Global Policy Forum

Transportation & Sustainability at the Rio+5 Prep Comm


A Commentary by the NGO Transport Caucus

Commission on Sustainable Development
Prep Comm for the Special Session of the UN General Assembly
New York, April, 1997

Quite frankly, we are shocked. Transport has emerged as one of the major challenges governments have to contend with in their struggle for sustainable development, and policy makers all over the world have acknowledged the urgent need to collectively address the motorization and mobility crisis which our planet is facing. And of all people, you would expect the government delegates at the CSD to be aware of the importance of the issue, if only because they had to get through New York traffic to get to the UN in the first place. You would expect them to at least make a serious attempt at wrestling with issues such as exploding motorization, rampant air pollution, soaring accident rates and urban gridlock worldwide. You may even have hoped that they would look at the five year-old provisions in Agenda 21 and at the Habitat II Global Plan of Action and then try to take the few advances that were made one step further, actually genuinely trying to move towards a more sustainable global transportation system.

Whatever your timid expectations may have been, they are sure to have been disappointed, if not ridiculed by the currently circulating drafts for the proposed outcome of UNGASS. If certain fossil fuel-enamored countries governments get their way, Earth Summit II will not even bother to name the main culprit for our transportation crisis. The current proposed language is falling way short of what has already been agreed on in Rio, Istanbul and elsewhere. The UN's risks further damage to its reputation by having another round of meetings which do not even respect agreements made less than a year before. Just as a reminder: Five years ago, Agenda 21 already endorsed investment in pedestrian facilities, bicycle infrastructure and mass transit as effective pollution control measures, and last year's Habitat Global Plan of Action -- adopted by the UNGA 51/177 -- calls for the polluter pays principle to be applied to transport, and for the recognition of the importance of public non-motorized transport. Pretty much all the CSD delegates currently manage to agree on is a meek call for "integrated transport policies and planning" and "partnerships." In light of the daunting transport problems we face worldwide, this amounts to a bad joke. Let's just recapitulate once again some of the alarming facts about our global transport situation:

  • The environmental sustainability of the Earth and the social sustainability of our human settlements are increasingly threatened by the increasing use of private motor vehicles. Currently, transport accounts for 58% of global oil consumed, and 25% of primary energy use, of which road traffic accounts for some 72%. With regard to emissions, the transport sector accounts for 22% of total CO2 emissions, some 66% of CO, some 47% of nitrogen oxide, and 39% of hydrocarbons. Over 70% of these emissions come from the road sector.
  • In cities with severe traffic congestion like Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Manila, and Kuala Lumpur, road transport is already responsible for between 70% and 86% of total airborne pollutants. At current levels of increase, CO2 emissions from the transport sector are projected to rise by between 40% and 100% by the year 2025, and constitutes one of the fastest growing and most threatening contributors to global warming.
  • Health and safety impacts from growing motor vehicle use are already a major concern. For example, airborne lead and CO has caused abbreviated mental development in 7 out of 10 children in Mexico City, while ground level ozone and nitrogen oxide has caused chronic bronchitis and other respiratory diseases in one out of seven of Bangkok's residents. This is not to mention the more than 500, 000 people killed every year in road traffic accidents, and the 50 million seriously injured. In developing countries, more than 60% of the victims are pedestrians and other vulnerable road users.
  • Motorization rates are at record highs worldwide. Over 70% of the motor vehicle-related CO2 emissions currently come from developed countries. However, most of the increase in the next few decades is projected to come from developing countries. Motor vehicle fleets in developing countries motor vehicle fleets are projected to increase by 220% between now and the year 2000!
  • If China motorizes to the same degree as the United States, they will have to pave over the equivalent of 40% of their arable land in order to provide sufficient roadway and parking infrastructure...
  • Motor-vehicle-dependent transportation systems are particularly detrimental to sustainable development in low-income developing countries, because the high costs of road construction, and the dependence on imported oil and vehicles seriously worsen their debt problems. At the same time, only the richest 1% to 20% of the population in lower-income countries have access to a private motor vehicle.
  • Private cars occupy a disproportionate share of available road space, both for driving and parking, and consume a disproportionate share of public expenditures. Extremely valuable central city real estate all around the world is being donated virtually free of charge to the richest fifth of the population for road and parking facilities.
  • In most societies, particularly in rural contexts, women bear the brunt of the transport burden. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where walking is still the predominant mode of transport, women's carrying performance is often ten times that of the men's. These women headload firewood and water over long distances every day without access to any appropriate transport technologies.

Contrary to public opinion, countries do not need to 'motorize' in order to 'modernize.' A growing body of evidence indicates that avoiding dependence on the motor vehicle is critical to maximizing savings, a key to economic growth. Countries with public policies which constrain private motor vehicle use also generally have higher savings rates and lower public debt.

What can the CSD do to promote sustainable transport development worldwide?

The CSD should make transport a priority issue for the CSD Earth Summit II. They should start a Work Program on Transport in 1998. Government should be encouraged to pass legislative measures guaranteeing the full internalization of all social and environmental costs into each mode of transport. In other words, polluters should be charged for the pollution they cause. Governments also should improve the access to existing transport infrastructures for mass transit and non-motorized users and promote these modes as the most socially and environmentally sustainable forms of transport and assure increased and prioritized allocation of road space for modes such as public transit, walking, and cycling which consume less road space per passenger, generate fewer environmental and social externalities, and are used by people of low and moderate incomes. Decision-makers should also give increased recognition to gender differences in transport and mobility needs, both in rural and urban contexts.



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