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Interview: Walter Hook, CEO, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy

22 May 2013

by Richard Forster

Jonathan Andrews talked to Walter Hook, CEO, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, at their headquarters in New York.

Does the Institute’s charitable status benefit or impinge on your funding?

It doesn’t impinge on us at all. As a non-profit entity we are not allowed to make a profit, but we can raise money from any source. The advantage is that a foundation or charitable institution can give us a grant; an individual can give us a grant too and take a tax deduction from it. It gives us the liberty to only work on projects that we think are actually going to lead to some kind of significant change–either from the environmental perspective or the poverty alleviation perspective. I think if we worked like a consultancy company we would have to work on the things that would pay us the most, whereas now we work on the project that we think has the most promise. We are very selective.

Where do most donations come from?

About 65 percent of our money comes from the Climate Works Foundation which is an organisation created by the Hewlett and Packard Foundations along with several others, to pool resources and skills to tackle the problem of climate change. The next largest donor is the Rockefeller Foundation but we also have support directly from the Hewlett Foundation. We have a lot of grants and contracts from other international institutions and development banks and we also get some money from individuals and smaller foundations.

How does an ITDP relationship with a city begin? Who approaches whom?

We took our president, Enrique Peñalosa, who was the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, all around the world to meet a lot of mayors and governors and we also had him speak at a lot of events, showing what he had done in the city of Bogota. Out of that came some relationships with mayors and governors across the world which we then followed up with and we said: ‘Hey, if you are interested in actually building something like a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or pedestrianised zone we could bring you the technical support that you’d need’. We would then follow it up. Or a local non-profit would invite us to come, and that local entity would invite the local politicians and bring us in. A lot of friends of other environmental organisations around the world brought us in. Sometimes we are brought in by the Asian Development Bank, who we have a memorandum of understanding with, sometimes C40 brings us in, sometimes the World Bank, or USAID, or sometimes other donors will say ‘could you look at this particular place?’ It really depends.

Your offices are mostly in cities in developing countries. Is the ITDP’s remit mainly focused on developing cities?

We were founded by Michael Replogle, who was president of the ITDP for a very long time. He himself was a transportation advocate that worked primarily in the United States, and was employed by the Environmental Defence Fund for a long number of years, so the portfolio to work in the US was with the Environmental Defence Fund, and we were then the international group that worked on sustainable transportation issues. After a number of years Michael joined us on the staff and other groups closed down their transportation programmes and we just recently in the last five years have moved into the US, just on BRT. We don’t do a lot in Europe. Mostly what we do is just collect best practices from Europe and we bring them to developing countries.

The Institute, and yourself personally, have been credited with redirecting millions from multilateral banks towards sustainable transport projects. How was this achieved?

We had been working on reforming the multilateral banks since the early 1990s, and it started with concerns by the US Treasury Department and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), going back to the first Bush Administration. At that time we had Bill Reilly, the chairman at Climate Works, who was also the Environmental Secretary under Bush 1 [George HW Bush]. He was very concerned about the environmental impact of the development banks. So the EPA, under Reilly, called the US Treasury Department into account and said that these development banks need to be accountable for their environmental performance.

We then started a process of evaluating the loan portfolios of the development banks and looking at whether they were consistent with their mission of poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability and we found a huge discrepancy. For example, they were building roads primarily used by high-income motorists, when they were supposed to be alleviating poverty and they weren’t putting any money into public transit or things that were more directly beneficial to the poor. So we began a kind of critique which led to a new policy document at the World Bank that really changed the direction. This was already in 1996. Out of that came a new crop of leadership in the World Bank and similarly that then influenced the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The ADB then went through an internal change of leadership and brought in an extremely progressive transportation team who have been really now at the forefront of the multilateral development reform movement–making their own portfolio accountable. We have a formal partnership with the ADB and that was really the key. If we had tried to do it ourselves it wouldn’t have happened. But the ADB leadership brought the other development banks to the table.

You work a lot with development banks, what about the private sector?

We work with anybody we need to work with to get a project implemented. Full stop. There is nothing stopping us from working with anybody. We have a very good relationship with HSBC as they did a lot of technical advising in putting together the financing of the Johannesburg Rea Vaya BRT system. That technical knowledge that they had about financing was very helpful to us, and we’ve used them as advisors in other places. We work sometimes with Volvo, a big bus manufacturer, we don’t do much with them but we share information on what kind of buses are available, what makes sense, what doesn’t. We’ve talked a lot to several of the other big companies, IBM, people that do intelligent transportation and then we work with a lot of engineering companies and firms that do transportation planning and engineering–AECOM and Parsons Brinkerhoff–and we subcontract a lot to private firms. Probably a third of our budget is subcontracted to private companies.

As a keen cyclist and public transport advocate, Hook rides into work everyday from Brooklyn
As a keen cyclist and public transport advocate, Hook rides into work everyday from Brooklyn

Does the Institute support the idea that petrol tax and motor tax should be used to promote public transport? What do you say to those people who liken this to cigarette taxes paying for health? Does government then become addicted to this funding?

