Governments seem to find it easier to talk about energy than transport. Most of us can agree that renewable energy is a good thing, and that shifting towards low carbon electricity is a sensible thing to do. On transport however, it quickly gets more politically difficult. The biggest obstacle to sustainable transport is the private car, and woe betide the politician that threatens the motorist. Campaigners are often little better, since most of us want to keep our cars and holiday flights and don’t want to be challenged on it.
Perhaps that goes some way towards explaining why this year saw the first ever global survey of mobility. Global energy surveys are common, and there are bold international alliances for universal energy access. But it’s taken until 2017 for someone to compile similar information on transport – or at least, they claim they’re the first: “The Global Mobility Report 2017 (GMR) is the first-ever attempt to examine the performance of the transport sector, globally, and its contribution to a sustainable future.”
What do we learn? Transport accounts for 18% of global emissions. It’s the single biggest energy user in 40% of countries, and the second biggest in the others. And transport emissions are growing – the global population is growing, burgeoning middle classes are getting cars for the first time, and there are plenty of places in the world where people don’t have the transport options they need. A billion people still lack access to an all-weather road.
Like electricity, transport is an important part of development. People need to travel to work, to school, or to access services such as healthcare. Meeting those needs, along with the rising aspirations of those in middle income countries, is likely to add 50% to today’s transport demand.
How do we square that with the need to cut emissions? That’s going to be a long job, involving reducing emissions in some countries and leapfrogging to greener technologies in others. But the first step to coordinating a global response to sustainable transport is to start measuring things and working out what the challenge is. Hence this report.
The analysis here has four main categories: universal access, efficiency, safety, and green mobility. A good transport system has an eye on all four, and interestingly, there are some synergies. Green mobility is often safer, because if you’re choosing to cycle or walk you’re not going to pose as much of a risk to other road users – but that only applies if you can segregate pedestrians and cyclists from the traffic. Lower speed limits are better for the environment and reduce accidents.
Universal access can also improve green outcomes. If everyone has access to good quality public transport, more people will travel. But others will shift from private cars to public transport, keeping emissions stable or lowering them. You can see that at work in London, where the bus services are so good that it makes little sense to take a car.
I won’t go into detail now, but this may be a significant report. The transport sector has not been scrutinised at the global level the way energy has, so it feels timely. The idea of universal mobility access is useful, especially when specified as safe, efficient and green. The report also shows the many gaps in what we measure, and until we have global standards and definitions for sustainable transport, it’s hard to know where we are.
Fortunately, this isn’t a one-off. The Sustainable Mobility for All alliance, which includes the UN, World Bank and a bunch of others, plans to issue The Global Mobility Report every two years. There should be plenty of opportunity to build on the start made in 2017.