Since the debate began, a few decades ago now, there have been climate change evangelists and fossil fuel fundamentalists. The followers of the former are climate change converts with varying degrees of eco-warrior activity, whilst the followers of the latter are climate change sceptics with varying degrees of gratuitous carbon consumption. Then there is everyone else; people who don’t pay too much attention to the debate, but swing one way or another in terms of the carbon emissions of their actions depending on which direction the currents of legislation, taxes, campaigns and cultural norms sweep them.
Transport is a major source of carbon emissions, so it is no surprise that it can often be a battle ground between evangelists and fundamentalists. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) release yet another report to a world that seems to be in a trend towards scepticism or at least indifference, I have seen a policy swing away from sustainable transport towards road-building and pro-motorist policies. What are sustainable transport promoters like myself to do? I would suggest we use different artillery.
I have long been of the view that the buzzword ‘sustainability’ is not a synonym for ‘environmentally-friendly’ or ‘low carbon’. It encompasses those concepts, yet is intended to mean so much more. Think of it, perhaps, as a synonym for a long-term solution. In the case of transport, we are looking for a long-term solution for all the people that want to travel now to get where they want to go. I propose that walking, cycling and public transport offer better long-term solutions, and thus are more sustainable than car use for reasons beyond climate change. Reasons that the general population, climate change sceptics and even those who, like myself, are followers in the cause of climate change yet without much passion are likely to find more personally compelling.
Reason number one: congestion. Otherwise known as traffic jams or at least the inability to drive as fast as the speed limit and road layout allow. Everyone could drive carbon-neutral electric cars (assuming that the electricity doesn’t come from fossil-fuelled power stations, of course) and it would not solve the problem of congestion in towns, cities or on the strategic road network. Walking, cycling and (busy) public transport are all much more efficient ways to travel in terms of space used per person.
Building more roads creates more space for the car, but it is not sustainable in the sense that there are a finite number of cars that can fit on our road network and a finite amount of land to use for roads in places where people want to travel between homes and jobs, services and facilities. There are even fewer options if valuable housing or employment land is excluded. In the centre of our biggest cities, like London, one might almost say there is a negative amount of land for new roads. That’s why the congestion charge there makes sense. It’s not an environmental measure to reduce carbon, although that is a co-benefit. It’s a measure to tackle congestion.
Reason number two: health. We live in an age of sedentary jobs and sedentary leisure activities. Yet our bodies require quite a lot of moving around to operate at their optimum. What better way to fit regular exercise into your daily routine, for no additional cost, than walking and cycling when you need to travel? It’s a lot cheaper than a gym membership and you can save money compared to driving. If the distances are longer, taking public transport usually provides the opportunity to walk at one or both ends of the journey. Depending on the route, distance and infrastructure, walking, cycling and public transport might take less time than driving. Even when it takes more time to travel, you save the time you were otherwise planning to spend forcing yourself to jog around the block. Exercising more, being healthier – doesn’t that equate to a more sustainable lifestyle?
Reason number three: ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’ Okay, the motor industry does contribute substantially to the world’s economic output. But what about the cost of owning a car, even before fuel prices or parking charges? A family who keeps one car on the road instead of two can save a lot of money. Then there’s the cost of congestion to lost productive time, the cost to businesses of absenteeism due to low physical fitness, the cost of traffic accidents and yes, even pollution. I’m thinking of local air pollution, not just carbon. The stuff that can give people chronic respiratory conditions, with high healthcare costs. The cost to the healthcare system of all these sedentary, unfit families is even higher. So sustainable travel is sustainable for the economy and particularly your household economy.
The IPCC is now 95% sure that man-made climate change is occurring. A large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions are coming from vehicle tailpipes. But if you’re still a climate sceptic, I hope you find that one of the sample of other sustainabilities I describe compels you to occasionally leave your car at home.