We don’t really work on that issue as a general rule, we believe in the language in a lot of the UN documents that says ‘make the polluter pay’ and we certainly believe that road users should pay full road user charges, both in terms of the wear and tear on the roads, the construction of the roads and the congestion that they cause. So we are full supporters of congesting charging, fully commercial parking rates, and eco-taxation. What that money is then used for, whether it is used for public transport, great, but it should certainly at least cover the actual costs that it generates. The UN Agenda 21, all the UN agreements essentially, endorse the notion that the polluter should pay, there is no reason to be subsidising motorists, as they tend to be wealthy or companies. There is no reason why trucks shouldn’t pay their full costs of the damage they cause on the roads, so we fully support, fully internalised costs, including congestion costs and including market-based parking charging.

Do BRT systems mean that more expensive subway/metro options are now obsolete?

Cities that have very high density and very high demand still probably justify the construction of metro systems. Metro systems that are essentially breaking even in Asia, for instance, where cities want to make those investments in heavy rail metro, if they are married with changes in land use policies and parking policies and other things, why not? It’s better than investing in a new automobile motorway from an environmental point of view. All we would say to a city is : ‘Do you really need to make this investment?’ Because we could probably solve the same mass transit need using some kind of surface-based BRT for a fraction of the cost. If you can solve the problem for a fraction of the cost, maybe you should, because you could build more, faster. It takes a very, very, long time to build a subway or a metro and by the time you have finished it, the city has continued to sprawl out. The only cities that have managed to stabilise or increase the share of trips made by public transportation are the cities that built and continually expand bus-based mass transit systems, like Curitiba, Bogota and to a certain extent Sao Paulo. No other cities have really been able to turn around the trend to increasing motorisation. Metro systems are too slow and too expensive to do it on their own. As part of a core network of very high demand corridors they could be part of a larger network.

Bike sharing schemes and BRT systems have become popular in cities around the world. What is your take on the new trend of cities building cable cars, particularly in slum or shanty town areas, which traditional transport options can’t reach?

I think they have a very selected use. I’ve seen them pop up in low-income communities on tops of hills, like Alemao in Rio, they’re planning another one in another favela in Rio. There’s one that I’ve heard is quite good in Medellin. I think they are interesting. They are specific to the context of these hill-bound communities. They don’t have very high capacity or very high speed but for that specific topography, it is probably something to consider. I think it really matters with how you design them, like it does with anything. You could mis-design it, but I wouldn’t rule it out altogether as a possibility for these hilltop communities. If you’ve got a mountainous topography there might be a selective use for them.

Motorised transport still can’t be completely ignored although the new Shard building in London is trying to do just that as it will only house 47 car parking spaces, mainly for disabled people. Is this the way forward for cities or is a balance with motorised transport still required?

In terms of parking that is definitely the way forward. There is no reason any central city urban area with any kind of public transit system ought to be mandating parking. If a developer doesn’t want to have any parking, they absolutely shouldn’t have to do it. There should be parking, maximum limits, set at the level the roads can absorb the traffic generated, without becoming congested. Unfortunately, it hasn’t really worked except for some European cities, like Zurich and Hamburg and a few others but most cities have not really figured out that their off-street and on-street parking policies should be first and foremost a congestion management tool. That’s a really new concept outside of Europe, it’s kind of completely foreign, but it’s our highest priority right now, to get the parking systems reformed across the world. So we really have a big programme now on parking reform.

What has been the biggest achievement of the ITDP to date?

The biggest achievements have been getting the silver and gold standard for he BRT systems built on several major continents that had never seen this kind of technology before. Guangzhou’s BRT system is a gold standard that was fully our project. The trans-Jakarta BRT was not entirely successful but it was the first real BRT in Asia. The Ahmedabad BRT, where we fully designed and managed the contracting, was the first one in India, and a silver standard. The Johannesburg Rea Vaya was the first real BRT on continental Africa, that project we did all of the feasibility work, all the planning and helped the city with technical assistance throughout all the implementation. Similarly in Cape Town, it was just a few years behind. We’d like to see a BRT in the US and in sub-Saharan Africa. We have several bronze standard BRTs in the US, but we are looking to develop a silver or a gold standard.

Marie-Helene Carleton/Four Corners Media

What about the one here in New York?

It’s not BRT, it’s a Select Bus Service. It has the off-board fare collection which is one element of BRT but it has virtually none of the other elements that we would consider to identify it as a BRT system.

Which US city do you believe will have the first gold standard BRT?

In the US it could be in San Francisco, it may get there first with a silver standard and also there is something going on across the [San Francisco] Bay in Oakland, and maybe Chicago. Chicago has an east-west central corridor of BRT that we are working on and that may hit silver standard. Chicago will be the first city, I think, to maybe hit gold if Rahm Emmanuel is still mayor. We’ve got some potential gold standard BRT on Western and Ashley avenues in Chicago. You never know, somebody else might appear and do it faster. We are talking to seven or eight cities across the country.

What is the ITDP working on in the next couple of years?

Our big focus right now is changing parking and zoning regulations around these new BRT systems that we’ve been developing around the world. So we’re working with the cities to say now that you’ve rolled out this new infrastructure you really to change the way your private developers build around these systems. So we’ve developed something new called the transit-oriented development standard, which lays down some basic principles of good urban design that is pedestrian and bicycle and transit-oriented. We’re working in a few cities on pilot projects to change the zoning in the station area as well as the urban design requirements and also to change the parking regulations to essentially remove parking minimums and establish parking caps in those transit zones. While we are doing that we are still trying to get our first fully functional BRT systems built in in the US and Africa [outside South Africa].

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