Siloed Sustainability

Sustainability is all about securing, if not a better future, than at least one that is not a whole lot worse for our children and subsequent generations.

This ambition is usually described as having three pillars: Society, Economy, and Environment. It is not unusual to hear that one of these pillars has been given undue priority or another has been unfairly ignored.

But in the last couple of years, I have become aware of another aspect of siloed sustainability. Not three pillars but two challenges, which seem to rarely be considered or addressed by the same people or research. These are the twin climate challenges of mitigation and adaptation.

In transport circles, you might hear about them in discussions of infrastructure resilience or reducing car use. But you are unlikely to hear these discussions in the same room, around the same table.

This is a problem because many agree that the only way the transport sector can really tackle either the climate emergency or emergencies caused by climate change is by highlighting as many ‘co-benefits’ of sustainable (and resilient?!) transport as possible. For example, switching to active travel modes like walking and cycling not only reduces carbon emissions, but is also good for your health and your wallet.

Yet who asks if active travel has a resilience co-benefit or can be promoted as an adaptation measure? True, it seems unlikely that walking or cycling will be attractive options if the weather is too hot or too wet much more often.

However, that is too simplistic a view. Integration of land use and transport planning is key to increasing active travel, with more local service provision. Reducing the distance residents have to travel to access essential services during transport disruption makes communities more resilient because, maybe not during the storm, but when faced with post-storm flooding, walking to a local food shop or pharmacy is probably more practical than driving to such facilities further away.

Yet how often is such a scenario taken into account by those making policy, strategy, and decisions on the sustainability of transport proposals or land use planning developments? And what tools do highways teams have at their disposal to help communities without local services maintain accessibility when they have to close a road after flooding has occurred? The unsatisfactory answers to these questions are a manifestation of siloed sustainability planning.

Another example is the promotion of online access as a sustainable travel alternative. Transport researchers enthusiastically investigated the potential of ICT to reduce the need to travel, and thus reduce the environmental, economic, and social impacts of travel, including congestion, carbon emissions, and severance. However, there have been some disappointing results. Online shopping increases the vehicle mileage required for deliveries. Regular telecommuters tend to live further from their place of employment and make more trips for purposes other than commuting, resulting in only minimal reductions in their travel.

Yet these analyses do not consider the potential of online access to provide a resilient alternative to travelling. Information and communication technology infrastructure is often newer, more robust in extreme weather, and has more redundancy built in due to competition between providers than traditional road and rail networks.

Thus, a proactive approach to integrating online and transport access options would help communities adapt during extreme weather and give them a greater ability to continue to interact socially, maintain productivity, and respond in real time to an emergency. Only the siloed nature of planning for sustainability leaves such integration until the last minute and results in a reactive and piecemeal approach.

Therefore, just as we try to ‘join up’ our thinking on the three pillars of sustainability in order to build a holistic perspective, let’s also not forget to break down the invisible silos between adaptation and mitigation. It will help us all do our jobs better and deliver a better future.

A Haggadah for Transport Planning

To continue my self-imposed tradition, this is the time of year when I wish a Happy Passover to all the closeted transport planners of a Jewish persuasion out there by writing a blog that brings Passover and transport planning together.

Over the last four years, I tended to focus on the story of the Exodus, but this year, I thought I’d look at a different aspect of the holiday: The Haggadah, that all-important booklet that provides the Order for the Seder. Or the Order for the Order. For Seder literally translates as Order, which, considering the chaos that often attends the Passover prayers, festivities, and food of which Jews partake around the dinner table with friends and family, ‘order’ may seem a bit of a misnomer (especially in my family?!). But a good Haggadah can make sense of the occasion. Likewise, good transport planning aims to make sense of the cacophony of spaces we travel through and the ways and means by which we do so.

What specific parallels can I find between transport planning and a Haggadah? Four is an important number during the Seder. The proceedings are punctuated by four cups of wine representing God’s four promises of freedom and redemption. Four is an important number in transport planning too. For example, besides the various debates around accommodating two-wheeled and four-wheeled vehicles, transport modelling is traditionally divided into four – trip generation, trip distribution, modal split, and trip assignment.

I can also imagine breaking the middle matzah and hiding half for the children to find as an afikomen to be a metaphor for filtered permeability – breaking up the road network for children and others who cannot drive so they can find more routes safely open to them. And what about the Hillel sandwich? Transport planners often have to think about balancing space for different groups, just as we balance the bitter with the sweet in that symbolic food.

