Local Heroes

Enlighten • Pulse #8 • 10 MIN
By William Mengebier By Stephen Cotton General secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF)

In a world rocked by a global pandemic, frontline workers have been called upon to perform their roles and continue to deliver essential services. For many, getting to their jobs is possible only via public transport, highlighting the degree to which society’s critical functions are dependent on mobility and the people who make it possible.

But even beyond its indispensable role in our day-to-day lives, public transport touches multiple facets of our world. An important source of employment, public transport is responsible for more than 7 million direct and millions more indirect jobs. As urban populations soar, public transport relieves congestion, keeping citizens and commerce moving. A recent report by the C40 Cities network and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) on “The Future of Public Transport” found that additional investment in public transport by major cities could halve carbon emissions generated by urban transportation by 2030 and reduce air polluting particulates by 45% — while creating an additional 4.6 million jobs.

Climate change, employment, urban congestion, economic development — these and other powerful forces are driving public transport issues to the forefront of budget and policy decision-making. Well-positioned to comment on lessons learned from Covid-19, current challenges for public transport and the outlook going forward is ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton who responds to our questions.



Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

What have been the main impacts of the Covid-19 health crisis on public transport?

The pandemic has highlighted the vital role of public transport. Formal and informal public transport services have kept cities moving and helped key workers get to and from work. There are very positive lessons we can learn from this.
But there have also been massive drops in ridership in many cities, in some cases up to 90%, causing a serious loss of revenue for public transport systems, particularly where revenue is heavily dependent on fares. This happened at the same time as there were increased operating costs related to the Covid-19 response. So there are huge budget shortfalls in many systems.
To win back public confidence, it is important for public transport to be seen as Covid safe for both passengers and the workforce. Research has shown that the risk of being infected on public transport is low if safety measures are implemented.

How have frontline public transport workers been affected?

High infection rates among public transport workers were recorded in some cities, which were sometimes due to a lack of PPE and other safety measures. Tragically, there have also been some deaths among public transport workers as a result of Covid infections. With existing occupational health and safety (OSH) problems exacerbated by Covid-19, we are calling for OSH to be recognized by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a UN agency, as a fundamental principle and right at work.
Workers have also been exposed to violence and harassment when trying to enforce safety measures. Violence in the public transport workplace is not new, but the pandemic has exposed workers to additional risks.
Despite all of these and other challenges, public transport workers are proud of their work and deserve recognition.

What about the impact on workers for whom public transport is essential?

Many key workers could not work from home. They continued to rely on public transport services to get to and from work, particularly key workers like health workers. This showed how equitable access to public transport is key to economic and social life in cities, and how the resilience of cities during pandemics and disasters, rely on good public services like public transport. For this reason, a green and just recovery from Covid-19 must prioritize funding for quality public services, including public transport.

What new lessons have been drawn from the health crisis on the role of public transport?

Covid-19 exacerbated and exposed inequality in public transport services within and between countries. Depending on how public transport systems are planned and funded, they may exacerbate inequalities or contribute to overcoming them.
Public transport in developing countries is largely informal; in some cities, 85% of services are informal. Informal workers had almost no access to PPE or washing facilities, social security and legal protections. They were faced with the impossible choice of going to work and risking infection, or staying at home and losing their livelihoods. We have many examples of workers having to provide their own protection. The pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for formalisation of services and jobs in public transport.
A major lesson of the pandemic is the reliance of cities on public transport, particularly during moments of crisis, and its importance as a force to combat economic and social inequality which must be treated as a public good. Access to integrated public transport services that are reliable, safe and affordable are a must for local and national economies.
The pandemic has also shown that we need sustainable long-term funding models for public transport systems.
Another major lesson has been that quality services and quality jobs go hand in hand, and for this there needs to be strong occupational health and safety legislation to protect both workers and passengers.

What are the main benefits from investments in public transport in terms of the environment? In terms of job creation? In terms of other areas?

ITF is running a global campaign The Future is Public Transport with C40 cities and other international organisations, including UITP, which calls for public investment because of these multiple benefits.
Public transport is the only real alternative to the private car. Enhancing public transport and designing cities around it could contribute 20-45% of the total emissions reductions required to limit global heating to 1.5°C.
Our joint report launched at COP26 shows that investing in public transport generates 30% more jobs than building roads. Investing in line with climate goals in five cities alone could create over 650,000 new good-quality jobs in those cities. For every job created through investment in public transport, another job is created elsewhere in the same country.
There is huge potential for a global youth employment strategy in public transport as well as increasing women’s employment. ITF has an excellent agreement with UITP which outlines measures on how to recruit and retain women in the public transport workforce.

Prior to the health crisis, what kind of momentum had there been for developing modern public transport around the world?

