Editorial: The Seven Simple Truths of Sustainable Mobility (Come argue with me)

Sometimes in life things can be simple. Let’s look at one case.

Doubtless the most severe single problem holding us back in the hard up-hill struggle for “sustainable transport” in cities and countries around the world is that so far everyone seems to have a different definition and a different agenda.  Google offered 947,000 entries under this phrase this morning and all it takes is a quick tour of the Google News rubric to  get a quick education on the enormous range of interpretations of what the phrase means to different people, places and interests.

This is perfectly understandable given the enormous range of interests, circumstances, mind sets, and concerns involved. There are for example all those who are dedicated to improving conditions for pedestrians and cyclists; others pushing in favor of more flexible and responsive public transport services; ridesharing and carsharing; BRT and its many variants; new roles for taxis and other entrepreneurial transport forms; more transparent decision making and real public consultation and involvement; health and safety; emission reductions; energy efficiency; noise reductions; and the long list goes on.

And then on the other side of the ledger there are the wide range of issues and approaches getting attention for both maintaining or radically transforming the role of the automobile in the city. Limiting access, speed reductions, tougher performance standards for suppliers, and arguably most important of all, full cost pricing across the board, whether for purchase, operation, access, parking, and at the end of its life disposal of the two tons of glass and steel I so joyfully bought years ago..

And at the same time there are all those other proposals and approaches which loudly claim to fly under the banner of sustainability but which in our view need to be put to tougher and more public tests. Many of these last call for very large investments of taxpayer money or property, and often are encumbered by considerable lag times before bringing even those benefits to the streets of even that city, never mind to the planet as a whole. (Motto: The bigger the project, the harder the sell, the longer and harder we need to look.)

True enough, the domain of sustainable transport is enormous. But we can make sense of it if we wish.

The first step is for us to get firmly in mind that there are no big bang solutions for sustainable transport. Not in a city anyway. No matter what its claims, no project, no matter how big, ambitious or expensive, can ever offer quality service to more than a few percent of the population. There is instead a very long and extremely varied list of available policies, services and measures: carrots and sticks.

So we really do need a unifying strategy to pull all these threads together in the public interest.

Moreover, we need a strategy that is going to work for the mega challenge cities of India, China and the developing world. For the wealthy cities of the OECD region. For small towns anywhere in the world. Because at the end of the day we all really want the same things (do we not?). We all want deep democracy and active citizen participation to shape their city. Efficient, affordable and fair transport for all. Safe, quiet, good-smelling neighborhoods. Happy, social, integrated, and respectful communities.

The seven truths of Sustainable Mobility:

If you look hard enough, you will see that there is only one overarching strategy that will do the job. It works like this:

Truth 1. We can’t have a sustainable planet without sustainable cities

Truth 2. Nor sustainable cities without sustainable mobility

Truth 3. The key to sustainable mobility is to ensure that every project, every investment, every step we take will end up by reducing motor vehicle miles or kilometers travelled (VMT, VKT) both in that place and overall.

Truth 4. Moreover these reductions have to be achieved strategically, quickly (in the one to five years directly ahead) and at scale. (Otherwise it fails the responsibility test.)

Truth 5. The policy response involves a strategic combination of generous carrots and rigorous sticks, which will of course be different from city to city and country to country, but even with all the necessary variations to accommodate the uniqueness of each place the central lines of the strategy will be the same:

Truth 6. We do not have to venture into uncertain territory to achieve these objectives. After the last two decades of on-street experience in leading edge cities around the world, we know all we need to know about both (a) the sticks (economic, regulatory and other instruments to reduce, sequester and control traffic, etc.) and (b) the carrots (all those other ways of getting around which need in each case to be woven into a mobility system of affordability, enhanced life quality, time savings and real choice).

Truth 7. When we reduce VKT/VMT notably and rapidly through the best available means and proven strategies, here are the main benefits
a. We help save the planet: through resource savings and GHG and related  emissions reductions.
b. We proportionally reduce today’s crushing dependence of imported fossil fuels.
c. We create a more human and livable city.

In order to achieve these ambitious – but completely doable – goals, we have to open up more choices and better and fairer mobility for all those in and around our cities who are at present NOT well served by the old (20th century dominant) own-car, no-choice pattern (bearing in mind that this is a majority of all citizens). And we need to understand and orchestrate the very large number of often very small measures and actions will make up the new mobility system into coherent packages of measures

If these are in fact true claims, they constitute an agenda, which brings us to the question: An agenda for whom? Let me answer without hesitating.

• For every mayor and city council on the planet
• For every public agency that is involved in these issue at the local, national or into level
• For every NGO , consultant, specialized research and public interest group
• For every foundation and source of funds that can help execute, improve and reinforce this common agenda.
• For every bank and financial institution that funds public projects in this and related fields.
• For every individual citizen who wishes to take active part in this radical change for their community and for the planet.

(BTW, did you find yourself anywhere on that list? You really should be there.)

Conclusion: We can’t do it just with the carrots. And we certainly can’t do it without the sticks. We know what they are, how they work, and how to bring them on line.

So what is holding us back?

Your turn:

(See reader comments below and  on the New Mobility Cafe at http://tinyurl.com/NewMobCafe)

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