Building a transport system that works: Five insights from our 25-city report

We benchmarked urban-transport systems in 25 cities around the globe to find out what goes into the making of a smooth commute.

A city’s transportation network is its cardiovascular system, enabling the continuous flow of people and goods. Municipal authorities, city councils, urban planners, and transport-infrastructure owners and operators around the world are well aware that the quality and efficiency of such networks are crucial for the economy and for the well-being of citizens.

To help stakeholders make informed decisions, we’ve benchmarked the transport systems in 25 cities around the world in our forthcoming report, Key elements of success in urban transportation systems. We ranked the cities and grouped them into three categories: leading (first to tenth place), contending (11th to 18th place), and emerging (19th to 25th place).

All 25 cities we tracked have increased the volume of projects to enhance their transport systems since 2018 (Exhibit 1). Leading cities invested more in improving the availability of their public-transport infrastructure, while emerging cities invested relatively less in safety and sustainability than they did in the other categories. These decisions could impact residents’ willingness to use public transport.

Residents' willingness to use public transport may be affected by the types of investments made by cities.
We strive to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to our website. If you would like information about this content we will be happy to work with you. Please email us at: McKinsey_Website_Accessibility@mckinsey.com

While decision makers should delve into the full report for the complete rankings and details, this article distills the report’s findings into five key insights that stakeholders should pay attention to, highlighting best-in-class practices in cities around the world.

Keeping service and safety standards high assuages pandemic-related fears of using public transport

Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 lockdown restrictions impacted lifestyles and commuting patterns in 2020. Many stopped traveling to work completely. People who already relied primarily on private cars and those who mainly used public transport both increased their use of private cars, even as the overall number of trips decreased (Exhibit 2). In some cities, staff shortages and declining revenue from lower passenger usage also led to reductions in service frequencies to avoid having to raise fares.

While the overall number of trips decreased with the pandemic, private-car trips increased among both public- and private-transport users.
We strive to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to our website. If you would like information about this content we will be happy to work with you. Please email us at: McKinsey_Website_Accessibility@mckinsey.com

If these trends persist beyond the pandemic, traffic congestion in many cities could be exacerbated, and more road accidents and pollution could also be likely. As such, public-transport operators and authorities should actively find ways to restore confidence in shared modes of transportation and to reduce reliance on personal cars. Our research found that the safer people feel about using public transport, the more they’ll use it (Exhibit 3), suggesting that the visibility of biological safety measures has a significant influence on perceived risks.

Due to the visual nature of safety precautions on public transport in Chinese cities, the transport has a lower perceived risk of infection.
We strive to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to our website. If you would like information about this content we will be happy to work with you. Please email us at: McKinsey_Website_Accessibility@mckinsey.com

There is a lower perceived risk of infection on public transport in Chinese cities thanks to a mandatory mask and physical-distancing regime, regular disinfection, and other epidemiological safety measures that citizens visibly adhere to. These measures are heightened as needed (for instance, when sporadic outbreaks happen), and commuters may have to present an all-clear, green health code on a mobile app and have their temperatures taken before entering paid areas. As such, Chinese cities experienced higher-than-average levels of public-transport mobility during the pandemic.

Expanding transport networks and infrastructure, as well as smart policies, keeps travel options available and affordable

The top-scoring cities in terms of transport availability—London, Madrid, and Paris—share some common characteristics: they are major railway hubs and offer good road networks, bike lanes, and pedestrian infrastructure. Beijing, Moscow, and Madrid jumped up in the transport-availability rankings by expanding their metro and rail lines. They also improved their road infrastructure and increased the number of bicycle lanes and pedestrian streets, investing heavily in shared-transport schemes such as rental bikes and carsharing services (Exhibit 4).

Cities scoring highest in transport availability have invested heavily in shared-transport schemes.
We strive to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to our website. If you would like information about this content we will be happy to work with you. Please email us at: McKinsey_Website_Accessibility@mckinsey.com

In Madrid, about 3,000 bicycles were purchased and 50 new bike rentals were opened in 2020. Moscow’s bike-share program increased its supply of two-wheelers by 3,000, and the city also opened new underground lines, resulting in 700,000 more people gaining access to the Moscow Metro. Three new underground lines have been opened in Beijing over the past several years.

Public policies play a critical role in keeping transport affordable, whether it’s by regulating bus and subway fares or by encouraging competition between legacy transport operators and rideshare companies. High rates of private-car ownership tend to constrict revenue flows for the public-transport system. Thus, policies that discourage private-car ownership often prevent public-transport operators from either raising fares or reducing service standards.

The Asian cities of Seoul, Shenzhen, and Singapore top the rankings for public-transport affordability. Their authorities actively make car ownership more expensive to offset the environmental and societal costs of personal-car use.

