PHOTO CAPTION: Professor David Banister

The Dilemmas of Sustainable Transport

Travel growth in a car-dependent society must be confronted so that people travel less, not more, writes Oxford Professor of Transportation Studies at Oxford University, David Banister.

Published: 16-Mar-2009

“Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.” -- Joel Barker, author of the Future Edge (1992), based on a Japanese proverb

We all like talking about sustainable transport, but we are also not very keen about changing the way we actually travel. As a result of this dilemma, the common reaction is to look at technological innovation as the way forward, so that we can continue to travel more, but use less carbon. In principle, this preferred alternative appeals to most people, but the reality is different. Even if we use the most-efficient cars and airplanes, there is still a substantial growth in traffic, and this severely reduces any positive impact resulting from technology. The purchasing patterns of individuals do not match up to expectations, as very few people buy the most energy-efficient options, selecting higher-performance vehicles instead. For air transport, the technological options are limited and many aircraft (e.g. A380) may still be in operation in 2050. There are also the substantial costs of switching from one well-established carbon-based infrastructure to another non-carbon-based system. The transition costs are high. In addition to using the most-efficient technologies, we must also look at ways to change our behaviour.

Cities provide us with one opportunity for such change. We must first look at a sustainable city of the future, in terms of its functions (e.g. employment, government, housing, education and health), as well as its attractiveness (e.g. cultural, social and community). The quality of life should be high, with city-living based around good-quality affordable housing, strong neighbourhood and facilities that are easily accessible. This would seem to match up with the social, environmental and economic elements of the sustainable city. The city must be seen as a place for people, providing opportunities for all, in a safe and secure neighbourhood, with green space and other recreational facilities accessible to all. It is then that we can consider what sort of a sustainable transport system might be most appropriate to fit this vision of the city transport.

It is possible to cover over 50 per cent of all trips by walking or cycling, as is the case in many European cities, and the target could be even higher. The quality of the public transport system should be so good that one should not be compelled to own a car in the city. The car spends most of its time parked, occupying valuable space. It is expensive in terms of capital and running costs, depreciation and insurance costs. The car should be seen as a functional form of transport, not as an icon or an identity statement. If a car is needed, then it could be hired for a specific purpose, and this would ensure that the right-sized vehicle is being used in each situation. These hired vehicles would all be “clean”, probably small electric or plug-in hybrid city vehicles, using the latest technology. Smart-card hire schemes could also be introduced for delivery vans, scooters and bicycles. All public transport would be powered by renewable energy, either electric (trams) or hydrogen fuel cells (buses, bus rapid transit and flexible minibus transport). All transport in the city would be ‘clean’, with low-energy costs and power coming mainly from renewable sources.

Many of the streets could be closed to vehicles, either permanently or at particular times, so that space can be reallocated to priority users, or for markets or for safe travel to schools. Such a change would have health and safety benefits, as would very low speed in residential and shopping areas where people outnumber vehicles. Cities would be designed around their public transport networks, with high densities at public transport accessible interchanges, and new residential locations could be designed as car-free developments. So much is possible.

Three key elements might help in making this dream come true. First, we need to move away from a technological fix, as this is only a continuation of the high carbon energy future that is unsustainable. It totally underestimates the scale of the problem to be addressed in the transport sector, which is characterised by a steady and continuous increase in travel with no real contribution to CO2 reductions. Secondly, the younger generation needs to be engaged in the process of serious debate, as they are the ones who have to sort out the problems that today’s leaders have failed to address. The intergenerational equity argument introduced by Brundtland (1987) has come a full circle. The planet is not being passed to future generations in as good or a better shape as it was inherited. So we must look up to our current young generation to reverse our total inaction. Thirdly, there must be effective leadership that places environmental issues and social equity at the same level, or even above, economic growth. Too often, key environmental and equity concerns are ignored when economic growth is possible, but this option tends to emphasise the short-term gains rather than the longer-term losses. Effective leadership must look at new visions of the city and implement effective strategies (including a substantial increase in the prices for carbon-based travel) that are both politically and publicly acceptable. The challenge of travel growth in a car-dependent society must be confronted, so that people travel less and not more.

The author is Professor of Transport Studies, Director of the Transport Studies Unit and Acting Director of the Environmental Change Institute, Department of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University

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