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Winning with Sustainability


January 10, 2005


Concern is mounting over environmental and social threats to the future of life on earth. Global warming, urban development, and increasing poverty are just three of the major ones.

Temperature increases in the twentieth century were greater than at any time during the past 400 to 600 years, causing rising sea levels, increasing heat waves and droughts, more extreme weather events, and greater potential for illnesses, deaths, and spread of infectious diseases.

Metropolitan areas are growing at a frightening pace, with Mexico City soon to reach an inconceivable 50 million in population, creating unmanageable congestion, pollution, and other problems. One in four of the world's population lives in absolute poverty (less than $1 per day), and these numbers are increasing.

In response, an international sustainability agenda is rapidly emerging, with increasing numbers of nations, regions, and cities struggling to reconcile the issue of resolving environmental and social matters with economic ones, and a wide variety of concerned public interest groups are adding their voices. It may soon become the number one major public issue worldwide.

Impressive evidence already exists that the worldwide public transportation community is moving to embrace sustainability. In May 2003, the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) introduced a Charter for Sustainable Development, designed to foster interest and support for this concept and facilitate information exchange.

As of September, UITP had 79 signatory members representing 18 countries. Although most are from Europe and Australia, membership is growing from Asia and other parts of the world. So far, two members are from the United States. APTA has also joined as a charter association member. Participants include both transit agencies and suppliers/consultants.

The European Union has also issued a number of reports, policies, and actions in support of its pledge to reduce 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent between 2008 and 2012, and the United Nations annually sponsors a worldwide car-free day, modeled after Bogota's highly successful experiment.

In the U.S., a few agencies, such as MTA New York City Transit and the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon in Portland, have been quietly moving along the path to greater sustainability for several years. In December 2003, the Federal Transit Administration selected 10 transit agencies to participate in a two-year training and assistance program for implementing Environmental Management Systems. An EMS is a set of operational procedures to assure compliance with all applicable laws as well as facilitate/promote environmental stewardship and sustainability.

Links Between Sustainability and Transit

The connections between transit and sustainable development are obvious and multifold. Most experts agree that our current patterns of mobility are not sustainable and that greater choice and emphasis on transit is absolutely essential.

Transit advocates can contribute to a more sustainable future by vigorously promoting their mode; advocating more transit-friendly development patterns; incorporating sustainability processes and principles into their strategic planning and daily operations; and developing New Starts projects according to sustainability principles.

What Exactly Is Sustainable Development?

The most common definition of sustainable development, broadly conceived as the only solution to the terrible problems I described earlier, was crafted by the UN Bruntland Commission. The definition is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Essentially, it is a better balancing of economic, social, and environmental needs.

Many practitioners feel sustainable development is just a progression of our current practices, simply doing a better job at what we have been doing all along.

Others advocate a sharp break with past practices, claiming that meaningful sustainability requires rather radical changes in all of our processes. It starts with the way we think, and leads to new, more holistic and collaborative approaches and problem-solving methods--a change of culture.

While I favor the latter, adopting a "doing better" approach may be a less threatening, more acceptable way for some organizations to begin embracing sustainability. Ultimately, however, they must move toward more fundamental cultural change.

Embracing Sustainability Puts You in a Winning Situation

Agencies in the U.S. and abroad report many benefits from embracing sustainable development, both on the bottom line and from the perspectives of a wide range of stakeholders.

While initial impressions may cast sustainability at odds with fiduciary responsibility, a strong win/win business case for sustainability can be made by adopting a broader view.

Here are some major benefits, listed in no particular order because each organization's needs may be different:

* Saving costs immediately. Usually, immediate operational cost savings result from picking the low-hanging fruit, such as increasing energy efficiencies. That has been the experience of transit agencies in New York City and Portland.

* Saving costs long-term. While some more ambitious undertakings, especially those associated with capital projects, may cost more up front, they often result in long-term operational cost savings.

Not much data has been compiled to date about transit, although NYC Transit has found some more expensive alternative energy sources to be more than compensated by operational savings over a 20-year period.

David Reynolds, a deputy commissioner at Chicago's Department of the Environment, says the cost premium for the city to build green is about 6 percent, but he anticipates the city will save 15 to 20 percent on its energy bills and gain a host of other intangible benefits.

* Reducing risks while saving costs. Public and private investors are becoming increasingly interested in the sustainable credentials of organizations. By being included in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, for example, Hong Kong's Metro got a better investment rating.

Evidence is increasing that insurance companies will view an organization committed to sustainable development more favorably because risk factors will be reduced.

* Expediting projects while saving costs. Having a substantive Environmental Management System with a major commitment to sustainability and improved environmental performance can greatly expedite/improve chances of quickly moving through the EIS process.

Experience with four transit projects in lower Manhattan demonstrated that, because NYC Transit already had committed to many environmental improvements, such as low-sulfur diesel fuel in its EMS, the agency sailed through the approval processes. NYC Transit's adopted sustainability principles enhanced the agency's credibility from the beginning. By making these items part of the baseline, NYC Transit did not need typical mitigation measures.

* Attracting riders and creating more supportive development patterns. Promoting sustainability in your communities will naturally lead to greater emphasis on transit and better development patterns, resulting in overall improved planning. Citizens and civic/environmental groups are likely to be highly supportive and, importantly, your ability to attract and retain customers will be enhanced.

* Developing human capital. Being an organization known for sustainability leadership will help you recruit and retain the best people.

* Building a reputation by increasing environmental efficiency and social sensitivity and creating a highly positive brand image with all stakeholders.

* Increase funding through better governance and improved stakeholder relationships. You will be in the forefront of the movement to find and gain acceptance for more sustainable, sensible solutions to your problems and opportunities. By being proactive, you will be better able to influence funding decisions, including flexible funding through your Metropolitan Planning Organizations and other decision forums.

Private sector companies will gain most of the benefits cited above. In addition, many see important marketing drivers associated with sustainability. These include a desire to be perceived as environmentally and socially friendly (brand and reputation); the need to fulfill emerging client demands; and the motivation to be on the cutting edge of new developments.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers Global CEO Survey found that 79 percent of respondents agreed that sustainability was vital to their profitability (up from 69 percent a year earlier). Also, an impressive 71 percent said they would sacrifice short-term profitability in exchange for long-term shareholder value when implementing a sustainability program.

Editor's Note: Julie Hoover, who is also former chair of APTA's Policy and Planning Committee, can be reached by e-mail at <Hoover@pbworld .com>.


Hoover, Julie, Senior Vice President, Parsons Brinckerhoff

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