Decisioni coraggiose

Brave decisions

Rethinking the transport sector, especially urban transport, means abandoning the paradigm of privately-owned vehicles in favor of more sustainable solutions. Many cities around the world are shifting their focus to the use of renewable energy sources.

by Nancy Vandycke
05 February 2020
12 min read
by Nancy Vandycke
05 February 2020
12 min read

The world of transport is changing rapidly, and its future path is uncertain.  By 2030, annual passenger traffic will exceed 80 trillion passenger kilometers a fifty percent increase.  Aviation alone will provide about 100 million jobs and generate USD 5.9 trillion in GDP a third of the US GDP.  Similarly, global freight volumes will grow by 70 percent in the next fifteen years. The number of cars is expected to double by 2030 with an additional 1.2 billion cars on the road the result of a growing middle class aspiring for more mobility.

Meeting the growing aspirations for mobility sustainably has the potential to improve the lives and livelihoods of billions of people-their health, their environment, their quality of life - and to help minimize the effects of climate change. Transportation is also the lifeline for communities hit by natural disasters, humanitarian aid for famine and war.

But the costs of today’s mobility systems to society are simply too high. Overall, mobility is associated with gross inequalities in access to opportunities; transport related fatalities; intensive fossil fuel use with large emissions of greenhouse gases, degradation to the environment and increases in air and noise pollution.  In 2012, transport was the largest energy consuming sector in 40 percent of countries worldwide and the second one in the remaining others and energy-related CO2 emissions are expected to grow by 40 percent between 2013 and 2040. The sector contributes to 23 percent of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions and 18 percent of all manmade emissions in the global economy.  This has serious implications, with air pollution both in door and outdoor being recognized as the biggest environmental risk to human health.  Outdoor air pollution alone kills around 3 million people each year.  It is time to reverse this trend. Meeting today’s mobility needs is coming at the cost of future generations, and this path is unsustainable.

For the international community to reverse this trend will require the pursuit of four policy goals: equity in access, efficiency, safety, and green mobility.  Achieving sustainable mobility is the new Global Public Good.

Transport's role recognized

Several governments have pushed for specific solutions. Mexico pledged to decarbonize the transport sector to cut its green house gas (GHG) emissions by 40 percent by 2030.  India set a target of 30 percent electric vehicles by 2030, with at least 15 percent of them on its roads in five years.  A few front - running cities around the world have taken proactive steps to ensure healthier lifestyles and decrease GHG emissions. For example, more than a dozen cities in China have promoted dock - less bike share systems. Some companies, such as Boeing and Virgin, are also striving to develop alternatives to existing mobility solutions.

These actions have taken place in the context of increased awareness of the role of transport to address global challenges such as climate change and social instability.  The United Nations has embraced this agenda, and it has promoted multiple international agreements and conventions that set long-term directions for transport.  Among others, the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN Decade of Action on Road Safety, the New Urban Agenda, the Vienna Landlocked National Program of Action, the Paris Climate Agreement, and the United Nations Global Sustainable Transport Conference have all established new benchmarks against which progress toward sustainable mobility will be measured in the future.

The last five years have seen a significant paradigm shift.  Transport is no longer seen just as aiding improvements in other sectors, such as better educational outcomes, health benefits, or lower agricultural waste. Rather it is seen as a sector in its own right, one crucial to delivering a better and more sustainable future. Political stability and social inclusion cannot be achieved unless everyone’s individual travel needs are met - including older persons, children, people with disabilities, women, and those in vulnerable groups. The changing climate cannot be reversed unless transport cuts its dependency on the fossil fuels associated with road transportation.  In a world increasingly rich and aspiring for more mobility, getting the mobility system “right” has become a defining factor of society’s future.

Tentative steps towards the future

But results have trailed behind the vision.  Aspirations have more often taken precedence over bold actions; innovative solutions have been implemented on an ad hoc basis; and short term tactics from policy makers have superseded the pursuit of an international vision for the common good.  Effort by the private sector, countries and cities have at best had impact on one or two of the policy goals. In many countries, policy makers have promoted the construction of more roads to increase people’s accessibility to opportunities; often, though, this has translated into an increased number of vehicles on the roads, with associated fatalities and pollution.  In other countries, policy makers have promoted a particular technology  for example, electric vehicles to cut on GHG emissions and thereby continued to support a car centric view of mobility.

In 2017, in an effort to bring the international transport community together around a common vision, the Sustainable Mobility for All initiative - a global platform hosted by the World Bank, with 53 international organizations and agencies committed to act with one voice and influence the direction of transport completed an 18 month long consultation effort with transport stakeholders to agree on what is “sustainable mobility” and how to measure country performances on it. Sustainable mobility requires changes in the fundamentals that have structured our post-World War II quest for a mobile and prosperous society. Lack of progress in the past two decades has unsurprisingly led the world to an unsustainable path.

