New York – London and Paris were given a prestigious award this week for their innovative citywide programs to improve public transit and reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy’s 2008 Sustainable Transport Award winners were chosen by a selection committee of international experts in the field from several prominent organizations.

“Both cities [have] done so much effective work,” said Michael Replogle, a member of the selection committee and transportation director for the U.S.-based Environmental Defense. “London with its congestion pricing, funding for better public transit, and improved space for walking and cycling; and Paris’ very effective bicycling, bus rapid transit, and street space management.”

Both cities have achieved significant reductions in vehicle traffic and carbon dioxide emissions.

In London, where drivers used to spend 50 percent of their time in traffic jams, according to Environmental Defense, congestion is down 21 percent and carbon dioxide emissions down 16 percent. More Londoners are riding buses and bicycles around the sprawling city — ridership is up 45 and 43 percent respectively.

Under Paris’ innovative Velib (“Freedom Bikes”) system, riders pay a small fee to use public bicycles that can be picked up and dropped off at any of the numerous city bike stations. Paris has also renovated public green spaces, made city streets more bike-friendly, and expanded bus rapid transit — bringing a 20-percent cut in private vehicle transit and a 9-percent drop in carbon dioxide emissions in 2007.

In addition to reducing the impact on climate change, the programs “improve the quality of life and delightfulness of the cities,” added Replogle.

Guatemala City; Eugene, Oregon; and Pereira, Colombia earned honorable mention for their work to improve bus rapid transit and sustainable land use development.

The fourth annual Sustainable Transport Award comes as other cities around the world are considering ways to promote “greener” local transport — notably Guanjo, China and several dense metropolises in India and Africa.

In the United States, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, Miami, and New York City have been awarded a total of $850 million by the U.S. Department of Transportation to implement congestion pricing programs. Washington, DC, and Arlington, Virginia, are among several U.S. cities starting bike-sharing programs modeled on Paris’ Velib program.

In New York City, the mayor’s proposal for charging a fee for vehicles entering certain areas of Manhattan at high-traffic times has generated headlines and much debate about the cost to commuters. On Jan. 31, the New York Traffic Mitigation Commission on Congestion Pricing will present its recommendations to the City Council, the mayor, and the state legislature.

Andy Darrell, director of Environmental Defense’s Living Cities program, and member of the Traffic Mitigation Commission, says New York City’s plan builds on London’s approach, but with some specific changes to meet the needs of the New York metro region.

“For example, London spends about 40 percent of the total revenues for congestion pricing on operation and management, and we’re looking for a way to make that less expensive for New York City to operate, primarily by reducing the number of cameras involved,” he said.

As New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg knows first-hand, congestion pricing can be a politically difficult proposition — but one that proponents say can pay off for the environment and for city residents.

“By recognizing cities’ successes, this award shows political and civic leaders that it’s possible to create a world-class financial capital without being choked by traffic,” said Darrell.

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and Environmental Defense say they will be tracking future developments in London, Paris, and other cities that have received the award as they work to identify future achievers.