To transform the world, transform public transport

Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities and Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the ITF, explain why transport is fundamental to the world’s recovery from COVID-19, and call on governments to put transport networks first as the world begins to emerge from the pandemic.

key worker using public transport

Public transport has shown how key it is to everyday life during the pandemic, now it's time for governments to support it

Public transport systems around the world — and the workers who power them — have kept communities moving during the fight against COVID-19. These bus drivers, train operators, conductors, ticket sellers, mechanics and cleaners have made sure that other frontline workers have also been able to make it to work every day. Now we need governments to step up too, not just cancelling the budget deficits that amassed as passenger numbers collapsed during lockdowns, but taking the opportunity of changed work and travel patterns to invest in expanded and zero-emission public transport services that can be the cornerstone of a green and just recovery from the pandemic.

Helping transport bounce back

As we begin to edge toward the end of this crisis, we still face a number of tremendous challenges, but also have some great opportunities to emerge as a stronger, more inclusive and cohesive society.

Central to realising that opportunity will be how societies invest in public transport. The pandemic has exacerbated already huge funding gaps for these services amid dire economic conditions. In Italy, transport operations are estimated to have lost $1.8billion (€1.5 billion) in fare revenues during 2020.1 Meanwhile, the Brazilian public transport sector registered an economic loss of $1.7 billion (R$9.5 billion) in 2020, and Vancouver’s transport authority said it was losing around $75 million every month.2 3 New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Agency (MTA) estimates a $6 billion deficit in 2021 and a cumulative deficit of close to $16 billion due to COVID-19 over a five-year period.4  In response, many transport systems have reduced their services, reducing bus frequency, cutting night services, or reducing services to only the most profitable routes.

To recover from COVID-19, governments must make ambitious commitments to invest in public transport infrastructure and operations now. While we applaud actions some national governments have taken to help mass transport systems survive the immediate COVID-19 crisis, stable, direct, and long-term funding is needed to ensure cities can protect transport services and workers and invest in expanded and zero-emission transport. A just transition will protect and create green jobs, and guarantee that expanded public transport provides access to employment opportunities for millions more. This is an opportunity to invest in our cities, for jobs, for workers, for city residents, and, critically, to futureproof our cities to the world’s next looming crisis: the climate emergency.

Today, workers, mayors, union leaders and city residents around the world are standing together to demand transformative investments in public transport to protect and create millions of decent jobs and ensure a green and just global recovery with public services at the core. It is a vital opportunity to promote gender equity in both jobs and services, and a visionary employment strategy for young people.

MTA hosts digital event to advance modernisation of New York's subway

New York’s MTA has estimated some heavy deficits for this year

A green opportunity

How governments invest in the post-pandemic recovery will determine whether we accelerate the transition to a greener, fairer economy or whether we lock-in pollution for decades. C40 research indicates between 40 and 80 per cent of trips in cities need to be walking, cycling, or public transport by 2030 if global heating is to be constrained below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Put simply, you can’t have a sustainable city without mass transport. 

If we are serious about tackling the climate emergency — and we need to be — then the recovery stimulus has got to be big, green and fast.

Safe, affordable and high-quality transport in cities is key not only to achieving clean air and emissions targets, but to protecting the frontline workers who have risked their lives every day for the past year to protect us. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted the health of transport workers, and many members of ITF affiliates worldwide have died. The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) in the United States alone has lost more than 140 members over the past year. Public transport has been a lifeline to our communities, and it’s time we treat it as such.

Public transport is a social and economic justice issue. This threat to the viability of affordable and accessible public transport is happening just as the pandemic reveals how much we all depend on it.

Mass transport is a vital service for those workers who need to travel to work during the pandemic, such as healthcare staff, care workers, teachers and those who keep food on shop shelves. It also means, in effect, that we are all users of public transport, whether we are direct users of it or not. As we recover from the pandemic, it will be vital to ensure those without private cars can find and access work. It seems likely that those who can work from home after the pandemic will do so more often than before, which offers an opportunity to refocus transport services away from routes designed around the needs of city-centre commuters, towards the cross-neighbourhood journeys that are used by a wider range of people.

An industry supporting millions of jobs

We must also enable a just transition from informal to formal services with participation from workers and communities. 7.3 million workers are formally employed in public transport operations globally and, in many parts of the world, informal jobs may represent up to an additional 30–40 per cent of the total number of transport jobs.5 There are simply too many families and communities at stake to allow mass transport to fail.

New research released by C40 Cities shows that investment in global public transport systems will not only safeguard existing jobs and cut emissions from urban transport by more than half by 2030, but create 4.6 million additional jobs by 2030 across 100 cities in the C40 network, and their supply chains, with multiplied economic impact as a result of greater public transport access. Protecting and championing public transport systems is both a powerful intervention for achieving a green and just recovery in cities and essential to any chance of sustainable urban living into the future.


To achieve a green and just recovery, we need public investments in new and improved metro, commuter rails with faster, more frequent services and improved formal and zero-emission bus services with a just transition for workers. Our cities deserve integrated ticketing and real time information systems and investments in electric public transportation. We must envision, invest and build toward a future where any person can easily, safely and affordably hop on a bus or a train to get to work, school, the hospital or the market.

Bold investments in public transport will empower workers and citizens around the world to not only survive, but to thrive and contribute to climate action. At a time of global mass unemployment and a climate emergency, the future is public transport.


  1. UITP Europe (13 May 2020). European CEOs and city representatives call for local public transport to be a key sector in the European recovery plan.
  4. Mass Transit (19 November 2020) New York MTA lays out dispiriting 2021 budget proposal with drastic cuts to service and staff levels
  5. IOL (2020). IOL Sectoral Brief on COVID-19 and Urban Passenger Transport Services