GENEVA's growing network of commuter and light rail services as well as extensive bus and cycle path networks form an apt backdrop for the 61st edition of the International Public Transport Association's (UITP) World Congress which will take place in the city on May 28-30.
Delegates from around the world will again share insights from their respective systems during the conference sessions while the industry's supply chain will showcase their latest innovations in the neighbouring exhibition halls.
While a long-term member of the public transport community as the former CEO of Brussels Transport (Stib), this year's World Congress is the first for Mr Alain Flausch in his new role as UITP secretary general. Flausch succeeded Mr Hans Rat in January 2012 and is hoping that the event will serve as a forum for revitalising and rejuvenating PTx2, the UITP's campaign to double public transport usage by 2025.
At the heart of this is the new "Grow with public transport" initiative which is designed as a means of marketing PTx2 to the public. Flausch says that while he is happy with progress so far, the UITP faces a substantial challenge in keeping such a long-term plan fresh in the minds of transport planners and politicians, but that the changing status of public transport, particularly in Europe, is aiding its efforts to spur the desired level of growth.
Perhaps the most significant social change in recent years is declining car ownership in urban areas, especially in developed societies, where public transport is seen more and more as part of the daily life of a broader section of society. Flausch points to Copenhagen as a great example of where public transport has become part of the city's fabric. He says that policies to restrict car use and speeds over the past 25 years have made the inner city a more pleasant place to be, and adds that the challenge is to spread this example into developing countries where the car remains a status symbol and public transport is considered primarily for the poor.
"I see it in the young generation, particularly in Europe and increasingly in America, where people are buying a car much later in life, and there are some people who live in cities who do not see the need to own a car at all," he says. "This is what we want to induce. Grow with public transport gives the feeling that once you are using public transport you are part of a movement which is part of the city's transition, because cities are changing. People no longer want to have highways everywhere."
Flausch credits this to a shift from an individualist to a collectivist mindset in urban travel. The success of schemes that encourage sharing cars and bicycles epitomises this, yet the desire to be independent remains. Flausch believes that public transport can serve these human traits and praises the adoption of technologies such as on-board WiFi for allowing passengers to retain a sense of independence.
"By being connected or listening to music, you are creating your own bubble like you would have if you were driving your car," he says. "For this reason I feel we should have WiFi on all public transport as soon as possible in order to help customers fight against their worry of being all together."
Flausch says a number of cities around the world are well on the way to fulfilling the PTx2 challenge. One example is Vienna, where the metro network is entering its fourth development phase as part of a long-term plan that is proactive rather than reactive to developments in growing areas of the city. Flausch also reserves special praise for the long-term vision of local authorities in Sweden, and Turkey's plans to double its railway network by 2020.
"This is the sort of commitment that we are trying to encourage," he says. "We are trying to inspire all decision-makers to put together masterplans in terms of market share and modal shift so it will help them to launch their ventures."
While these systems are shining examples of what can be achieved through long-term planning, cities that are already congested but are only now developing long-term plans face a wait to alleviate these problems, much to their citizens' ire. Getting politicians to realise this and allocate funds to support public transport projects has long been a struggle for supporters of public transport who in some areas have suffered through 30-40 years of preference for road.
Flausch says that Tehran is a classic case of where successive administrations ignored public transport for years and is only now investing in new infrastructure when the streets are already clogged with cars.
"They should have done this 25 years ago because the investment takes some time and it takes a while to get it right," Flausch says. "Unfortunately public transport is not very popular with politicians because it costs money and forces them to be brave. It forces them to think about what kind of city people want, and potentially change habits and behaviour, which could be dangerous politically. But this is what they are paid to do. They shouldn't wait for reelection, but unfortunately too many do."
Flausch says that congestion is clearly the major ally in public transport's fight to gain modal share "because everyone gets irritated by it," yet with powerful opposing lobbies battling for every piece of the pie during a period of austerity, public transport faces a difficult fight to get what it needs.
