDP you are also a Board of Directors member for the Gehl Institute in New York. Through both your work at ITDP and Gehl Institute what examples have you seen from cities in USA or Canada of innovative sustainable urban design?
Some cities in the US and Canada are making big investments in protected bike lanes, which is making a huge difference. Cities like Denver, San Francisco, and Vancouver have committed to dramatic increases in bike infrastructure, which has led to real increases in cyclists – helping to cut congestion, clean the air, and create more vibrant communities. I love seeing many miles of new bright green bike-lane strips painted along the side of so many streets in San Francisco, my hometown, over the last six months.
ITDP has recently promoted the use of technology and smart initiatives in Bus Rapid Transit systems in Mexico City to improve the efficiency and reliability of public transport. How else do you see technology and smart initiatives benefiting the sustainable urban mobility of cities?
Technology has made a huge impact on public transit, for example in improving the trip experience, particularly in the global south. Phone-based apps have made using transit and other new modes so much easier – with reliable, real time info, and the ability to plan a seamless trip from door to door, even if it includes transfers and multiple modes. It’s also providing a ton of really useful data that cities and regions can use to see how people really travel, and adjust for their needs. It’s also really opened up the shared mobility space, with dockless bikes, e-scooters, growing the carshare market with Car2go and others – these would not be possible at this scale without app-based technology.
Of course, these things can only work if the city has the resources and political will to make the changes and use the data. Many cities are, but many others are struggling to adjust. There is also the problem of TNCs such as Uber and Lyft that have been shown to be taking people away from public transit, and significantly increasing traffic congestion. There is clearly a need for more options, especially to solve the last mile transit connection challenge; TNCs can absolutely be part of the solution, but they must be regulated to insure fair treatment and equal access, and they are not and will never be a substitute for mass transit.
With ITDPs global reach, working in 60 cities across 5 continents, which cities globally do you think will be leading the way in developing equitable, accessible and sustainable transport networks?
I actually think the most interesting developments right now are in mid-size cities. I’m very encouraged by the progress we’ve seen in cities like Fortaleza, Brazil and Pune, India. Both of these cities have made major changes to the streets, creating more space for pedestrians and cyclists, which fundamentally alters people’s perception of what streets should be for. The greatest resource in a city is their street space, and how they manage it is everything. Should this just be for moving and parking cars? Or should they be spaces where people can walk, bike, take transit, rest, shop, eat, connect with the community and culture of their neighborhood? Or just enjoy being outside?
These are cities with a few million people, and don’t command the type of international attention that Rio de Janeiro or Mumbai do when they implement new projects. However, we’re increasingly seeing that this is where there are major shifts happening. Smaller cities with courageous political leadership are often able to do things much more quickly, despite having much smaller budgets. It’s great news for all of us, because these cities are growing, and they will be much more able to manage that growth with this type of smart planning.
It is well established that transport and mobility networks have a big impact on the health of urban populations; what do you think is key to achieving real improvements in health through transport development? And where has ITDP seen the biggest impacts?
We need to get people out of cars and into more active forms of transportation. People will use the infrastructure you give them. So if you build roads and parking places for cars, people will drive cars. If you build cycle paths and create a pleasant and safe walking environment, people will walk and cycle. This has major impacts for health in all kinds of ways: increasing exercise through active transport, improved air quality, and a host of mental health implications.
Poor air quality is one of the biggest negative impacts from transport, and in many cities this circumstance is growing. Cities like Mexico City and Jakarta, who have recently experienced significant air quality crises are taking radical action to improve their air. We must continue the increasing trend of cities implementing low/zero emission zones, like Mexico City is planning to do, which limit vehicles entering certain areas based on their emissions controls and instead encourage walking and cycling. In addition to reducing the number of cars on the road we also need to encourage greater electrification of vehicles, especially in places where poor diesel fuels are used.
In terms of impact, though, I would point to road safety. Globally, more children die from cars than HIV or Malaria, and in the global south, the majority of these deaths are pedestrians and cyclists. We know that simple changes, such as street design for pedestrians, lower speed limits in city centers, segregated bike lanes drastically reduce injuries and deaths. But even something as simple as painting the street and removing parking in high-pedestrians traffic areas make a big difference right away.
If you could change or implement one thing right now in cities worldwide to improve their sustainability what would it be?
Remove parking minimums, and replace them with parking maximums. Parking minimums are a common part of a city’s building code, which require a certain “minimum” of parking spots to be built based on the building’s floor area. They are highly excessive, and they are a major reason why we see so many huge, often empty parking lots all over America. Parking minimums make real estate more expensive, waste a ton of valuable city space, and make it impossible to have compact and connected city centers. It also encourages driving even when there are quality public transport options available.
Many cities have removed parking minimums in recent years, including San Francisco, London and Mexico City, but they are still on the books in many others. This is an important first step to creating more dense, walkable, and bike-able neighborhoods, and prioritizing city space for people, not cars.