Turning away from cars? Transport and sustainable development

Transport is an issue that affects everyone – the way people travel and many of the impacts of that travel are felt immediately. Motorised transport has offered a freedom to many, but the downsides of that motorisation have been downplayed. The paradigm of transport planning for the last half of the 20th century was about cars, planes and roads – driven by US highway engineers who exported their approach, and the forecasting and economic models that justified it, to many countries.

Environmentally unsustainable transport

It is now clear that that model – of universal motorisation – is unsustainable. It is unsustainable in environmental terms: pollution from road vehicles and planes contributes to climate change and poor air quality, while new roads destroy landscapes and undermine biodiversity by severance, and by enabling other unsustainable development (from logging to suburban sprawl).

Socially unsustainable transport

It is unsustainable in social terms: road traffic and the road building to cater for it severs communities, and creates car dependence, which hurts both people with cars, who have to drive more than they want to, and those without, who are excluded. This car dependence also builds in obesity and related health problems, as physical activity from walking and cycling falls. Noise and pollution from cars and planes add to health problems. And road traffic kills – 1.3m annually, with 50m injured, and according to the Guardian are the leading cause of death for young people aged five to 29, especially in developing countries.

Economically unsustainable transport

And it is unsustainable in economic terms. It’s not possible to provide enough roads to meet demand, so congestion, especially in urban areas, is endemic. Places that are dominated by cars and roads also tend to be less economically successful, or at least successful despite rather than because of the traffic.

Moving away from cars

We have seen the emergence of a new paradigm. Road building plans have been defeated in many countries, and in some places roads have actually been closed and torn up and replaced with parks and new development. Pedestrianisation or restrictions on city traffic have happened across the developed world – and found generally to help rather than hurt local economies and increase “footfall” in shops. Railways, once regarded as old technology to be replaced by cars and planes, have been revitalised and ridership is increasing in the UK and many other countries (even in the US where city rail networks still exist). Local trams are also back in fashion, and cities that lost their trams are getting them back. There has also been a resurgence in cycling, driven partly by sport but also in some countries by supportive policies and investment.

Pricing of transport has changed too – motoring is taxed as a revenue raiser for Government but also for environmental reasons. Tax breaks that have supported motoring – like tax relief on company cars in the UK – have been scaled back or even changed to promote environmental goals. There have also been moves towards charging for road use – the congestion charge in London, parking taxes in a number of cities, and lorry charges in many countries.  

I love my car vs. I love my phone

All this has changed travel patterns – to the point where some academics are arguing that in developed countries we may have arrived at “peak car”, where the growth in car use and ownership has flattened out and may even be in decline. There are other contributors to this – new communications technologies allow people to work on public transport, more easily than in cars and planes, and the older generation’s love affair with cars appears to have transferred for younger people to laptops, mobiles and MP3 players.

So where do we go from here?

Countries built around cars

Road building and plans for further motorisation are alive and well in many countries. The Irish Republic has built a huge motorway network in the last decade or so – and this has had profound effects on the economy (indeed, it helped fuel the property boom that brought down the Irish banks). The default plans for new cities in many countries still revolve around big roads in many cases.

Other countries look further ahead

But there are signs of change. Models such as Curitiba in Brazil – a city built round huge guided buses rather than cars – have inspired other Latin American cities. China – having first followed the US model and almost got rid of cycling as an old-fashioned pre-industrial technology - has been promoting green cities with good public transport and cycling, and good rail links between them.

Local car alternatives

And we are seeing local transport policies and measures that make it easier for people to cut their car use. “Car clubs”, where members can access cars when they need them, and lift-sharing, have been enabled by technology and are proving popular in some cities. A suite of measures known as “travel demand management” or “smarter choices” have focused on changing travel behaviour, with household-based marketing, travel plans at schools and workplaces and other “travel generators” and initiatives such as training people to cycle safely have been shown to change travel patterns – in three “Sustainable Travel Towns in England where these measures were applied as a package, car use fell by around 11%.

So we know that travel patterns are changing, and that when people are offered alternatives to cars, enough take them to make a difference to overall travel and its impacts. We also have an increasing range of tools to change travel patterns, ranging from making cycling and walking easier and more attractive, through improved public transport into pricing and planning, fund alternatives and make them convenient.

Wanting a car, or wanting to travel?

It might feel like we are struggling uphill – the US model with universal car ownership is a very attractive aspiration, and many of the downsides only become clear when you get there. But city planning, pricing and regulation can change things - vibrant and attractive communities with less car domination do seem to be what people want. Smaller interventions, allied with “transit-oriented development” so that people can choose to leave cars at home, seem to offer ways to make transport more sustainable. Getting this message out – that there are alternative development models other than big roads and big cars and big airports, could lead to others following.

November 2012

About the author

London, UK

Stephen Joseph has been executive director of Campaign for Better Transport since 1988. His wide-ranging expertise and contacts have helped... (Read more)

Stephen Joseph | Timeline for 'Turning away from cars? Transport and sustainable development'

Related themes