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Mastercard CEO: In The Ideal City, The Rich Ride The Bus

The Honorable Henry M. Paulson, Jr.

Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga said he wasn’t sure why he was on a panel last night with former treasury secretaries Robert Rubin and Hank Paulson and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark. But he uttered the event’s most tweeted line when he suggested you can measure the health of a city by whether its wealthy citizens use public transit.

Banga was paraphrasing former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who said in a 2013 Ted Talk,  “An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport. Or bicycles.”

A city’s transit system reflects a city’s planning, Banga elaborated, and in a well-planned city, residents and visitors can easily engage with the city’s features and services, and the city’s wealth can readily flow.

“I think transit and transport is priority number one in so many ways,”  Banga said. “I think it’s critical for productivity, because it reduces congestion if you were to use it. I think it’s critical for the quality of life because it reduces pollution.”

The setting was the first Chicago Forum on Global Cities, and Banga’s remarks followed a debate between the two former treasury secretaries about the relative impact of urban and national policies on growth (video).

With most of the world’s population now living in cities, and billions more expected, Hank Paulson insisted manageable growth depends on well-planned cities.

Robert Rubin contended that national policies have more influence.

For example, Paulson said the environmental footprint of cities would “drive the outcome” of climate change or climate mitigation, and Rubin disagreed:

“It seems to me that the single most important thing we can do is change the price of carbon,” Rubin said, “and that can only be done at the federal level.”

Rubin served as treasury secretary from 1993-99, Paulson from 2006-09. Both men worked together at Goldman Sachs in the 1970s and 80s.

“You need enlightened national policies, I don’t want to even debate that,” Paulson agreed, ”but we are going to have a heck of a mess on our hands if we don’t get the urbanization policies right.”

Banga supported Paulson. Asked to describe a well-planned city, he named Bogotá, Colombia, and its former mayor, who has been credited with implementing a large and effective bus-rapid transit system.

In his Ted Talk, Enrique Peñalosa contends that mobility is an issue of equality, and that based on a principle of democratic equality, ”a bus with 80 passengers has a right to 80 times more road space than a car with one.”

Banga added efficiency to Peñalosa’s principle: to function efficiently, cities need not just more infrastructure, but more equitable access to infrastructure.

“That’s an interesting twist to how you think about carbon emissions and the role of public transit in a city,” Banga said. “If you get urbanization right, I think you get a more equitable growth system, a more inclusive growth system, and a far more ecologically and socially sustainable system.

“I’m very focused on transit because I think transport and transit systems change the quality of life of a city completely.”

Banga, CEO of Mastercard since 2010, doesn’t take public transit to the office, a Mastercard spokesman told me via email, but he does use public transit in the city. He rose to the top of Chief Executive magazine’s Wealth Creators Index last year. He has steered Mastercard toward technological innovation, and he prescribed data and technology for cities too.

Currently, cities have to build transit capacity for peak ridership. But they could use data and technology to shave the tops off those peaks, said Banga, using real-time transit trackers and smart phone apps to steer riders to less crowded lines or less crowded hours. Those simple innovations could save cities hundreds of millions of dollars, he said, which could be invested elsewhere in city life.

In a well-planned, technologically-advanced, data-driven city, said Banga, the rich will prefer to ride the bus. And so will everyone else.

If you don’t build Bogotá, he suggested, you get Baltimore:

“In cities with dense concentrations, you have severe inequality and severe issues of exclusion with your growth. And if you don’t fix that, then you get the blight that we’ve seen on American television in recent months with cities that are burning because of inequitable distribution and disgruntled populations.”

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