The most important parts of the Seder, however, are telling the story and having the festive meal. It is important too that transport planning has a narrative about place, community, and connectivity. Like in the Haggadah, where the story starts with the four questions, any transport planning narrative should start by questioning how assumptions and standards actually apply in what are often different, if not unique contexts. And just as the festive meal brings the whole family or congregation together, so transport planning should deliver places that everyone in the community can partake of and connections that allow everyone to have their fill of access to what they need and options to get there.

Finally, towards the end of the Seder, we open the door for the prophet, Elijah, in hopes that he will herald a better future. Likewise, if transport planning is to be a success, then any order or organisation which it brings to the myriad of movement made by people and goods must be future-proofed and help us to a better future. So a transport planning Haggadah might conclude with the prayer of ‘Next year in a sustainable transport paradise!’

Evidentially, my dear Watson

I recently chaired a panel at the Transport Planning Network’s annual event, which presented evidence on the wider benefits of integrating transport and land use planning to promote sustainable transport. The panel was fairly academic, but the presentations were short, snappy, and discussed their area of evidence at a relatively generalist level. There was little that I hadn’t heard before. The audience was full of transport planners and land use planners working in local government, consultancies, and a few from charities, academia or other non-profit organisations with an interest in transport and land use planning. Before opening the panel for questions from the floor, I asked the audience how many had heard at least one piece of evidence that was completely new to them. The response was surprising. So many hands went up that I couldn’t see whether there were any that remained down.

Sherlock Holmes’ famous catch phrase is a contradiction. His deductions are only elementary if they are sitting on a mountain of evidence, and knowledge about that evidence, such as where the evidence in question was made, under what circumstances, etc. At the transport planning event, it would seem that even professionals in the field are sitting on a mountain of evidence, but have not been given the knowledge to interpret it. Now it may be that many in the audience could interpret portions of the evidence. Maybe they knew what economic agglomeration means for sustainable urban forms, but they didn’t know how physical inactivity causes chronic inflammation. Maybe they knew all about the proportion of greenhouse gas emissions caused by longer distance car trips, but they didn’t realise how that could be translated into proportion of transport emissions from dispersed settlement patterns.

The point still remains that there was something they didn’t know. As another task on my list at the moment is writing an article about sustainable mobility that can be understood by people at graduate level outside the discipline, it raises an interesting question if even those in the discipline don’t know some of the key reasons why sustainable mobility matters. Now, I am tasked more with defining the ‘what’ than describing the ‘why’ in this article, but how much information gives people enough to construct the knowledge on which to act?

Another recent trip I made was to take a short course for post-graduates who want to do a little teaching. In that course, there is some discussion about the need to construct knowledge through active learning. Presenting the information is not enough. For students to be able to incorporate the information into their own body of knowledge, the information needs to be presented in such a way that it builds on what they already know and understand, and they need to be engaged in its exploration through asking questions, discussing its relevance, etc.

For information, substitute evidence. Sure, we had a fairly long Q & A session after the panel presentations, but were more than a dozen people truly engaged in active learning? I asked a simple question about whether any of the information presented was new. I didn’t get to ask them whether anything was partially familiar or how it might relate to what evidence they were already using. Evidence is so important to make the case for sustainable transport, sustainable development, sustainable governance. And that case is mainly being made, not to planning professionals, but to politicians and the public, most of whom are even less likely to be familiar with the academic research in the discipline. So hopefully, the Transport Planning Network event fulfilled its aim to build on evidence that the audience already understood, because only then would they have a chance of applying that evidence to their local projects and passing it on to decision-makers and the public in such a way that sustainability meets acceptability.

Note: The Transport Planning Network is a professional network of over 1600 members administered by the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Transport Planning Society.

The Myth-ing Truth

“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” Col. Jessep spits at Lt. Kaffee in the 1992 blockbuster, A Few Good Men.

It was a favourite film in my early teens. I could have quoted whole scenes at the time, but I haven’t seen it for many years. So what made me think of it?

I was reading tweets trending under #cycleactivecity, the Twitter Handle for the Cycle City Active City conference in Leicester on 19-20 May. I should have been there. I had been scheduled a short slot to speak about bike share, but I couldn’t make the logistics / finances of childcare and travel stack up. So I was checking what people there were tweeting about.

Someone had used the opportunity to launch a new website: Cycling Fallacies: http://cyclingfallacies.com/en/.

I admire this initiative and the interactive approach to dispelling common myths about cycling. The authors clearly believe that at least people at a conference on cycling can handle the truth. But does the website itself have a handle on those truths? I’m a transport planner with an ongoing passion for the promotion of sustainable transport and with experience delivering cycle strategy and infrastructure. Surely, I would recognise whether the listed cycling fallacies were myths or not. I had a look.

Yes, there they were. Commonly-heard statements like hilliness or weather or the absence of the Dutch ‘culture’ causing the lack of cycling in Britain. I agree that statements like these aren’t true, and I could give as much or more evidence than the website does as to why.

