Urban mobility is becoming a major challenge for cities around the globe as streamlining traffic and dealing with population growth isn’t as easy as it sounds. Urbanization has led to many issues such as traffic jams, air pollution, and infrastructure in need of upgrades and repairs, making navigating cities a real struggle. According to the United Nations projections, over 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas and these figures are only expected to grow as experts claim they will reach 68% by 2050. This places a tremendous amount of pressure on public transport systems and many city planners and officials grapple with providing solutions that allow current transit networks to cope with the increasing demand for transporting people safely and efficiently. Let’s take a look at some of the best public transportation systems in the world and what are the key components and factors which helped them achieve this.
Hong Kong, China
The Special Administrative Region of China – Hong Kong currently holds the top spot in the Urban Mobility Readiness Index for 2022 for having the world’s best public transportation system. The city’s transport network is often praised for being affordable and having a high station density along with a good railway infrastructure.
Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway operates through a multifaceted network that serves over 166 stations with very minimal delays or disruptions to services. It’s cheap, accessible (rarely more than a short walk away), and efficiently designed with interchanges to ensure a smooth flow of passengers. Because of this, the residents of the city are avid public transportation users, with Hong Kong having reported the highest utilization rate in the world. The city’s high population density has led local authorities to carefully strategize, prioritizing public transit over private modes as well as integrating the metro system into the city’s infrastructure. Hong Kong also boasts ample car‑free zones, and the rate of car ownership remains relatively low. The city is pedestrian-friendly, with many journeys being carried out on foot.
The city of Oslo is often referred to as the electric vehicle capital of the world due to its impressive efforts in this field which include the nationwide adoption of eclectic vehicles along with strong monetary incentives, backed by local authorities who invest heavily in charging infrastructure. It’s estimated that by the end of 2023, the residents of Oslo can expect to circulate fossil fuel-free as the city develops the world’s first fully electric public transit system. The government has effectively encouraged electric vehicle use through various incentives such as lower taxes, free parking schemes, access to bus lanes, and removal of road tolls. This is probably the reason why since 2021, the number of electric vehicles entering Oslo’s toll ring was reported to be higher than the figures for fossil‑fueled vehicles.
Oslo has an established reputation for road safety, which is achieved through a combination of measures that discourage the use of cars and slow down traffic such as reducing parking space, tolls on vehicles, expensive parking charges, and a 30 kph speed limit for many residential areas and schools. Additionally, the city has significantly improved its cycling and public transport infrastructure, further encouraging residents to opt for sustainable ways of traveling. Oslo’s metro system consists of several well-functioning lines, with an additional one being under construction. Multiple tram lines also run primarily on ground level, integrated with existing road networks via dedicated tracks.
What’s even more impressive is that the city promotes a circular economy by using biogas produced from bio‑waste and city sewage, converting it to fuel that is used by city buses and waste trucks. The city aims to become one of the first zero-emission cities in the world and is set on achieving a 95% reduction rate in climate emissions by 2030.
The Capital of Sweden is among the European leaders when it comes to clean mobility and innovation, ranking second with the highest share of electric vehicles after the city of Oslo. The government has made significant investments in charging infrastructure, along with incentives that encourage the switch to electric vehicles, further boosting the market share of electric cars and turning Stockholm into a prime example for success in the field of electrification.
The city hardly slacks when it comes to its public transport either. The Capital boasts a condensed, multimodal mass transit system with great connections to Sweden’s already excellent national rail network. Stockholm’s commitment to clean mobility allows the citizens of the city to enjoy good air quality as well as low levels of noise and light pollution since electric vehicles produce less noise than gasoline-powered vehicles. According to the Capital’s climate action plan, a framework to reach net‑zero emissions is already in place and expected to be achieved by 2040, with further plans of expanding the city’s public transit systems, and bicycle lanes as well as establishing mobility hubs that promote free sharing services.
Zurich’s public transport system has a stellar reputation when it comes to efficiency, affordability, and ease of access as most stations and systems are easily reached within walking distance. The city greatly benefits from Switzerland’s superb rail networks and the same goes for its road infrastructure – high quality, well-functioning, and safe, benefiting pedestrians and residents, resulting in very low traffic-related fatalities. The country’s traffic enforcement structure is a large reason for this which includes incentives that encourage good behavior among drivers through a mounting, income-based system of fines. Congestion in the city is not considered a major issue and air quality remains highly rated.