Whether one is looking at driverless cars, electric vehicles, or car sharing, all these technological breakthroughs tend to reinforce a car centric ecosystem that arose from the industrial revolution more than a hundred years ago.  Although we know that motorization comes with a number of adverse consequences, new technologies risk making car use even more dominant.  Preliminary research has shown that technology enabled mobility services like car sharing are already taking riders away from buses, trains, taxis, and bicycles.  More alarmingly, women who formerly used more public transport than men have recently changed their mode of choice to individual car use.

There is no path toward sustainable mobility without a system change. With rapid urbanization, booming world trade, and yet unchanged basic technologies, the current mobility system is stressed. Its survival necessitates a deep structural transformation involving behavioral changes, technology, and interaction with other sectors:

  • The prevailing system largely promotes improvement in dominant modes of transportation, principally individual car use on roads and a shift to public transportation.  All in all, it promotes road use over any other modes of transportation, such as rail and air transport, and encourages the physical movement of people over “virtual” mobility, e.g., online shopping.  The future lies in reducing road use, expanding other modes, creating new ones and avoiding trips.
  • Technology is redefining what is possible for transport.  The ongoing wave of innovation opens up a range of exciting new possibilities for example, fully automated cars.  But there is still uncertainty on alternative solutions envisioned for the future solutions such as e mobility associated with batteries and hydrogen, green methane, sharing, and the seamless integration of transport modes.  Can it be developed at the required scale in an economically sound way?
  • Real transformation of mobility will only come with bold progress throughout all sectors, and energy in particular. For example, 96 percent of transport currently depends on fossil fuel energy.  Many fossil fuel suppliers consider that, by 2050, oil will still be the dominant fuel source for mobility, with natural gas and electricity taking on a growing role.  Research from the IPCC, IEA, and others shows that such a scenario is not compatible with the ambitions set in many international and regional agreements and conventions.  There is a disconnect between the long-term aspirations of stakeholders and their current actions.

Best practices all round to achieve change

To ensure sustainable mobility, the circular economy model of economic development, with its objective of making the most effective use of local resources and protecting the environment offers a promising pathway, especially one to reduce transport’s dependency on fossil fuels. 

Traditional renewable energy solutions such as solar, wind and bioenergy are being explored around the world as alternatives to fuel the transports sector. For example, the Santiago metro in Chile has signed agreements with both solar plants and wind farms with the objective of powering the underground rail network. Wind and solar energy will take center stage in the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s long-term electricity supply, with at least 50 percent of its electricity provided from renewable sources by 2025.  Bioenergy, one of the key technologies to reduce CO2 emissions and dependency on liquid transport fuels, accounts for roughly 9 percent of world total primary energy supply today, with less than 6 percent used for transport, while 90 percent is still dependent on oil. The International Energy Agency projects that biofuels would grow to 27 percent of the world transportation fuel by 2050.

Waste-to-energy technologies offer a promising alternative to more traditional renewable energy.  Organic materials, such as food scraps and green waste are broken down via anaerobic digestion and turned into gas, fertilizer and fuel.  For example, the city of Sacramento uses it to power school and commuter buses. Its application to power planes is also under development. These alternative technologies open up a range of new possibilities to reduce fossil fuel consumption and production, cut large costs associated with its long distance transportation from one side of the world to the other, and make the most of resources locally available.  There are, however, important technological obstacles to overcome, and scalability remains a question mark. 

In the meantime, national and subnational policy makers, together with businesses and civil society, must craft and implement a shared and tailored roadmap of action to achieve the access, efficiency, safety, and green policy goals. Today, public decision-makers have at best policy measures at hand to achieve one policy goal, like cutting on GHG emissions.  Most often, though, these recommendations follow a one-size-fits-all approach and are disconnected from where a country stands relative to achieving that particular goal. Also, the public often assumes that the responsibility for the pursuit of the common good primarily rests upon national and subnational governments, while the private sector should be free to follow its own interests.  The Sustainable Mobility for All (Sum4All) initiative embarked into a major effort to draft a Global Roadmap of Action toward Sustainable Mobility a prerequisite to change the direction of transport.  We invite you to engage to shape this key policy tool for ensuring that the world moves toward a future of sustainable transportation.

Nancy Vandycke

She is Economic Advisor of the Transport Global Practice in the World Bank.  She led the creation of and currently heads “Sustainable Mobility for All” - a global platform that unites 50 international organizations worldwide to change the future of mobility.