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Sustainable Development ~ Transport

Author: Prof GH Pirie ~ Department of Geography & Environmental Studies, University of the Western Cape

( Article Type: Sustainable Development )

Have Global Energy Supplies reached their Peak?


A well-known, if controversial documentary film, The End of Suburbia, documents how car dependency in suburban North America has become unsustainable at a moment when global oil supplies are alleged to have reached their peak (see

Arguments about the evidence for peaking, about the feasibility and affordability of alternative energies, greed and short-sightedness, human inventiveness and adaptability, self-regulation and the long-term future of life on the planet – never mind suburbia – will doubtless rage on.

Scientists disagree among themselves and with motor manufacturers; environmentalists quarrel about points of detail; planners dispute the way forward; consumers disagree or behave as if they do not or cannot afford to care at present.

One thing is for sure: the startling film focuses the mind and challenges complacency. The pro-car lobby and the pro-airplane lobby are two that are being obliged to defend their positions: argument, impassioned if not always rational, is succeeding assumptions.

 In an increasingly interconnected world:

  • The mobility of commodities and people has become a key feature of everyday life.
  • The amount of processed natural resource required to power all the motorised vehicles and to lubricate their working parts is soaring annually.
  • The amount of energy required to retrieve this fuel and lubricant from the earth, to process it, and to deliver it to storage and distribution points is increasing correspondingly.
  • Energy is also required to build land, sea and air-transport vehicles, and to dispose of their carcasses at the end of their working life.
  • Building railway lines, pipelines, motorways, parking garages, tunnels, airports, and harbours is also energy intensive.
  • The sustainability of this rapacious level of energy consumption in transport is not in doubt, and there is anxiety about the consequences for competing energy uses in food farming, water pumping, lighting, heating, cooling and cooking, among others.


 Transport and the Environment

Transport joins but also separates. Transport's role in the depletion of energy stocks is one of two major ways in which it is linked with environmental sustainability. The other is via its impact on the environment by way of particulate exhaust emissions from vehicles, and accidental fuel and oil spills or deliberate washing of storage tanks.
Transport is a dirty activity, but one from which users are mostly quite carefully shielded. It accounts for approximately 20% of total world emissions, but users are mostly quite carefully shielded from noticing these unpleasant side effects.
Occasional environmental catastrophes caused by oil tanker accidents make headline news, but the cumulative effect of day-to-day pollution from 700 million road motor vehicles goes largely unnoticed. Cleaner-burn motors are not yet clean burn; "environmentally friendly fuels' are not yet environmentally neutral.
The policy in South Africa of outlawing lead in petrol motor fuel is a step in the right direction, but only a small one. It brings motorists into line with world standards, but is no bold step towards reducing private car use. Fuel tax exemptions on aircraft fuel imports remain in place; a user-pays pollution levy on the cost of airline tickets remains a distant vision.
The incalculable historic damage done to the environment by transport vehicles and transport construction can never be recovered. Many culprit-debtors have died; so too have many victims, including the voiceless and voteless animal and plant species with whom humans share(d) the planet.
During two particularly devastating centuries when transport engineering cleared and levelled tracks and spaces, habitat has disappeared, drainage has been altered and wetlands have been compromised. The transport that enabled suburbanisation destroyed countryside for ever, including the green lungs that people began to think about only after industrialisation and motorisation had begun to take their toll.
The public health bill of transport might be approximated in terms of hospitalisation rates and insurance payouts, but the longterm damage to the environment is inestimable.


Curbing use of Fossil Fuels

The question arises as to whether the unreplenishable fossil fuel used so extravagantly in transport can be curbed or replaced more easily and more quickly than in other industrial processes.


 Public Transport and Car Sharing

The substitutability of mechanised transport on certain trips is entirely possible, especially if they are short-distance.