Public-transport systems in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Shanghai are also becoming much more affordable because of government policies that stimulate economic competition and technology. Cars registered outside Shanghai are barred from certain districts, and self-driving-taxi technologies are being piloted, which may lead to lower costs in the future. The availability of multiple rideshare options also translates to cheaper fares. The widespread implementation of paid-parking systems in Buenos Aires and Mexico City is making private-car ownership more expensive, in turn easing traffic congestion.

Dedicated public-transport lanes and digitalization can make the commuter experience more efficient and convenient

Efficiency refers to how quickly and predictably one can move around the city, while convenience measures how easily commuters can switch from one mode of transport to another. Increasing the number of dedicated public-transport lanes, optimizing bus routes, completing road construction or modernization projects, and upgrading digital systems all help improve the commuter experience.

Moscow, Shenzhen, and Singapore score well for transport efficiency. Moscow’s transport system has low underground waiting times, high speeds during rush hour, and a significantly above-average proportion of dedicated bus lanes. Shenzhen also has a high share of dedicated bus lanes, which helps with rush-hour predictability. Singapore’s electronic-road pricing system is powered by a digital device that automatically charges the driver the road toll when the car passes through a gantry, making road travel for both private and public vehicles frictionless even during peak times.

Our convenience index assesses the ease of switching from one transport mode to another. High performers have invested in upgrading their ticketing systems, increasing Internet access, and improving the proportion of wheelchair-accessible buses and underground stations. Some offer convenient mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) applications to plan routes and to verify and pay fines and penalties.

Toronto delivers high levels of travel comfort, courtesy of a $934 million upgrade of its bus fleet, which is now 100 percent wheelchair-friendly and located closer to subway stations. Hong Kong also revamped its public-transport system. Ninety out of 93 metro stations are outfitted with elevators and wheelchair ramps, making it easier and quicker for passengers in wheelchairs to board and disembark. Meanwhile, Istanbul rose in the convenience rankings with a significantly improved ticketing system using QR-code payments. The city also introduced the Ulasim Asistani app that helps travelers plan journeys across multiple forms of transport, leading to a considerable improvement in satisfaction ratings among its citizens.

Sustainability matters—in terms of both investment and policy

Both commuter safety and the environment cannot be neglected in a city’s efforts to improve its transport system. In our 2018 and 2021 surveys, respondents cited safety as their number one priority, so it’s right that city planners and authorities are constantly looking to minimize accidents and fatalities while reducing the city’s carbon footprint. Leading cities tend to invest more in sustainable mobility options than contending and emerging cities (Exhibit 1), which has resulted in greater use of their public-transport systems (Exhibit 5).

Cities investing more heavily in sustainable mobility options tend to have greater usage of their public-transport systems.
We strive to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to our website. If you would like information about this content we will be happy to work with you. Please email us at: McKinsey_Website_Accessibility@mckinsey.com

Active efforts to ensure compliance with safety requirements are important—as are more stringent restrictions on the use of petrol and diesel engines, measures to reduce pollution, and incentives to switch to electric vehicles.

Tokyo boasts one of the world’s lowest levels of road fatalities—9.6 deaths per one million citizens. Over the past several years, the government has deployed the data-driven Smart Transport Systems to monitor and analyze information on people’s commuting patterns and traffic violations to inform decision making. As a result, road fatalities have decreased, and more people are complying with traffic rules. The government is also using new toll-management technology to decrease vehicle traffic and improve road safety.

In China, Beijing and Shanghai are aggressively curbing the negative environmental impact of their transport systems. Both cities have mandated in 2021 that only vehicles that adhere to the China-6 environmental safety standards (roughly equivalent to the Euro-6 standard in the European Union) can be sold.

In some cases, better communication is needed to bridge gaps between perception and reality

We tracked how satisfied residents are with how their local transport system is doing according to specific metrics and based on changes implemented since 2018. Residents appear to appreciate the hard work urban authorities have put into those projects, but in a few cases, their perception may not be aligned with reality. For instance, most citizens feel that public transport is too expensive in their cities (Exhibit 6). Even though Seoul stands out as a leader in public-transport affordability based on objective metrics, its citizens remain very dissatisfied.

Perception of public transport is not always aligned with the objective metrics of those transport systems.
We strive to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to our website. If you would like information about this content we will be happy to work with you. Please email us at: McKinsey_Website_Accessibility@mckinsey.com

This suggests that authorities need to ensure that they keep residents informed of all positive changes and continue their efforts to improve public perceptions in those areas. It is highly likely that additional restrictions on personal motor vehicles will be introduced in the coming years and environmental regulations will become more stringent; to improve public perception, city authorities must be able to achieve tangible successes and clearly articulate them.


Our full progress report, which benchmarks the transport systems in 25 cities around the world, will investigate in greater depth the five themes outlined in this article and includes other findings that are relevant to key stakeholders. Overall, while there’s reason to celebrate the many improvements around the world according to the majority of our metrics, there’s still much work left to be done. We hope that our conclusions help stakeholders make informed decisions regarding the further development of city transport systems.

Related Articles