Expert comment: We are hooked on a toxic transport addiction. Time to break the habit
Thursday 29th Jun 2023, 10.15am
Calls for joined-up thinking behind a transport policy have been put forward for decades, but progress has been limited. Now we are in a place where the problems are mounting and the transport system is actively working against us. But, like the 40-a-day smoker, we need urgently to break bad habits.
Like the 40-a-day smoker, we need urgently to break bad habits
There are three key issues that transport needs to face:
1. Transport remains a stubborn cause of climate change.
Transport is the fourth largest source of CO2 worldwide, and emissions from the sector continue to grow. Long-distance movements of people and goods are causing disproportionate damage – but are also growing the fastest. During the COVID pandemic, when most of us drastically reduced our mobility, the growth in private jet use skyrocketed.
A transition to electric vehicles will help, but will not happen fast enough on the global scale. Electric vehicles are still better for the environment than fossil fuel powered vehicles – as research shows – even taking account of battery production and when coal plays an important role in electricity generation.
But not all people can and will drive, and with car manufacturers replacing more and more small vehicle models with heavier and bigger SUVs, some of the environmental benefits of electrification are negated.
We cannot rely on technological advances…quite simply, we need to change our behaviour
Besides, electrification is no solution for long-distance freight and aviation. Hydrogen fuel cells look like promising alternatives but mass adoption will take decades. In the meantime, global demand for transport will have kept growing.
We cannot rely on technological advances alone to combat transport’s CO2 problem; quite simply we need to change our behaviour. And that means reducing long distance travel, if we are going to reduce emissions.
2. Transport is increasingly vulnerable to climate change
So far, climate adaptation in transport has been too little too late. This is partly because it takes many years, and sometimes decades, to make transport infrastructures sufficiently resilient. It is also because maintenance, repair and upgrading of existing infrastructure less sexy than building new rail lines, roads, port facilities or airport terminals.
Politicians do not see investment in existing infrastructure as a vote winner, and professionals often struggle to make a convincing case to decision makers for adaptation.
The result is that, depending on where one is, current infrastructures are increasingly vulnerable to flooding, drought, high wind, prolonged heat and sometimes extreme cold.
3. Transport is a driver of social inequality.
Since everyday life is, in most places, based around the car, those who are unable to drive for cost, health and other reasons are disadvantaged.
Many of those people will struggle to access jobs, education, healthcare and other services. This often compounds the inequalities they face. And with rail and bus costs high and the service not necessarily excellent, transport is increasingly a case of haves and have nots.
Middle class households often benefit more from new transport infrastructure and new technologies, including autonomous vehicles, than the poorest and most marginalized individuals.
Middle class households often benefit more from new transport infrastructure and new technologies…Less advantaged people are more likely to be in road accidents, more likely to live near to roads and to suffer significant health problems
On top of that, the people most affected by the negative health impacts of transport are…the very people who benefit the least from new infrastructures and technologies for transport.
Less advantaged people are more likely to be in road accidents, more likely to live near to roads and to suffer significant health problems as a result.
And there is a further twist: it is also the poorest and most marginalized whose lives are most affected by climate-related disruptions of transport even though they generated the lowest emissions through their transport activity.
Together with digital communication, water and energy, transport is the glue that holds societies together. It is a domain where climate change, social inequality and health problems come together.
The only way to break the negative cycle is with a joined-up policy that offers genuine alternatives to the car and reducing long-distance transport of people and goods.
The only way to break the negative cycle is with a joined-up policy that offers genuine alternatives to the car and reducing long-distance transport
This, in turn, will require proper public participation, appropriate compensation for people and places whose livelihoods and economies are currently propped up by unsustainable transport systems, and the political will and vision to make uncomfortable decisions.
Getting more people out of their cars and reducing our dependence on long-distance movements of people and goods would be better for equality, better for health, better for congestion, better for liveable streets and…better for the environment.
Oxford’s Transport Studies Unit is 50 years old this week. When it was set up in the 1970s, the transport scene was very different. There were far fewer cars on the road, for a start. But petrol was fully leaded. Today, we can see the problems of social inequality and public health that must be part of the conversation, alongside the environmental arguments.