  • Encouraging collective public transport is one way of diminishing fuel use.
  • Car sharing among urban commuters would help trim fuel use, as would cycling and walking in urban areas where dense, mixed-land uses make walking feasible and effective.
  • Many techniques have been tried to dissuade people from making unnecessary motorised journeys, or to penalise them for travelling unnecessarily and extravagantly. Across the world there are over 500 organisations promoting alternatives to lifestyles built around the car (see
  • Alternative routeings for the R20-billion, 80-kilometre Gautrain Metro-rail project were scrutinised; the location and design of 10 rail stations was also subject to environmental scrutiny (see) albeit somewhat controversial.
  • Excavations for the R2.6-billion construction of Ngqura (Coega) deepwater port have protected Bontveld,island and dune biomes. 
  • In the long term, achieving environmentally sustainable transport will probably involve changing the global car culture according to which permanent access to a self-owned, self-drive private car is a social aspiration and a mark of social status.
  • Campaigning for a counter-culture is in its infancy; countries that have seen fit to restrict tobacco advertising might do the same for car advertising.
  • In the short term, without a cultural shift, steps are needed to lower dependency on private cars on journeys for which there is an alternative. 
  • South Africa's National Car Pool Week aims to create awareness around the possibilities and benefits of sharing transport. 
  • Enhanced provision of public transport (including safer, cleaner, more reliable and convenient service) is an obvious way forward. This way, commuters might be persuaded to switch from selfish, singly occupied cars for regular, predictable, high-volume trunk route trips that are ideally suited to mass public transit.
  • Incentives and penalties for unnecessary car use might include car-free days and (automated) vehicle tolling for entry into high-traffic urban zones.
  • Without waiting to perfect the accounting, transport users and providers need to be made to pay toward the real (long-term) financial, social and environmental costs of journeys that damage public infrastructure, foul the air, and undermine economic productivity by creating congestion that delays deliveries and interrupts work.
  • Corporate air travellers need to make more use of tele- and videoconferencing and virtual meetings.

Tax and Price Incentives

    Tax and other price incentives help, but are hard to manage. In South Africa, unfortunately, the burden of costly, energy demanding commuter transport is disproportionately borne by those least able to do much about it by virtue of their poverty and the separation of their places of work and living. The unfairness of the geographically and socially distorted consumption of transport energy is a major political and moral issue generally. Slow animal-drawn transport wagons in the Third World may appear 'primitive', but in another way they are ahead of their time and users should feel environmentally righteous: construction material is local, and like the power unit and its emissions, is fully recyclable and disconnected from fossil fuel exploitation.


Government Policy and Private Behaviour 

    There is a school of thought that land, fuel, vehicle and parking prices in the marketplace will ultimately rescue the environment from energy depletion, and that interventions in public policy and private behaviour will never be as effective. Government policy is even contradictory. It seeks, for example, to minimise pollution while simultaneously aiming to maximise visits by overseas tourists using long-haul flights, and to optimise employment in motor manufacture as part of job creation, job protection and regional development strategy.

    In the freight sector, certainly, the market rules - the shippers of commodities and food blithely perform whatever service consumers are prepared to pay for, be it Parisian-baked baguettes flown into New York each morning for breakfast, or fresh salads and flowers carted half way across the world for a spoiled elite.


Community Self-Sufficiency in Food Production 

    Transport's role in the collapse of local economies is being understood better and better, and reverting to a greater degree of community self-sufficiency in food production, among other things, is one that appeals not just because it is environmentally sustainable, but because it has positive social consequences in building neighbourliness too.


Environmental Audits for Public Transport Projects 

    Happily, we have moved into an era when all major public transport projects are required by law to submit to an environmental audit. Environmental spoilation has in many cases been made temporary rather than permanent, for instance, by replanting, restocking, and river channel diversion.

    In South Africa, examples of environmetally tested major transport construction projects are Metro-rail's Gautrain and Ngqura Deepwater Port.

    It is another question entirely how severe the financial penalties are for environmental transgressions.

    Tremendous goodwill exists in the transport sector to improve its environmental record. Sincere efforts to move people and commodities about in an environmentally sustainable fashion are not, however, only about transport. The way societies and economies are organised and funded impacts significantly on how much can be achieved in environmental conservation by transport measures alone.


Public Education and Action 

    Steps taken by individuals and families to minimise unnecessary vehicle travel (e.g. by buying local produce and shopping locally) and to learn about and become conscious of the environmental toll of mechanised transport are the building blocks of a more sustainable environment.