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Delivering sustainable transport
By Economist Intelligence Unit  |  Published December 20, 2012

What are the most economically beneficial solutions to achieve sustainable transport?

Globally, the transport sector accounts for 23% of all CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion, and 15% of overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. CO2 emissions from transport rose by 45% from 1990 to 2007, led by emissions from the road sector in terms of volume and by shipping and aviation in terms of highest growth rates. Though the financial crisis has curtailed emissions growth since 2007, the challenge remains reducing emissions, with the number of automobiles expected to double and the number of airline passengers to grow five-fold by 2050.

Urban planning

'Transport bolognaise' is a term coined by Siemens' Crystal Centre for Urban Sustainability highlighting how sustainable transport is interwoven into a city's fabric. Any discussion on transport needs an understanding of the interdependence between transport modes, urban infrastructure and societal attitudes. The European Union, for instance, aspires to remove all conventional fossil-fuelled vehicles from cities by 2050. Realising this goal requires policies not just promoting clean and energy-efficient vehicles, but also ensuring that energy infrastructure be adapted to cope with demand and behavioural changes and that energy generation itself be sufficiently decarbonised.

Sustainable transport begins with urban planning. Ideally, by designing a city with sufficient population density to make public transport feasible. "Forty dwellings per hectare are needed to make public transport viable," says Roger Savage, urban planning director at Atkins. He points to polycentric urban planning using network hubs such as hospitals, universities, and business districts linked with boasting population density along transport corridors, which has a real impact on travel patterns. This low carbon planning approach is currently being adopted in the cities of Mysore and Madurai in India. Additionally, land use needs to be integrated with transport. For example, residential apartments and shops can be integrated into the overall design of railway or mass transit stations reducing commuting over the 'last mile.'

Changing behaviours

"Encouraging behavioural change is vital," says Farshid Kamali, transport planning and management director at Atkins. “In developing economies a privately-owned car is often a status symbol and people are reluctant to use public transport”, observes Mr Kamali. High specification mass transit can change attitudes. The Dubai Metro, the first urban railway in the Arabian peninsula, includes a gold class for businessmen and a feeder bus network. It carries close to 1m passengers daily.

Emboldened by the success of the Dubai Metro in changing attitudes, Atkins is now working on a pedestrian and cycling master plan for Abu Dhabi. This requires micro-urban planning right down to widening the size of footpaths. Designing ways to get people to walk and cycle in sandy and hot desert climate illustrates how the search for sustainable transport is also generating innovative mobility solutions.

Changing behaviour is also important for transport operators. To encourage greater energy efficiency Deutsche Bahn, a German rail operator, trains drivers to drive in an energy-efficient manner. By modifying driving techniques, they can curtail energy consumption. For instance, in a journey between Hamburg and Munich, an Intercity-Express (ICE) driver can save some 4,000 kilowatt-hours by driving carefully- equivalent to the electricity consumed by a four-person household each year.

Technology in transport lags aspirations

The most beneficial technology for sustainable transport in the short term has been advance in communications, according to Mr Kamali. Videoconferencing, Skype and high-speed internet connections reduce demand for transport as employees can work from home or curtail overseas travel. Secondly, devices such as smartphones can encourage demand for sustainable transport by giving the user greater confidence in multimodal travel systems. Keeping commuters informed of delays and disruptions to transport networks reduces the likelihood of waiting and allows commuters to plan alternative routes during their journey if disruptions occur.

Overall though, Mr Kamali believes technology has to catch up with aspirations in sustainable transport. Sustainable technology being widely adopted in transportation is component technology such as regenerative braking, energy-efficient engines and low-carbon intensity fuels with less time required for implementing innovation. Yet more ambitious projects such as hydrogen fuel cell vehicles remain in development. Commercial aircraft silhouettes have remained the same for fifty years - 'blended wing body' designs using an aerodynamically efficient triangular hybrid wing body are still on the drawing board.


Understanding transport as a mobility network is necessary to improve the sustainable performance of freight movement. Increased modal shift of freight needs to occur and goods shipped by road over long distances should shift to less carbon-intensive mediums of transport such as rail, ships and canal boats. This means improving infrastructure to ports and railways. Since 90 % of goods transported internationally go by sea, improving the energy efficiency of ships and introducing cleaner fuels for shipping will have a significant impact on GHG emissions. Other short-term measures the maritime transport sector is examining to reduce emissions include ballast water management and identifying the most energy-efficient routing for vessels based on weather or traffic. In the longer term, the maritime industry is expected to move to a cap and trade model for GHG emissions.

Improving the reliability of rail freight is another way to encourage modal shift from road transport. This means developing dedicated rail freight corridors to ensure freight delivery is not impeded by passenger traffic. In an urban context, sustainable logistics measures are focussing on consolidating freight delivery into the city via central warehouses that then sort cargo, allowing for smaller multi-drop deliveries by a lesser number of vans or trucks. Other measures adopted by operators include low-emission vehicles and night deliveries.

Despite these initiatives, policy actions to implement sustainable transport lack urgency. Limiting global temperatures to 2°C requires rolling out high speed rail to replace short- to-medium haul aeroplane flights; implementing mechanisms for managing GHG emissions in the maritime sector; speeding up the modal shift of road freight to rail and waterways and developing incentives for the large-scale use of low emission vehicles.

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