Five challenges the sustainable development goals present to city leaders

The UN building in New York. Image: Getty.

Back in September, the UN ratified the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS): 17 goals that are intended to provide a blueprint for the next 15 years of the world's development.

But while global leaders were signing the SDGs, less noticed was that more than 20 city and local leaders endorsed them, and committed to implementing them in their own cities. This is interesting and encouraging as many of the goals fall within city leaders’ responsibilities.

Here are some of the challenges that cities in the developing world – both those that endorsed the SDGs, and others that may decide to adopt them – will face.

1.  Lack of good data leaves us in the dark

It may not be the flashiest line of work, but gathering detailed data is the most useful tool for city policymakers to assess their residents’ needs – and target their policies accordingly.

However, many cities in developing countries lack essential up-to-date information on subjects like the location and characteristics of their slums, the state of their housing stock or transport network. It was only recently that a project like Digital Matatus made Nairobi’s semiformal transit system visible.

Without this data, how can officials say whether they are making progress on Goal 11 – that is, to make cities "inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable"? How can they know if basic services are reaching their poorest populations, in line with the SDGs’ "Leave no-one behind" agenda? How are citizens supposed to hold their local governments to account?

There is growing awareness of the need for good disaggregated data, with a number of initiatives – from a Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data to citizen-generated data and data collected by slum dwellers themselves – looking to fill the gaps.

2.  Leaders should pick their targets

With 17 goals and 169 targets, city officials need to prioritise. Trying to do too much may result in achieving too little.

While this is common sense from a practical perspective, it also leads to a real risk of short-term political calculations giving priority to targets that are easier to achieve, with leaders treating the SDGs as a sort of "à la carte menu".

There is only one way to avoid this: civil society groups must keep a close eye on SDG progress and hold city governments to account.

3. Ambition only works if you can finance it

The SDGs have raised the international community’s ambition. Estimates of their cost reach into the trillions of dollars.

While city governments’ responsibilities vary by nation, they are often the ones feeling the pressure of having to deliver basic services – from water and sanitation, to affordable housing – while urban populations rise. But the question of how local governments can access new sources of finance, both from domestic and external sources (particularly climate finance), has not yet received the attention it deserves.

4. Local governments face complex challenges – but often lack the capacity to cope

While reforms to devolve power to local governments are under way in many countries, funding and support to improve local government capacity have often trailed behind.

Many local governments, particularly in secondary cities, lack the technical capacity to plan and manage service delivery on the scale needed to manage increasing populations – or to negotiate complex contracts with private suppliers on an equal footing.

Unless urban planning capacities are strengthened, cities will struggle to meet the challenges posed by rapid urbanisation.

5. Leadership from cities often have a lasting impact beyond them

Change happens when there is political will. If mayors commit to the SDGs because they can see the benefits (including political ones) – or because civil society groups put pressure on them – then we might see results.

There are plenty of examples of ambitious or innovative mayoral initiatives setting a precedent for national policy. Bolsa Familia, the celebrated cash transfer programme in Brazil, actually had its origins in Bolsa Escola, an initiative from the government of Brasilia. That cash transfer programme was aimed at reducing poverty and inequality, but it was also a key element of the opposition’s political strategy.

How countries manage urbanisation over the next 15 years will be critical to reducing poverty and environmental sustainability. Ultimately, it will help define governments’ ability to achieve the SDGs. 

One way to maximise the role of city governments would be to build on the commitments already made by some city leaders and establish a group of cities that frequently monitor and exchange lessons on policies to achieve the SDGs – in essence, a "Cities for SDGs" network.

Throughout their design, the SDGs have received praise and criticism in equal measure. With the goals now agreed, efforts must focus on implementation – and for that, we need city leaders on board.

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Are London’s cycle lanes literally on the wrong side of the road?

A satisfied user of a London cycle lane shows his appreciation to then-mayor Boris Johnson. Image: Getty.

