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Transport - where in the world are we going?

Whether it be taking a bus round the corner to the local shops, or an international flight from one side of the globe to the other, transport is fundamental to the world in which we live. Economies rely upon it, communities could not interact without it, people and goods could not move from one place to another. If mass communications connect the world verbally and visually, it is transport that binds it together physically.

As populations grow, cities expand, new markets open up and the pace of globalization becomes ever more pronounced, so too do the challenges facing those involved in transport, from the governments who formulate and implement transport policy, to the industries - automotive, shipping, rail and airline - that supply the basic means of movement.

While the precise nature of those challenges might vary from country to country and industry to industry - planners in the developed world, for instance, have to juggle a wholly different set of dynamics from those in the Third World; the logistics of running an airline are not the same as those of running, say a rail or motor company - there is one issue that above all others dominates the current transport debate: That of sustainable mobility.

Sustainable mobility


The need to increase people's mobility by providing safe, efficient, cost-effective transport, while at the same time minimizing the negative impact of that transport on health, lifestyle and the environment, is the key transport imperative of our time. It informs every aspect of the transport agenda, from the creation of dedicated cycle lanes in urban centres to the development of the latest super-jumbo airliner. As a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) puts it: "Moving people and freight in an environmentally sustainable manner will be one of the biggest challenges of the 21st Century."

The scale and complexity of that challenge are daunting. It is not simply a question of developing strategies to tackle transport-related pollution - crucial in an age of global warming - but also of finding ways to conserve natural resources, ease congestion of roads and airspace, cut noise, reduce the number of accidents and increase social equity by improving transport provision for the poorest nations. All this while at the same time keeping transport affordable and ensuring that economic growth is not stifled.

"There are no quick fixes to this, no single solution," says Bjorn Stigson, President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). "Something has to be done, however, because if we continue the present trends the world transport system simply cannot be sustained."

Al Cormier, President of Canada's Centre for Sustainable Transportation, agrees: "The world's economy depends on transport. If we don't start making the right changes, and adopting the right policies, we are heading towards a very difficult situation."

The great car debate


The issue is particularly pressing for the automotive sector. Road vehicles constitute by far the world's commonest form of motorised transport. In 2002, according to industry analysts, there were 787 million motor vehicles in operation around the world, 586 million of them cars.

Not only are these vehicles responsible for more environmental pollution than any other mode of transport - worldwide, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), they emit a billion and a half metric tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, 80 percent of the transport-related total - but also by far the largest share of transport-related deaths (over a million a year worldwide).

In addition they are a major cause of noise pollution, of traffic congestion - in the U.S. alone, according to the General Accounting Office, it is estimated the economy loses $100 billion annually due to gridlocked roads - and of depletion of natural resources (the motor industry uses 20 percent of all the world's steel, and 60 percent of its natural rubber).

Governments and motor companies alike have for some time acknowledged the need for action. A whole raft of measures have been proposed and, in some cases, implemented, everything from the expansion of urban metro systems to inner-city congestion charging to tighter legislative guidelines on exhaust emissions

In particular, greater emphasis is being placed on technical innovation. Partly on their own initiative, partly under governmental duress, motor companies have been pouring resources into the development of more environmentally friendly fuels to propel their vehicles, as well as lighter materials with which to build them (lighter vehicles require less energy). Electricity, hydrogen, biodiesel, compressed natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, solar energy - all are power technologies that are in various stages of development.

General Motors, for instance - the world's largest car company - has invested heavily in the pollutant-free Hy-Wire, a fibre-glass vehicle that uses a hydrogen-oxygen reaction to power an electric motor.

Similarly Honda has developed the Civic GX, an ultra-low-emission car fuelled by compressed natural gas (the US Environmental Protection Agency named it the cleanest internal combustion vehicle in the world).

If the will to adapt seems to be there, however, the rate of progress remains slow. "It takes a very long time for new technology to work it way into the transport system and to have an impact there," says Bjorn Stigson. "Greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles are likely to continue rising up to 2030 and for some time beyond that, especially in developing countries."

More significantly, any measures to improve automotive sustainability have to be balanced against hard economic realities.

The motor industry is fundamental to most national economies, generating income and providing employment. In Brazil, for instance, it accounts for almost 11 percent of GDP. In the U.S., according to, the industry is worth $378 billion annually and, directly or indirectly, employs one in every 10 people.

However urgent the need for change, neither governments nor companies are going to sacrifice economic stability in order to achieve it.

fast train

Planes, trains and ships

The automotive sector is, and likely to remain for some while, the main focus of attention for those concerned with promoting sustainable mobility. The issue, however, and all its attendant dilemmas, is one that applies across the entire transport spectrum.

The airline industry, for example, is, according to the IPCC, the fastest growing source of global carbon emissions, its current 3 percent share predicted to rise to 15 percent by 2050.

In an effort to address the problem aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus are experimenting with new fuel technologies, while the airlines themselves are looking at making changes to operational procedures to try and cut fuel use (shorter take-offs, for example).

More significantly, there have been increasing calls for the introduction of a tax on aviation fuel (as a result of the Chicago Convention in 1944 the sector has to date been exempt from such taxes). Jacques Barrot, the incoming European Union Transport Commissioner, has indicated that such a move is high on his agenda.

While there is a strong environmental argument for such a tax, however, there is, as with the motor sector, a delicate balancing act to be performed between the need to encourage sustainability and economic realities on the ground.

