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From gridlock to green light: making city transport work

An innovative city transport strategy reduces congestion, boosts public-transit use, cuts costs, and wins citizens’ backing


A megacity of over ten million people had seen rapid economic growth translate into dire congestion in its transport system. Its traffic jams were ranked amongst the world’s worst, while its bus, metro, and rail systems were overloaded and unreliable.

Citizens were fed up. The typical driver spent over 120 hours a year in traffic jams, while public-transit users spent an average of 16 hours a year just queuing for tickets—making fare evasion rife.

Despite massive spending on transport, though, no solution was in sight: the city’s decision making was just as gridlocked as its roads. The administration lacked reliable data on everything from commuter preferences to traffic flow forecasts, so it struggled to define investment priorities. New public-transport projects often took years to approve and commission.

The city's transportation chief asked McKinsey to help shape a robust fact base out of thousands of data sources available; set strategic priorities for the next decade; and deliver rapid improvements in congestion, journey times and commuter experience. The solutions would have to win citizens’ trust—and reduce, not increase, the city’s transport expenditure.


The depth of the challenge demanded an innovative approach—one that would set the city’s transport system on a path of long-term sustainability while delivering rapid, visible improvements for commuters.

The team started by harnessing big data to create a detailed transportation fact base, including data sources ranging from geospatial analysis of district-level passenger flows, to international benchmarking, to a survey of 40,000 commuters. Out of this we developed an integrated transport model that would allow the city to set strategy and prioritize investments based on a clear picture of current bottlenecks and forecasts of future commuting patterns.

Using the new transport model as a platform, we helped the city define an actionable program to improve all key aspects of transport, including road congestion, parking, taxis, and the capacity, reliability, and service quality of buses and metro and suburban railways. We also helped specify 10-year improvement goals—including increasing public-transport capacity by 360,000 seats per hour, removing 35,000 cars from morning rush-hour traffic, and reducing commuting times by 25 percent.

Translating these goals into reality required further innovation: an open implementation approach that drew on the city’s best talent, a range of external technical experts, nongovernmental organizations, and citizen groups. We established implementation working groups for 20 different program priorities, each bringing together a mix of skilled and motivated leaders from the public, private, and social sectors.

This approach helped foster citizen engagement—bolstered by daily monitoring of commuters’ perceptions and a high-profile communication campaign. It also prioritized the improvements that mattered most to citizens, such as a rapid shift to e-ticketing in public transit to reduce queuing. Finally, it eased the introduction of key changes needed to strengthen economic sustainability, including an increase in parking fees and reduction in public-transport subsidies.


Within 6 months, gridlock in transport decision making was broken, and the city approved numerous key policies and projects, including new infrastructure-development programs for metro and suburban rail, increased competition among public-transport operators, revised policies and tariffs for parking and taxis, and new cargo limitations for trucks entering the city. The transport budget was reconfigured, channeling funding to priority areas and reducing overall capital expenditure.

In the first year of implementation, the city made significant progress in improving service quality and reducing congestion and commuting times. The new e-ticketing system for public transit proved hugely popular, with 200,000 e-cards sold in the 40 days after launch. The number of paying users on the public-transit system increased by 10 percent year on year. Restrictions on trucking at peak hours increased morning traffic speeds on highways by nearly 10 percent, while better parking management eased congestion in the city center—and reduced traffic violations in this zone by 65 percent.

These improvements set the city on course for achieving an efficient, reliable, and economically sustainable transportation system. Just as importantly, the program quickly shifted public sentiment, with as much as 90 percent of residents approving the new measures.


Stuart Shilson

Senior Partner, London