A couple of months ago, I was cycling to work when the bus in front of me slowed. I peered to one side of it, then the other, and looked over my shoulder before pulling out to overtake – a glance motorbike instructors refer to as “the lifesaver” – only to find another cyclist charging into the space I was about the occupy. “Choose a line!”, screamed my fellow road user, who had obviously mistaken the Walworth Road for Herne Hill Velodrome, as they pedalled frantically past.

After I’d finished fuming – and, obviously, overtaken the Lycra lout in a tiring and unbelievably petty commuter chasse-patate – I began to wonder why I’d been thinking about which side of the bus I was going to overtake.

With the increased popularity of cycling in London, the flow of cycle traffic seems to have changed, becoming more opportunistic. Like many cyclists I now filter either side of the motor traffic, and I think I do it more than I used to. While the cycle superhighways are great – especially where they’re physically separate from the road – they often put cyclists in the position of being faster than the motor traffic and on the wrong side of it. On the CS7 from Collier’s Wood to Kennington, for example, cyclists share the road with motor traffic but are forced by the position of the lane to break the most dangerous taboo of urban cycling – passing up the left-hand side of a lorry.

I have never been able to use a lane like this without feeling like I’m in the wrong place, relative to the traffic. So, why aren’t cycle lanes on the other side of the road?

For one thing, given that Britain drives on the left, it makes sense to arrange traffic so that the fastest vehicles are on the right, so that overtaking happens on the right-hand side of the slower vehicle as happens on dual carriageways and motorways. In central London, the average car speed is 7.4mph, while the tracking app Strava – which, admittedly, is likely to be used by faster cyclists – says the average speed of cyclists in London is just under 14mph. This difference grows in rush hour, when cyclists pour around slow-moving motor vehicles.

Secondly, and most importantly, a cyclist on the right-hand side of the cab of a heavy goods vehicle is more visible to the vehicle’s driver. Lorries comprise five per cent of traffic in London but 45 per cent of cyclist fatalities. Many, if not most, of these occur when a lorry turns left and does not notice that a cyclist is in the large blind spot on the far side of the vehicle from the driver. If cycle lanes were on the right, their occupants would be more visible to vehicles; and cyclists could be physically discouraged from occupying the most dangerous areas around an HGV, such as to the side of the cab at a junction. 


London also has a particular hazard for cyclists who are unlucky enough to be hit by a vehicle, in that many streets have guard rails to protect pedestrians from traffic. Fatal accidents have occurred in which cyclists have been crushed against these rails by vehicles, rather than being thrown onto the pavement. But while some have said this is a reason to remove or not install the rails, there is also strong evidence that they protect pedestrians. Again, a better measure might be to move cycle traffic to the other side of the lane, away from the danger zone.

In other accidents, cyclists on the right-hand side have fallen or been shoved by a vehicle into the path of oncoming traffic. If the first lane of oncoming traffic on the other side of the road was a cycle lane, this might make this scenario less dangerous.

It would remove the problem, too, of the many miles of cycle superhighway that are used as generous new parking spaces by drivers, causing cyclists to weave in and out of traffic. 

A lot of drivers would almost certainly be annoyed by the idea of cyclists sauntering past them in what they might consider to be their fast lane. But let’s face it: those people are going to be annoyed by any cyclist, or indeed anything, they see on their journey because they’re in a car, in London, perhaps listening to LBC, which is enough to ruin anyone’s day.

And this, too, might be a reason to put cyclists on the right. The psychologist Tom Stafford has suggested that drivers see cyclists as “free riders” in the traffic system, because they don’t follow the same rules as cars – even if they’re generally aware that they’re following the rules of the road. Dr Rachel Aldred, Reader in Transport at the University of Westminster, has said that cycling is seen by drivers as “playing in the street, and getting in the way of the traffic”. One way to overcome these psychological barriers to accepting cyclists on London’s streets might be to give them a less subjugated position on the road.