Sustainable access: Correcting the wrongs of lopsided development

Posted on Aug. 9, 2014 in Perspectives

We cannot solve the problems that we have created with the same thinking that created them.' Albert Einstein

The phrase 'sustainable development' buzzes around politics and economics today, but seldom is the phrase defined and even more rarely is the concept rigorously applied to the future of transport and access issues.

The traditional gauge of 'development' has been GNP or GDP. Lately, these have been discredited because of their inability to accurately reflect the quality of life. An equitable definition and measure of 'development' must reflect broad changes in the quality of life, not just the increase wealth of a privileged few. But development can never be at all costs.

'Sustainability' draws in the environmental considerations and dictates that the system must not only meet the needs and improve the quality of life of today's generation, but it must also do it without compromising the quality of life in the future. It must recognize that no human activity (as well as elephant, rhino, whale, seal, or hummingbird activity) occurs without some effect on the environment. For 'sustainability', we must select actions that, along with their bundles of secondary and tertiary consequences, can heal — preferably from natural, but possibly from constructed, systems — within a reasonable period of time.

Finding a sustainable system in transport will require bigger lifestyle changes than reducing water use with low-flow toilets, reusing beverage bottles and recycling paper. To paraphrase Einstein, 'We cannot solve our problems with the same technology and lifestyles that created them.'

In 'more developed countries' and 'less developed countries' alike, a keystone of environmental degradation has been roads. In almost every ecological crisis, a road figures someplace in the scenario. Every mile of road that is graded opens more land to vehicles and signals the spread of high-impact human activities. But don't roads provide access to education, healthcare employment and markets - the basis of a better quality of life? How fundamental are roads? In many parts of the world, less than one per cent of the people own cars and less than twenty per cent can afford any form of motor transport; yet, they all in some way or another get to education, healthcare, employment and markets. Even where wealth is not a constraint, there is a growing number of examples of people having access without relying on the privilege of affluence - the private automobile. The fundamental enabling element in the current transport system in most of the world is a 'laissez-faire' policy towards the public supplying of roads to meet the increasing demand of private automobiles.

Hence, the number of trips and the distances travelled have increased much faster than the rate of population growth. The government's response has been to build more roads to make it easier for more people to drive more. Congestion has not been reduced and pollution continues to poison the area.

In the process of supplying and using the system of demand-by-private-automobiles, we have collectively: fouled rivers, lakes, ponds, wells and estuaries; sealed over 50 per cent of many urban areas for streets and car storage (storage for one automobile takes more space than many people have for living); killed millions of people; maimed tens of millions more; poisoned the air for hundreds of millions; increased asthma and allergies; exacerbated urban flooding, caused nutrient-rich topsoil erosion and river silting; denigrated fish-spawning areas, fish populations and wildlife habitat; choked, starved and compacted aquifers; created mountains of used tyres and auto bodies; and changed the earth's climate. If a fraction of any city's cars were collected in a factory building and left running, the factory would quickly be shut down because of its cloud of emissions.

In addition to the environmental consequences, roads and motor vehicles have social implications. Roads benefit primarily the rich who can afford cars and widen the development gap between rich and poor. Similarly, the negative impact is harsher on the poor than the elite: roads have formed barriers across neighbourhoods, and between homes and education, healthcare and employment for peoples whose most affordable travel mode is as pedestrians and bicyclists.

In the end, the burden of change should not be a question of urban/suburban vs rural. Culpability more often runs between rich and poor. The transport decisions of the poor, and certainly the rural poor, on all continents are not the cause of major environmental destruction or social dislocation. In spending public money on infrastructure that disproportionately benefits the rich, resources are diverted from projects to serve the poor, who are further impoverished. Once resource has been poured into roads for a few, they cannot be used to improve the walking and bicycling access of the many.

A society and economy that is undermining its livelihood like this is clearly not sustainable. Which means it is self- destructive, or in a word, suicidal. Not a happy thought. And we cannot assume that individuals will see their self-interest in this dead-end scenari after all, if one person bicycles to work, but his neighbour drives his car, the bicyclist will be inhaling the car fumes and the driver has one less person competing for his road and parking space. Another major obstacle to implementing a sustainable transportation system is the urban-planning decision makers who are usually in or near the economic class that can afford cars, and are more insulated than other socio-economic groups from many of the most negative consequences of the present system.

The new paradigm of sustainable access must satisfy the demand for access without continuous destruction of the environment. The specifics of a system will probably and logically be different from location to location, but the main elements will likely come from a common menu. To affect system supply:

  • Implement policies to increase utilization of existing infrastructure, i.e. convert use to high-occupancy vehicles such as carpools, vanpools and buses, in addition to bicycles and electric/hybrid vehicles
  • Design any new infrastructure that is necessary to primarily serve sustainable systems
  • Develop an official programme to raise the awareness and status of environmentally-friendly travel
  • Revise traffic codes to favour pedestrians
  • Create bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure
  • Reduce the current infrastructure, i.e. de-paving
  • Limit urban parking, particularly long term
  • Institute traffic calming
  • Adopt and enforce vehicle-emissions standards
  • Establish and enforce fleet mileage laws
  • Require the use of zero-emission motor vehicles

Investment in alternative supply systems goes hand in hand with demand-restraint policies. To affect traffic demand:

  • Encourage an ethic that, when at all practical, all trips of less than 6 km (3 miles) are by non-motorized modes
  • Establish progressive road-pricing programmes
  • Institute public- and private-sector 'earth-smart' or 'green-travel' incentive programmes
  • Adopt growth policies to inhibit urban/suburban sprawl
  • Revise zoning or land use codes to permit appropriate mixed-use development that reduce trip volumes and distances

Big cities, north and south of the equator, must work to reduce or avoid large vehicle volumes in the built-out core, where the infrastructure cannot grow. By using travel space optimally and moderating the demand for urban car trips, we will then be closer to a system of sustainable access.

First Pulished on Cause Because website



Story Tags: energy, environmental impact, Development, bicycle, transport, bus, urbanization

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