Switzerland’s largest city is planning to release a comprehensive master plan in 2023, which is said to integrate urban and social space with transportation, featuring an urban climate vision along with an agenda for achieving this in the next several decades. Despite strong public investments in mobility, many expect that the city’s heavy reliance on trams can cause it to fall behind other more technologically advanced cities, simply because automation of metro systems has shown to progress much faster.
Singapore’s rich innovation ecosystem, paired with a strong political will to improve mobility has resulted in many incredible achievements in the transportation sector. The country is known for its unparalleled traffic management system, along with strict policies on congestion pricing, for which many claim it to be a pioneer in terms of reducing congestion. Traffic rules are strongly enforced and there is a well-established network of CCTV systems in circulation, reinforcing positive driving behavior. In Singapore, academics collaborate with government officials, who have taken an active role in promoting connected autonomous vehicles, particularly through its National Research Foundation. Singapore famously launched the first self‑driving taxi trial in the world back in 2016, and the city‑state is often referred to as a hub for urban mobility solutions, with numerous startups taking place there.
In 2003, Singapore invested in one of the world’s very first automated rail systems and it’s done incredibly well in maintaining it ever since. Public transit options remain affordable and within a short walking distance so that residents find it convenient to get around. The city has also been highly praised for its disaster‑management policies in transit, with strong preparation capabilities, making its transportation networks strong and resilient, especially in case of emergencies.
Helsinki is considered a leader in providing a clean urban living environment for its residents, and it ranks third in both the Urban Mobility Readiness Index and the Sustainable Mobility sub‑index. With an extensive network of car‑free zones and a high market share of electric vehicles, the city has done more than well in its contribution to superior air quality, with noise and light pollution remaining relatively low. Car taxation in Finland is placed on vehicle carbon dioxide emissions intensity and the country currently has the second highest excise duty for petrol (gasoline) in Europe, along with the fourth highest for diesel.
Helsinki’s public transportation network follows a multimodal approach consisting of bus, tram, metro, commuter train, and ferry services. It’s considered incredibly convenient thanks to the interconnectivity of systems along with a sturdy national rail and an app for journey planning created by a Helsinki startup, ultimately integrating all modes of transit. Traveling around Helsinki is also very affordable, with a single fare costing around $3.00 and being valid on any type of transport in the city. Many residents prefer to make their journeys on foot as well since the city is incredibly pedestrian-friendly.
Tokyo’s huge and rather complex public transit system may seem daunting at first glance, but it’s truly one of the most efficient, well-optimized, and convenient in the world. The railway system in Tokyo carries over 14 billion passengers annually and is a key component of the city’s transport network. It’s actually estimated that out of the 20 busiest stations in the world, 11 are found in Japan. The Japanese railway system is so efficient and punctual that they are well-known for being incredibly stern and strict regarding their adherence to schedules. The transportation system of Tokyo is interconnected with Japan’s top‑notch rail network which includes some pretty impressive high‑speed bullet trains. Given the extensive magnitude of the system, private vehicles and motorcycles contribute very little to urban transport in Tokyo.
The Japanese Capital is also very diligent when it comes to enforcing traffic laws and can pride itself on very few fatalities from road accidents. Eco-friendly modes of transport such as walking and cycling are incredibly common and the residents of Tokyo regularly use their bikes for making trips around town whether it’s for shopping, work, or school commutes. It’s estimated that around 14% of trips in Tokyo are made by bikes, a significantly higher rate than most large cities, despite cycling infrastructure being somewhat limited. Japan’s sustainability plan aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, using renewable energy and green hydrogen wherever possible. The new strategy further strives to improve the city’s road infrastructure, including developments for existing public transit networks (particularly when it comes to multimodality) as well as upgrading cycling and pedestrian routes.
Over the last few years, Paris has reorganized its public parking space system, limiting availability as a means of encouraging Parisians to use other forms of transit. The introduction of more car-free zones around the city as well as additional bike parking facilities and measures that improve safety have made the city more accessible to visitors and residents who prefer to get around on foot or use other eco-friendly modes of transport. The city has more than 1,000 km of cycling infrastructure altogether, including 300 km of bike lanes. Most parts of the city remain accessible within a short walking distance from a public transit station and the city’s transport networks enjoy a high usage rate.