"The aircraft industry is already in recession," says a representative from the World Economic Form. "This year alone it is going to lose between $7-10 billion. With oil prices so high an additional fuel tax will cause many companies to collapse."

Even the rail and shipping sectors, traditionally the least environmentally damaging and least congestive modes of transport, are having to grapple with the issue of sustainability, albeit in their own unique ways. Lack of investment, for instance, is causing the railway system in many developing countries to slowly collapse, with disastrous effects both for those countries' economies, and for the safety of their citizens.

"Africa is by far the worst hit continent," says Steve Bennett, Associate Editor of the International Railway Journal. "The governments just don't have the money to put into the maintenance of infrastructure and rolling stock, which means that people and goods can't move around, which means the economy crumbles.

"In Zimbabwe, for instance, they don't even have enough fuel to run their trains. Other countries are donating foodstuffs, but they can't transport it to where it is needed."

super cargo ship

What do you think is the key consideration in encouraging more people to use public transport?

The marine industry, meanwhile, is coming under increasing scrutiny because of the contribution its sulphur-rich fuel is making to the formation of acid rain. (In 2000, according to statistics from the European Environmental Bureau, shipping in northern European waters released 2.6 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, a figure that is expected to rise 3.3 million tonnes by 2010).

"It is clearly a problem," Professor David Fowler, an expert in environmental sciences, said in a recent interview. "Until we control what's going on in the ocean we are never going to be free of the blight of acid rain."

Whatever the precise circumstances, sustainable mobility remains the key challenge confronting the world of transport. And whatever the dilemmas, conundrums and conflicts of interest it might involve, it is a challenge that has to be met if people and goods are to continue moving throughout 21st Century.

As Eric Britton, founder of EcoPlan International, and originator of the so-called New Mobility Agenda, bluntly puts it: "If governments and industries don't get to grips with this, we are heading for disaster as usual."

"By which I mean an already bad situation is just going to get a whole lot worse."



Would you consider buying a car powered by an environmentally friendly fuel such as hydrogen or electricity?


  • In 2002 there were 787 million motor vehicles operating around the world, of which 576 million were cars (Source:
  • In 2003 60.3 million motor vehicles were manufactured, 41.8 million of them cars (Source:
  • The largest motor vehicle manufacturer is Detroit-based General Motors. It employs 350,000 people worldwide and in 2003 sold 8.6 million cars and trucks (Source: General Motors Corporation)
  • The world's largest car production plant is Volkswagen's Wolfsburg Factory in Germany. It covers 1.5 million square metres and employs 47,800 people (Source: CXO Media Inc.)
  • In 2002 motor vehicles emitted some 1.5 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)
  • 1.2 million people are killed annually on the world's roads. Almost 50 million are left injured by road accidents (Source: World Health Organisation)


  • Atlanta Hartsfield is the world's busiest airport, handling 76.9 million passengers in 2003. London Heathrow is the busiest international airport, handling 63.3 million passengers in 2003 (Source: Airwise News)
  • The world's busiest air route is between Tokyo and Sapporo. It handles some 45 round trips daily (Source:
  • The largest motor vehicle manufacturer is Detroit-based General Motors. It employs 350,000 people worldwide and in 2003 sold 8.6 million cars and trucks (Source: General Motors Corporation)
  • The world's largest aircraft manufacturers are Chicago-based Boeing and Toulouse-based Airbus. Although Airbus delivered more planes than Boeing in 2003 (305 to 281), Boeing's deliveries were worth more ($18 billion to $17.5) (Source: Bloomberg)
  • The Airbus A380, due to come into operation in 2005/2006, will be the world's largest commercial airliner, capable of carrying 555 passengers (Source: The Sunday Times)


  • The U.S. has the world's largest rail network, with 228,464 kms of track (Source: CIA World Factbook)
  • The Indian rail network is the world's largest under single management (63,140 kms of track). It is also the world's largest commercial employer, with over 1.6 million employees (Source: The Guardian and CIA World Factbook)
  • The Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok is the world's longest railway. It is 9288.2 kms (5,787 miles) long, passes through 87 cities and spans 8 time zones (Source:
  • Sinjuku in Tokyo is the world's busiest station - Over 2 million passengers use it daily (Source: BBC)
  • Moscow has the world's busiest Metro system, servicing 9 million passengers daily, 3.2 billion annually. It also has the world's deepest metro station - Park Pobedy, 90 metres below ground level (Source: BBC)


  • The world's largest ship is the supertanker Knock Nevis It is 458 metres long, 69 metres wide and weighs 564,963 tonnes (Source:
  • The world's largest passenger ship is the Queen Mary 2 - 345 metres long, 45 metres wide, 150,000 tonnes (Source: and
  • The world's busiest seaways are the Malacca Straits in the Southern Hemisphere, and the English Channel in the Northern (Sources: UK Department for Transport and CNN)
  • Singapore is the world's busiest port. In 2003 it was visited by 135,386 ships, with a total cargo of 347 million tonnes. Hong Kong is the world's busiest container port. (Source: Singapore Maritime and Port Authority and Hong Kong Shipper's Council)

External Links

Centre for Sustainable Transportation -

EcoPlan International -

European Environmental Bureau -

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -

International Railway Journal -

New Mobility Agenda -

Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) -

Wards Auto -

World Business Council for Sustainable Development -

World Economic Forum -

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