Three Powerful Policies for Low Carbon Transport


Transport efficiency, productivity and environmental sustainability continue to present big challenges for city leaders and policy think tanks around the world. As the share of the world’s population living in cities grows to nearly 70 per cent between now and 2050, energy consumption for urban transport is forecast to double to meet travel demand in the world’s mega cities. Whilst this urban growth will be largely driven by economic development and the search for a better quality of life, the resulting success will dramatically change the scale and nature of our communities, and put a tremendous strain on the built environment and infrastructure that delivers vital services like transport, electricity, water, and communications

In Australia, transport is the third largest and second fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, road traffic continues to account for around 80 per cent of transport CO2 emissions, and is expected to reach 9,000 Megaton per year by 2030 if the current transport energy use and mobility trends are not restrained

To deliver substantial reductions in emissions and promote low carbon transport, major policy, behavioural and technological changes would be required to achieve fuel security and climate change targets

Policy instruments for low carbon transport

The policy instruments available to decision makers can be grouped into three broad categories: those that allow travel to be “avoided”; those that “shift” travel to more efficient modes; and those that “improve” the efficiency of vehicles and supporting infrastructure. These policy instruments have the following characteristics:

  • “Avoid” policies address transport energy use, emissions, safety and efficiency by slowing travel growth via city planning and travel demand management (including pricing). These policies include initiatives such as virtual mobility programs (e.g. tele-working) and implementation of logistics technology. They also include initiatives to reduce trip length (such as high density and mixed land use developments) and steps to reduce the need or desire for travel (such as information tools to raise awareness of real travel costs, mobility management and congestion pricing, and promotion of car-pooling and vehicle sharing schemes). In urban freight, for example, this includes freight delivery co-ordination and logistics technologies that decrease travel time by finding shorter or faster routes to destinations. It also includers e-commerce and on-line purchasing models which help consumers to avoid trips, and provide freight operators with increased opportunities to use technologies to maximise the efficiency of their operations
  • “Shift” policies enable and encourage certain movements from private motorised or energy-intensive transport to more efficient modes such as public transport, walking, cycling and rail freight. These policies include initiatives such as integrated public transport and land-use planning, improved bus routes and services, parking restrictions, pricing strategies and road space allocation (e.g. dedicated lanes for cycling or bus rapid transit). Increases in affordable, frequent and seamless public transport can promote greater use of urban rail and bus transport, which in turn alleviates congestion, improves access and travel time to destinations and reduces household expenses on travel. Similarly, increases in affordable electric vehicles (EVs) can encourage travellers to consider greater use of EVs (and electric bikes) particularly for shorter travel. These policies also include initiatives such as shifting freight transport from trucks to rail and water transport where these modes are available
  • “Improve” policies can enhance efficiency and reduce energy consumption and emissions through advanced technologies. In recent years, we have seen a shift in the thinking on how to provide the infrastructure required to support our mobility needs. For example, instead of building additional road capacity, there is more reliance nowadays on using technologies to optimise the performance of existing infrastructure and sweating of assets. The “improve” policies include initiatives which promote the application of urban information technologies, and introduction of efficient fuels and vehicles. They also include policy responses such as advanced-vehicle technologies (e.g. clean diesel trucks and hybrid and plug-in electric cars), vehicle feedback instruments, adoption of Intelligent Transport Systems, low-carbon electricity generation and smart grids for electric vehicle charging station

Examples of smart technologies which can allow us to make significant, positive impacts on the environmental performance of our transport networks already exist. Collectively known as Intelligent Transport Systems, these technology-driven urban mobility systems are now widely recognised as a cost-effective solution for enabling smart transport and sustainable infrastructure outcomes

Potential benefits of “avoid, shift and improve” policies

The policy instruments can help achieve efficiency improvements and emissions abatement while also addressing urban transport challenges such as congestion and poor air quality. According to a recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), improving the energy efficiency of urban transport systems is estimated to save the world economy $70 trillion between now and 2050. The IEA estimates that “avoid” and “shift” policies have the potential to reduce global transport sector expenditure (to year 2050) by nearly USD 30 trillion. When paired with “improve” policies, an “avoid, shift and improve” approach could lower global transport expenditure by nearly USD 70 trillion by 2050. The IEA report draws on examples from more than 30 cities across the globe to show how improvements in transport efficiency and energy use can be achieved through better urban planning, travel demand management and infrastructure technologies

Already, many cities around the world have taken measures to reduce motor vehicle traffic and promote environmentally friendly travel. The policy measures implemented in these cities have resulted in increases in urban transport efficiency, improved passenger mobility, safer roads, reduced congestion, improved health and better air quality

Moving forward

Achieving energy efficiency improvements in urban transport is a challenging task. As the IEA report shows, many cities have nonetheless achieved gains through well-planned policy implementations and outreach and awareness campaigns. Although each city is different and transport efficiency responses vary, the case studies show that the overall path to sustainable transport has a basic common thread: engagement with a broad range of stakeholders to develop and implement clear objectives and policy responses, and ongoing monitoring, evaluation and communication of progress

To achieve the outcomes of sustainable transport, policy makers must take a systems perspective and a long-term view to address urban transport challenges. Governments should also think beyond individual technologies and electoral cycles, and consider how to build – and renew – cities that will accommodate and transport nearly 6.3 billion people by 2050

Hussein Dia is Founder of Urban4square Institute, a research and advisory service in ITS and smart city solutions. He has more than 100 publications in this field including a new book on ITS.  He is also  Editor of the international journal IEEE Transactions on ITS, and Associate Professor at the Centre for Sustainable Infrastructure at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia. Follow on: Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook

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