How sustainable transport can save the world

This is not a revolutionary idea, however few towns and cities seem to be implementing this with the scale and will that is required to dramatically improve urban environments and the lives of the increasing numbers of people that inhabit them.

For me sustainable transport includes walking, mobility aids, cycling, public transport (trains, trams, buses.) The jury is out on new variations such as ‘on-demand’ minibuses, which seem to have greater overlap with taxis and currently take a similar quantity of road space per passenger as private vehicles and taxis. The reverse traffic pyramid shown here provides a fantastic way of rethinking how we move around cities efficiently and how funds should be prioritised to reflect this. There was a seminal moment recently when the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo tweeted this image, taking the concept to a mainstream audience.

In the UK, especially outside London, the current mix of public transport is very poor. The Department for Transport releases annual detailed statistics on how we travel in the UK. We can see below how, as a percentage of kilometres travelled, sustainable transport has been dwarfed by cars since the 60’s. Transport shifted from human-centric to car-centric in a relatively short period of time.

Department for transport statistics

So how does increasing the quantity and quality of sustainable transport save the world? Below are eight key environmental and socio-economic issues that would be positively addressed by improved sustainable transport. These were identified in my previous blog ‘Why urban design must save the world’?

Climate change — By definition sustainable transport will emit far less CO and CO₂. Combining walking and cycling with trains, trams and buses to replace private car journeys will emit fewer damaging gases into the environment. Even when compared to electric cars there is benefit in public transport. The energy and resource that goes into bus/train manufacture per passenger mile is less than that of a private electric car. Buses are generally used for many more miles than a car.

Air pollution — Using public transport, cycling and walking reduces the quantity of pollutants emitted by private cars that contribute to poor air quality. Pollutants are mainly particulate matter PM2.5 and PM10 (the number reflects the size of small particles in smoke or various materials) and nitrogen oxides. It’s important to note that particulate matter from transport is not just a result of exhaust emissions, brake and tyre wear also greatly contributes.

The London environment strategy provides comprehensive data on air pollution

Obesity/physical health — The focus here is more on active travel, i.e. walking and cycling which will clearly do more to improve health and cut obesity than driving. However, even taking the bus or train will help as you will be walking to the station/bus stop at either end of your journey. Walking and cycling as part of your commute is an efficient way to reach the NHS recommended exercise guidelines.

Housing supply — There are many indirect arguments that could be made here, but I will focus on a spatial argument. The more sustainable travel we conduct, the less space we need dedicated to transport in a city, ‘In automobile dependent cities, 35 to 50% to land use footprint is accounted by roads and parking lots.’ Reclaiming this land from the road network means more land can be occupied with residential housing, offices or cafes. Here are two examples of how we can use the same size of land.One is Florence, Italy, which houses around 100,000 residents and the other a freeway in Atlanta.

Image courtesy of Steve Mouzon.

Isolation — Prevalent in under 25’s and over 75’s isolation is particularly widespread in low-income individuals who may not be able to afford a car. Providing improved public transport or walkable and cyclable networks would increase mobility and help some people to avoid becoming isolated. Moreover, many elderly or physically disabled people are unable or unwilling to drive themselves. Access to mobility aids and wide pavements that assist with getting around town along with public transport, that is accessible and pleasurable, for people with mobility challenges would help to reduce isolation.

Adapted bikes and tricycles

Inclusivity/Accessibility — This is heavily linked to the above reasoning as isolation is just one of the potential impacts of a physical disability. If there are poor public transport options or small, narrow pavements/infrastructure for assisted walking, wheelchairs, prams and mobility scooters then cities discriminate against less mobile individuals. We also need protected lanes for users of tricycles or wheelchair bikes to ride safely and confidently on streets.

Improved performance of cities — Efficient cities should allow cost-effective movement for the greatest number of people whilst occupying the least amount of space. We can see from the graphic below that rail and dedicated bus rapid transit moves the greatest number of people per hour, per lane. However, we cannot have a station for every street corner, so that must be complemented with walking and cycling facilities to achieve the ‘last mile’ (ideally less than a mile!)

The above image does not include the space/cost taken up for parking of the vehicle. In urban areas the cost of the land per parking space is huge, whether in a car park or on street. Much of the public land in cities is given over to private car parking. We are giving away public land to for the storage of private property and subsidising it for the user at the same time!

Greater beauty — I’m yet to meet anyone who enjoys six-lane highways plowing through the centre of their city. Most see it as a necessary evil for the function of their city, however, we can move a far greater number of people in a far smaller space with existing public transport options. Cities should be places for people to spend time in not to pass through. As demonstrated in Bordeaux, amongst many other cities, trams coexist far better with people than dual carriageways.

Compare and contrast. Central Reading on the left, central Bordeaux on the right. (Not just the weather)

Dramatically increasing the take up of sustainable transport is essential in creating the cities of tomorrow. The crucial yet fortunate thing is that we do not need some new technology, invention or idea to improve how we move around cities. We really only need look back to improve our future.