April 03, 2020

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Driving a Global Shift to Sustainable Transportation

Sustainable transportation solutions are critical – and beginning to happen.


By Michael Replogle and Colin Hughes

(In collaboration with the Worldwatch Institute)

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the commitments to sustainable transportation were some of the greatest achievements of June’s Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD).

Very little could exemplify the world’s need for sustainable transport to the delegates better than the average of six cumulative hours they spent on buses in a traffic-choked commute to the exurban conference site every day. It was a clear sign that despite having adopted strong language for sustainable transport 20 years earlier at the first CSD in Rio, the transportation sector needs to shift to a more sustainable path.

Transportation, after all, is a primary public good and critical to the sustainability of our economies, societies, and natural environments. Without sustainable transportation, children cannot go safely to school, goods cannot efficiently reach markets, and harmful emissions will exacerbate climate change.

Needed: A Global Shift To A Sustainable Transport Paradigm

As we discussed in our chapter, Moving Toward Sustainable Transport, in Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2012, the United Nationscurrent model for transportation development – one of mismanaged motorization – is highly unsustainable: rapid growth in automobile travel and concomitant growth in fossil fuel use, traffic congestion, air pollution, greenhouse gases, and traffic fatalities is degrading the quality of life for people around the world. 

A global shift to a sustainable transport paradigm is desperately needed.

This new archetype must become a central part of economic, social, and environmental agendas. Sustainable transport, similar to other developmental issues, is not a problem for a single group: for urban planners or freight shippers, slum dwellers or suburbanites, the urban or rural, the rich or poor – transport is inextricably linked to the quality of life for each and every human. While momentum for sustainable transport is growing worldwide, a more broad-based and urgent campaign calling for sustainable transport policy is needed worldwide.

Partnership for Sustainable Low-Carbon Transport

Rio+20 provided a major opportunity to coalesce governments around commitments to sustainable development, including transportation. Though there was virtually no mention of transport in the original draft of the political outcome document, Rio+20 became a major breakthrough for sustainable transportation initiatives within the global sustainable development dialogue.

This success was largely achieved by the Partnership for Sustainable Low-Carbon Transport, a coalition SLOCATof over 60 diverse transport-related organizations. Through direct outreach to governments and many high profile events within the UNCSD process, the Partnership strengthened the language regarding the need for sustainable transport in Rio+20’s final outcome document.

Yet, historically, agreements that were supportive of sustainable transport have had little to no impact in making transport more sustainable.

Rio+20 broke away from tradition and was a breakthrough for sustainable transport because the Partnership coordinated 16 voluntary commitments from NGO’s and multilateral institutions.

Most notably, the world’s eight largest multilateral banks (MDBs), committed to invest $175 billion over 10 years to advance more sustainable transport, with annual reporting and monitoring.

These commitments exemplify the array of stakeholders committed to achieving sustainability in the transport sector. Independent oversight will be needed to encourage effective follow-up.

Pushing National Governments To Create Sustainable Transport Systems

Despite this, significant work remains to ensure the momentum for sustainable transport emerging from Rio+20 translates into real change. Most crucially, citizens, businesses, and environmentalists everywhere must continue to push national governments to adopt sustainable transport policies, standards, and funding strategies.

Transport is a primary public good and its sustainability will be determined by the policies and investments made by national governments. Over half of the approximately one trillion dollars annually invested in transport infrastructure and operation worldwide comes from governments, which also set the policies that shape the remaining investment from the private sector.

Sustainable Transport Solutions

Sustainable transport solutions are well known and tested. They include avoiding automobile travel through denser, mixed-use urban development, shifting transport to more cost effective, low-carbon Sustainable Transportation Solutionsmodes like bicycling and rapid bus transit, and improving the energy efficiency of vehicles.

The returns on such investments, in terms of economic, energy, health, and environmental impacts, are greater than that of automobile-focused investments. The success of these solutions is not a question of technology or effectiveness, but of generating sufficient political will and institutional capacity to implement them. 

More and better-targeted investment in transport would be beneficial, but these need to be accompanied by governance reforms to facilitate improved operations of transport systems, with more accountability for performance. It is time for civil society, businesses, and environmentalists worldwide to join forces to foster lower-cost, energy efficient, universally accessible transportation investments, and to cultivate local and global leadership to advance that agenda.

A growing number of cities, from Guangzhou to New York, supported by various leading businesses, are showing how sustainable transport progress can be achieved. New initiatives are coming from national governments in countries like India, Mexico, and Brazil, as well as from United Nations agencies to integrate sustainable transport as a core element of a sustainable development agenda.

As an increasingly urbanized world adds the next billion urban residents in a little more than a decade, it could not be more timely for this paradigm shift in transportation to unfold.

About the Authors:

Colin K. Hughes is a Global Policy Analyst at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy [ITDP]. Before joining ITDP full-time, Hughes worked as a consultant with ITDP and the Global Environmental Facility to develop greenhouse gas analysis methodologies, developed sustainable urbanism projects with the Asian Development Bank, and planned bike-lane networks and bike-sharing facilities in Guangzhou, China. 

Michael A. Replogle is the Global Policy Director and Founder of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a nonprofit organization that since 1985 has worked with city governments and local advocacy groups worldwide to implement projects that reduce poverty, pollution, and oil dependence. He is a strategic advisor on transportation to the Environmental Defense Fund, where he served as transportation director from 1992 to 2009. 


More from The Worldwatch Institute:

Making the Green Economy Go: Scaling Sustainable Energy For All

Desperately Seeking: A Sustainable, Climate-Friendly Food System

Management Education: Planting The Seeds Of Sustainable Education

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