"You can of course increase taxes but this is not very popular," Flausch says. "It's about where you put your money. In a city today there are plenty of priorities for politicians who are very concerned about how they create jobs, provide access to health care etc but at the same time, citizens are suffering from congestion which can stifle these aims. They say we have to cut this, this and this. But it's not a question that there is no money, it is just a question of where you put the money that you have."
Flausch is a believer in building the broadest possible lobby of support for public transport that is "not just talking to the politicians, but to the population as well." As a result the UITP is now pushing its campaign to grow public transport into the most high-profile debates and through alliances with some of the world's most influential organisations.
For instance while last year's Rio+20 conference fell short of expectations, Flausch says it helped to reaffirm the UITP and other public transport agencies' efforts to frame public transport as a solution in the sustainability debate by recognising for the first time its importance to reducing greenhouse emissions from transport, which accounts for around 20% of the world's total. This has since been furthered by the World Bank's commitment to support sustainable transport projects, while the G20 is also for the first time mentioning public transport as a solution to congestion.
The UITP is similarly working closely with the UN Habitat on settlement and development of cities, with its secretary general, former mayor of Barcelona Mr Joan Clos, who will be in Geneva, often speaking about the benefits of public transport. In addition, Flausch says that the UITP is going to sign a memorandum of understanding with the International Transport Workers' Federation in the next few months to jointly lobby in favour of public transport.
"It shows we can work with the trade unions, the business community and big organisations like the United Nations," Flausch says. "You have to make this big platform so that, like the car did, it is finally part of the normal everyday conversation on radio and television, that public transport is the solution to these problems."
Talking up and building support for the needs of public transport companies is all very well, but the world, particularly the world of finance, has changed in the past five years or so.
While there are plenty of financiers out there willing to support public transport projects, epitomised by the Asian Development Bank, unfortunately for Flausch, too many "public transport companies are still run by engineers begging for money from the state."
He says this is not sustainable, and the solution, which will be at the heart of the debate in Geneva, is to fine-tune the business model by encouraging greater diversity in revenue streams away from the traditional sources of the farebox and state concessions.
"If you depend too much on the state for public funds, and the state is in trouble, you are in trouble," he says. "We need to take a business-like approach which is acceptable to the finance world. If there is no public money, then what are you going to do? Would you prefer to stay poor, or do we find a new model that helps to build new infrastructure and keep growing?"
Public-private partnerships (PPPs), which are increasingly being implemented all over the world, are considered one solution to the funding conundrum. Flausch agrees, but feels that care should be taken to make sure they are carried out right.
"The trouble with a PPP is that it is a difficult scheme and you need experts to build it properly," he says. "I think the PPP scheme in London for instance was not properly run. But now with 15-20 years of experience we can really make good things. There are plenty of beneficiaries of this and I think it should be used. And it is being used."
Of course it is not as simple to say build it and they will come. Attracting people to use public transport over the car remains a major challenge because, as Flausch points out, it is very easy to turn the key and drive. In an urban environment where many different transport operators coexist, he says it is imperative that close working relationships exist between operators.
Authorities can aid this process by instituting barriers to using the car, like congestion charges, high parking levies in city centres, and providing parking facilities at stations. However, these organisations can do more to force the various transport operators in a city to provide seamless information between different services, in effect changing the mindset to viewing each other as partners rather than competition.
Flausch says this situation is often better in the world's mega cities where transport systems are more established, but is lost upon smaller cities, to the detriment of the passenger and the public transport service.
He hopes the World Congress will serve as a forum for sharing the most successful ways of overcoming these barriers and more, which might inspire others to adopt them for the benefit of public transport in their city. If this is the case when the conference next convenes in Milan in 2015 and again in Montreal in 2017, the PTx2 and Grow with public transport initiative will be well on course to being realised.
"Obviously it is a hard time for public transport companies, especially in Europe," Flausch says. "But we know that meeting each other and exchanging ideas helps people. It's free consultancy. You go and listen to things. You might not try something this year, but later there may come a point where you see that something has been done in London and you think, why not try this here?"