Sustainable Transport: Declaration of Dependence

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Out there in the real world life is a complex interactive system in which things do not exist in isolation but depend heavily on each other.  As Miller and Scott put it: “A complex adaptive system is a system in which a perfect understanding of the individual parts does not automatically convey a perfect understanding of the whole system’s behavior”.  Which means that if our goal is to create a strong and wise policy for sustainable transport in and around our cities we need to change our tools and perspective  as well as our behaviour.  As the Brundtland Report, “Our Common Future” told us already a full generation ago . . .

The following is taken from the peer review  edition of the forthcoming book “BETTER CHOICES: Bringing Sustainable Transport to Your City“. For a copy drop a line to betterchoices@ecoplan,org.

From Our Common Future, the Bruntdland report, 1987 [1]

In the past, responsibility for environmental matters has been placed in environmental ministries and institutions that often have had little or no control over destruction caused by agricultural, industrial, urban development, forestry, and transportation policies and practices. Society has failed to give the responsibility for preventing environmental damage to the ‘sectoral’ ministries and agencies whose policies cause it. Thus our environmental management practices have focused largely upon after-the-fact repair of damage: reforestation, reclaiming desert lands, rebuilding urban environments, restoring natural habitats, and rehabilitating wild lands. The ability to anticipate and prevent environmental damage will require that the ecological dimensions of policy be considered at the same time as the economic, trade, energy, agricultural, and other dimensions.

Declaration of Dependence

Lyon, France. Friday, September 08, 2017

We would be foolish, we would be irresponsible beyond pardon, if we do not start by understanding and accepting that the world climate emergency is the most important single policy issue  of our time.  All of our decisions and actions from this point on must be tempered by the on-going and accelerating planetary challenges that threaten us today: climate change, resource depletion, and species extinctions.

The world climate emergency is here. It is real.  It is unarguable.  It is implacable. And it is threatening the near future of our planet. The period of conceivable doubt is over.  Climate is, or at least should be, the bottom line for all public policy decisions and investments from now on — and no less for policy decisions and investments in the transport sector which for once is well placed to make a massive, and to most of us quite unexpected, near-term contribution.

Planetary issues such as climate change and massive resource depletion, have never had much voice in most local transportation plans and investment decisions.  Nor have matters such as drought, species extinctions,  extreme weather conditions, sea level rises, glacier shrinkage, accelerating resource scarcities, resource wars and the inevitable human and behavioral impacts that inevitably go with a shrinking world.

But this has now changed and changed most dramatically, and that without the whisper of a doubt. It has been a long time coming, but as of the signing and adoption of the Paris COP21 Climate Agreement, this changes the starting point for transport policy, planning and practice as never before. Thus in 2017 when we talk about transport policy, the ultimate marker, the bottom line, is not infrastructure, vehicles, service organization, traffic, connectivity or any of the starting points you will spot if you look at the older plans and strategies. It’s 2017 and there is a new bottom line.  Climate change!

From a policy perspective it starts with the fact that roughly twenty percent of our planet’s climate challenge is a function of our often inefficient, under-performing, resource-hogging transportation systems, with all the macro trends in terms of GHGs and other indicators of systemic inefficiency going in the wrong direction. And of this 20% slice of the problem, approximately half of it has to do with transport in and around cities and settlements.

There are a thousand excellent reasons at the level of the city and the people who live there to rationalize their mobility arrangements: cost, efficiency, reliability, affordability, safety, accessibility, noise, pollution, danger, quality of life and more. But there is one more issue which for most of us is so distant and so abstract that it does not enter into our calculations in any serious way, and that has to do with the survival of our planet.

The on-going world climate emergency sets the foundation, the compass, the map and the timetable for action in our sector. Getting the carbon, and with it fossil fuels, out of the sector is an important goal in any event. But there is far more to it than that.

At the same time substantial GHG reductions work as a strong surrogate for just about everything else to which we need to be giving priority attention in our cities, chief among them the need to cut traffic. Fewer vehicles on the road, or more specifically VKT – Vehicle Kilometers Travelled by fossil fuel powered combustion engines.  VKT reductions lead immediately to reduced energy consumption, less pollution in all forms, fewer accidents, reduced bills for infrastructure construction and maintenance, quieter and safer cities, and the long list goes on.

What is so particularly interesting about the mobility sector is that there is really a great deal we can accomplish in a relatively little time. And at relatively low cost. Beyond this, there is an important joker which also needs to be brought into the picture from the very beginning, and that is that these reductions can be achieved not only without harming the economy or quality of life for the majority of all people. To the contrary, sustainable transport reform can be part of a startling and largely unexpected 21st century economic and environmental transformation.

Time to roll up our sleeves.

[1] The Brundtland Report, “Our Common Future”,  Ch 1. A Threatened Future, Article 46.

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Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Britton is an American political scientist and sustainability activist who has lived and worked in Paris since 1969. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets, his latest book, "BETTER CHOICES: Bringing Sustainable Transport to Your City" focuses on the subject of environment, equity, economy and efficiency in city transport and public space, and helping governments to ask the right questions. A pre-publication edition of Better Choices is currently undergoing an international peer review during Sept.- Oct. 2017, with the goal of publication in English and Chinese editions by end-year. If you wish to participate drop a line to .

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