The city’s public transit network currently consists of a 16‑line Paris metro system, interconnected with the Réseau Express Régional network, further reaching out and serving the surrounding region, as well as four tram lines around the perimeter. The Grand Paris Express project which is scheduled for completion by 2030, will further expand the Nation’s public transit which will benefit residents of many areas. New projects underway include trains that will use 200 km of new, automated tracks around the town, serving 68 new stations. In addition, major infrastructure work is being conducted for the improvement of traffic flow ahead of the 2024 Olympic Games. Innovation in smart mobility naturally flourishes in the French capital as it’s home to some of the world’s best academic institutions for engineering and computer science. The government invests heavily in the sector which explains why many mobility organizations have their headquarters in Paris.
Berlin has long been praised for its multimodal approach to mobility that is safe, efficient, and versatile, stretching through its vast networks of metro and suburban trains, trams, and ferries. This is assisted by an integrated app that incorporates journey planning as well as fare payments for all modes of transit, including vehicles and e‑scooters. Some issues regarding low station density, however, make public transit less appealing and convenient for residents, which means that more journeys are still made by car and on foot, despite the government’s efforts.
Berlin is also a leader when it comes to road safety, with records indicating very few traffic fatalities. This is due to the strict policies on speed limits which include a standard maximum speed limit of 50 kph, which has been reduced to 30 kph in certain residential areas. The government’s recent investment in cycling infrastructure has further contributed to the modernization of the city’s cycling network. This includes new additions such as dedicated spaces and markings for cyclists, protected bike lanes, cycle superhighways, and various parking facilities. The city has also introduced schemes that encourage the use of cargo bikes.
The UK capital has one of the largest public transport networks in the world, with integrated underground train and bus systems spanning throughout the entire city. The tube connects every major part of London which makes it incredibly convenient to get around and this remains true even for visitors to the city. In 2022, the Capital expanded its underground railway system by adding an additional line – the high-frequency Elizabeth line, stretching between suburbs to the east and west of the city. The City’s strict policies on pollution vehicles have helped contribute to a significant decrease in city pollution over the last decade. This is aided by a moderate level of car ownership and the London Congestion Charge, which is applied to most vehicles circulating the central part of town.
As part of the Mayor’s strategy to increase active and sustainable mobility in the city, the uptake of plug-in electric vehicles has been increasing with each passing year. The city’s government is advocating for the switch to electric vehicles by investing in charging infrastructure and incentives that promote the use of electric vehicles such as a “cleaner vehicle discount” as well as imposing charges on older, more‑polluting vehicles. The city further expanded its Low Emission Zone in 2021 from central London to a wider area, a move expected to further contribute to air quality. Additionally, cycling infrastructure has been expanded significantly, so much that it was reported that in 2022, over 20% of the residents of London lived within 400 meters of a Cyclesways network.
When it comes to the U.S., San Francisco ranked quite high in the Urban Mobility Readiness Index, in part due to its EV-charging network. The city also has one of the best-known public transportation networks in the country, including the city’s famous Bay Area Rapid Transit. Portland, on the other hand, has done incredibly well in promoting eco-friendly modes of transport such as walking and cycling while the residents of Boston get to enjoy the benefits of the city’s robust transit system.
Overall, cities in the U.S. ranked rather low when compared to other countries in terms of mobility in urban areas, mostly because of the nation’s overdependence on cars. This trend often excludes the use of public transit, placing emphasis on individual transportation. New York City, for example, which is often praised for having one of the best mass transit systems in the country, is still at about half of pre-pandemic ridership levels and ranks very poorly as a city for driving or getting around despite having such an extensive transit system. City officials are still working on implementing a congestion pricing plan that would charge drivers a fee for entering busy neighborhoods such as Manhattan.
Policy choices can tip the scales for countries in favor of public transportation as many cities are beginning to introduce initiatives such as “congestion pricing”. Discouraging car use will lead to less traffic, fewer accidents on congested roads, and better air quality in cities – especially in larger ones where this is already a huge issue. This can unlock broader, shared benefits for everyone including lowering the levels of greenhouse gas emissions – a good opportunity for nations to collectively take further action against climate change.