Investment was not yet on the scale required by climate science. A modal shift to public transport was and is still not a substantial part of the national and city level climate action plans of governments. So, transport emissions worldwide are increasing!
For example, in many developing country cities, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has been introduced with international financing. These have often not been the win-win solutions promised by the international institutions. All too often, new BRT systems crush the livelihoods of informal transport workers while replacing only a fraction of the jobs lost. We support new modern public transport systems, but workers and unions need to be involved from the beginning of the formalisation process. Their knowledge and skills can shape improvements and make the introduction of new solutions a smoother process.
There needs to be employment impact assessments focusing on the numbers of jobs that will be lost, and the number and quality of jobs that will be created. At an ILO technical meeting on urban transport services last year, this was an agreed conclusion between governments, employers and labour.

How did public transport’s role in lowering cities’ (or countries’) carbon footprints contribute to this momentum?

Reducing emissions is a major part of transport reforms.There is recognition that public transport is a positive solution to the climate crisis. Often financing for public transport comes from climate funds. However, as I have said before, modal shift is not happening on the scale required. Instead, the dominant discourse now emphasizes electrification. Energy efficiency is very important, but we need the structural change away from private cars to really make a difference to the carbon footprints of cities and countries. Electrification alone will not reduce the environmental impact from transport. And we want the quality of life in cities to improve through greater access to mobility and public space, and less congestion.
We cannot treat the environmental benefits of public transport separately from the wider social benefits. The ITF is advocating for a just transition for workers. In other words, new public transport solutions must guarantee social and employment benefits alongside environmental benefits. Decent work must both drive sustainable transport policies and be a major outcome. For example, we want to see cities and countries create good, green jobs in public transport as a means of driving economic recovery from the pandemic and overcoming the climate challenge. At the same time, sustainability policies must include work and employment outcomes.

What was the effect of the health crisis, accompanying economic slowdown and falling ridership on this momentum?

In most developed countries, there has been emergency funding for public transport. But this is not enough – we need long-term sustainable funding solutions.
I want to use the example of London. The city is facing a major crisis due to a collapse in fare revenue. While the national government has provided a series of short-term bailout packages, if there is no long-term operating grant from national government, then there are going to be cuts to services, cuts to jobs in public transport operations and the supply chain, asset decline, an end to new infrastructure projects and air quality improvements, including electrification.
In developing countries, governments face many more obstacles in supporting their public transport systems due to more stringent macroeconomic constraints. The questions of whether and how to provide emergency relief and/or increased long-term funding for public transport are part of a complex web of policy priorities, of which the most urgent is still to contain the spread of the virus and save lives.

Why is it crucial to regain this momentum and what must occur to do so?

It is vitally important to intensify the momentum as part of the recovery from the pandemic and to avoid a climate catastrophe.
But public transport is also crucial for overcoming inequalities. We argue that mobility is a right and public good, providing a service for millions of people who cannot afford their own car. So public transport is vital to overcoming inequalities and creating economic opportunities. It is an enabler of other rights – to education, to work, to healthcare, to a fulfilling life where people are connected to their family and friends. Without good public transport services, our cities are much worse places to live.
And it is a major employer worldwide creating direct and indirect jobs. Globally, 7.3 million workers are employed in public transport services and several million more in the supply chain and informal economy. It could be a major job creating sector, contributing to youth employment and gender equality.

What are some of the specific actions you are calling for?

At COP26, we called for governments to double the share of public transport. By 2030, a mode share of active travel (for example, walking and cycling) and public transport of between 40% and 80% is needed. Governments must immediately set out a path towards delivering it within a year, including the scale of public investment required for a significant commitment to modal shift to public transport.
There must also be advances in decarbonizing public transport: we support electrification but only with a just transition for affected workers.
As the ITF, we are also calling for long-term sustainable funding solutions including funding for formalisation of public transport services and jobs, and democratic participation by workers and passengers in economic decisions and public transport planning.

What are the priority areas for investing in public transport?

As I have already mentioned, there needs to be investment in formalisation of services and jobs, and at the ITF we have strong recommendations on how this transition should take place. But it is vital that there is government investment in this process. We have seen in cities in the Philippines that there has been positive steps towards service contracts with government funding and workers’ participation.
From citizen polling, we know that three-quarters of residents in major cities support investment in public transport as part of Covid-19 recovery plans. An immediate priority is to protect existing services and jobs. Workers who have been on the frontline of the pandemic should not have to pay the price through cuts to their terms and conditions, and job losses.

Stephen Cotton

has served as the General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) since 2014 and has held positions in the organisation for 25 years, beginning as Assistant Secretary, then Maritime Coordinator and Secretary in its Special Seafarers Department. He is a graduate of Kingsway College and Ongar Comprehensive School.

International Transport Workers' Federation

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is a leading voice on global transportation issues on behalf of nearly 20 million working men and women across the world, including 7.3 million involved in public transport. ITF connects nearly 700 affiliated trade unions from 150 countries, helping their members to secure rights, equality and justice.


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