Some statements of myth were less common, but perhaps because they were so patently false, no explanation was required. Surely, I thought, people aren’t actually claiming that cycling causes congestion, nor that one can’t cycle without getting sweaty. When I used to cycle to work, I simply pedalled slower to avoid the need for a shower on arrival.

Yet I also spotted statements that were less clear-cut fallacy. For example, the need for increased driver education and cyclist skills training are not mythical. They are positive measures, even if they would not solve issues of cycle safety nor increase rates of cycling on their own. I doubt many transport planners or interested members of the public would profess that such measures should be taken in isolation nor that offering training undermines plans to implement cycle infrastructure.

Finally, I saw a statement which challenged me: “Everyone needs to share the road.” Surely, that is truth, not myth? I clicked on it. The explanation was that we can’t depend upon people travelling by car to respect the needs of cyclists on busy roads, so segregation is required. Ok, so maybe I have a different definition of sharing. I was thinking more of the road space, not necessarily the running lanes of a busy distributor road.

That thought might still be myth-understanding the fallacy purported in the original statement. I have been reading Dr Steve Melia’s book, Urban Transport without the Hot Air (2015), and he is also in the business of dispelling myths. He has a chapter on cycling myths and one on shared space myths. If the goal is to increase walking and cycling, he counsels against cycle lanes, shared pedestrian/cycle routes, and the complete ‘decluttering’ advocated by the shared space movement. He points to a lack of evidence on the effectiveness of the latter, and the assumption that there are different ‘types’ of cyclists as myth-takenly supporting the former two approaches. [I noted he attributed this assumption to the vocal British ‘sports’ cyclists and its once representative body, the CTC.] Rather, there should be space allocated fully to each mode on busy streets and ‘filtered permeability’ (through routes for cyclists and pedestrians, but not motor vehicles) on quiet streets.

So is that the myth-ing truth? If so, I think I can handle it.

 

 

STIP Forward

Ten years ago, world leaders of almost 200 nations reached an historic agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stave off the worst impacts of global warming by targeting a global temperature rise of no more than 1.5C. The Paris climate compact of 2015 was not without flaws and compromise, but it was a great achievement to secure signatures from so many countries to a legally binding document on addressing climate change.

One key element agreed was to review progress every five years. The national pledges in 2015 were insufficient to meet the 1.5C or even 2C maximum target, so ambition and action had to ramp up over time. But it was not a smooth ride. Some of the pledges were delayed by domestic politics or watered down by links to economic indicators.

However, the global agreement galvanised cities, who met in a parallel conference at the time. In just five years, walking, cycling, shared electric transport and public transport became the preferred modes of travel and of delivery over private motor vehicles run on fossil fuels. Cities pushed for green building standards, retrofitting buildings for the 21st century and insisting on carbon neutrality for iconic new developments. Such initiatives were supported by large private sector investment, as companies strove to become market leaders in the green economy and secure high-skilled employment for the future.

Thus, the world was on target in 2020 due to local action. However, to continue on that path over the last five years has required the international community to step forward again. We live in a local-global world, where nations can only offer so much, where countries may have less power over their own environment than a group of their neighbours.

Therefore, we have prepared this document, to be modified and ratified at the Climate Review 2025 conference in December. It is the Spatial, Trans-national Infrastructure Plan, and it brings together all infrastructure matters which are international and/or inter-continental. Such matters include aviation, shipping, long-distance pipelines, aqueducts and viaducts, watersheds and river systems, satellites and space installations.

Scientists, activists, economists, planners, senior civil servants, and diplomats have contributed to the pages of the STIP, ensuring it is based on accurate data and appropriate forecasts. We are aware that many of these topics are of strategic, international importance and must be dealt with delicately. However, as was highlighted in 2015, their absence in the original agreement and in many national pledges undermined the ambitions of the accord. Therefore, this Plan considers the impacts and outcomes of such infrastructure on trans-national and global climate without reference to national boundaries in order to maintain neutrality.

Through the work of trans-national teams and computers programmed to remove national bias, this document then offers spatial recommendations for international, inter-continental and global infrastructure. For example it proposes the appropriate number of hub airports and flight patterns in, to and from Western Europe to maximise the carbon efficiency of aviation, without undermining national economies.

We are offering to the world what many countries should offer to their citizens if they are serious about social, economic and environmental sustainability: spatial planning. If accepted by world leaders at the 2025 Review, these spatial planning recommendations will help us take the next step or STIP in preserving our planet for future generations.

 

Sarah Gomez-Chen

UN Climate Ambassador

November 2025

 

 

 

 

Compelling Climate Sceptics

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.