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A subtopic of: Sustainability
Public transport, goods delivery, private transport and pedestrians in Leidsestraat, Amsterdam
Also relevant to:

Transport · Global warming
Renewable energy  · Sustainable cities

Aspects of sustainable transport:

Transportation demand management
Green transport · Biofuels  · Road safety

Sustainable transport toolbox

Outline of sustainability · List of sustainability topics

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Renewable energy
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Sustainable transport
Plug-in hybrids · Electric vehicles

Sustainable transport (or green transport) is a concept, an ideology and, in some countries, a governmental policy that consists of strengthening or replacing the current transport systems of an urban/suburban area with more fuel-efficient, space-saving and healthy lifestyle-promoting alternatives. The term refers to any means of transport with low impact on the environment, and includes human or animal muscle-powered vehicles, low-carbon fueled vehicles, any kind of vehicle using a renewable source of energy for its propulsion. The most common usage of green transport is walking. A common form of green transport vehicles are hybrid vehicles. Hybrid vehicles use an internal combustion engine combined with an electric engine. Biofuel powered vehicles use fuels derived from plant sources, such as vegetable oil, biodiesel, or bioalcohol for their propultion.

Sustainable transport systems make a positive contribution to the environmental, social and economic sustainability of the communities they serve. Transport systems exist to provide social and economic connections, and people quickly take up the opportunities offered by increased mobility.[1] The advantages of increased mobility need to be weighed against the environmental, social and economic costs that transport systems pose.

Transport systems have significant impacts on the environment, accounting for between 20% and 25% of world energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.[2] Greenhouse gas emissions from transport are increasing at a faster rate than any other energy using sector.[3] Road transport is also a major contributor to local air pollution and smog.[4]

The social costs of transport include road crashes, air pollution, physical inactivity,[5], time taken away from the family while commuting and vulnerability to fuel price increases. Many of these negative impacts fall disproportionately on those social groups who are also least likely to own and drive cars.[6] Traffic congestion imposes economic costs by wasting people's time and by slowing the delivery of goods and services.

Traditional transport planning aims to improve mobility, especially for vehicles, and may fail to adequately consider wider impacts. But the real purpose of transport is access - to work, education, goods and services, friends and family - and there are proven techniques to improve access while simultaneously reducing environmental and social impacts, and managing traffic congestion.[7] Communities which are successfully improving the sustainability of their transport networks are doing so as part of a wider programme of creating more vibrant, livable, sustainable cities.



The term sustainable transport came into use as a logical follow-on from sustainable development, and is used to describe modes of transport, and systems of transport planning, which are consistent with wider concerns of sustainability. There are many definitions of the sustainable transport, and of the related terms sustainable transportation and sustainable mobility.[8] One such definition, from the European Union Council of Ministers of Transport, defines a sustainable transportation system as one that:

  • Allows the basic access and development needs of individuals, companies and society to be met safely and in a manner consistent with human and ecosystem health, and promotes equity within and between successive generations.
  • Is Affordable, operates fairly and efficiently, offers a choice of transport mode, and supports a competitive economy, as well as balanced regional development.
  • Limits emissions and waste within the planet’s ability to absorb them, uses renewable resources at or below their rates of generation, and uses non-renewable resources at or below the rates of development of renewable substitutes, while minimizing the impact on the use of land and the generation of noise.


Japanese print shows various forms of transportation

Most of the tools and concepts of sustainable transport were developed before the phrase was coined. Walking, the first mode of transport, is also the most sustainable.[9] Public transport dates back at least as far as the invention of the public bus by Blaise Pascal in 1662.[10] The first passenger tram began operation in 1807 and the first passenger rail service in 1825. Pedal bicycles date from the 1860s. These were the only personal transport choices available to most people in Western countries prior to World War II, and remain the only options for most people in the developing world. Freight was moved by human power, animal power or rail.

The post-war years brought increased wealth and a demand for much greater mobility for people and goods. The number of road vehicles in Britain increased five-fold between 1950 and 1979,[11] with similar trends in other Western nations. Most affluent countries and cities invested heavily in bigger and better-designed roads and motorways, which were considered essential to underpin growth and prosperity. The core task of transport planning was to design sufficient road capacity to provide for the projected level of traffic growth at acceptable levels of traffic congestion - a technique called "predict and provide". Public investment in transit, walking and cycling declined dramatically in the United States, Great Britain and Australasia, although this did not occur to the same extent in Canada or mainland Europe.[12][13]

Concerns about the sustainability of this approach became widespread during the 1973 oil crisis and the 1979 energy crisis. The high cost and limited availability of fuel led to a resurgence of interest in alternatives to single occupancy vehicle travel.

Oil price trend, 1939–2007, both nominal and adjusted to inflation.
Vehicle miles travelled in the United States to March 2009.

Transport innovations dating from this period include high-occupancy vehicle lanes, citywide carpool systems and transportation demand management. Singapore implemented congestion pricing in the late 1970s, and Curitiba began implementing its Bus Rapid Transit system in the early 1980s.

Relatively low and stable oil prices during the 1980s and 1990s led to significant increases in vehicle travel from 1980-2000, both directly because people chose to travel by car more often and for greater distances, and indirectly because cities developed tracts of suburban housing, distant from shops and from workplaces, now referred to as urban sprawl. Trends in freight logistics, including a movement from rail and coastal shipping to road freight and a requirement for just in time deliveries, meant that freight traffic grew faster than general vehicle traffic.

At the same time, the academic foundations of the "predict and provide" approach to transport were being questioned, notably by Peter Newman in a set of comparative studies of cities and their transport systems dating from the mid-1980s.[14]

The British Government's White Paper on Transport [15] marked a change in direction for transport planning in the UK. In the introduction to the White Paper, Prime Minister Tony Blair stated that

We recognise that we cannot simply build our way out of the problems we face. It would be environmentally irresponsible - and would not work.

A companion document to the White Paper called "Smarter Choices" researched the potential to scale up the small and scattered sustainable transport initiatives then occurring across Britain, and concluded that the comprehensive application of these techniques could reduce peak period car travel in urban areas by over 20%.[16]

A similar study[17] by the United States Federal Highway Administration,[18] was also released in 2004 and also concluded that a more proactive approach to transportation demand was an important component of overall national transport strategy.

Environmentally sustainable transport

Greenhouse gas emissions from transport vary widely, even for cities of comparable wealth. Source: UITP, Mobility in Cities Database

Transport systems are major emitters of greenhouse gases, responsible for 23% of world energy-related GHG emissions in 2004, with about three quarters coming from road vehicles.[3]. Energy is consumed in the manufacture as well as the use of vehicles, and is embodied in transport infrastructure including roads, bridges and railways.

Currently 95% of transport energy comes from petroleum, although electric trams and trains are also common and natural gas is also used. Biofuels are a less common, and less promising, technology; Brazil met 17% of its transport fuel needs from bioethanol in 2007, but the OECD has warned that the success of biofuels in Brazil is due to specific local circumstances; internationally, biofuels are forecast to have little or no impact on greenhouse emissions, at significantly higher cost than energy efficiency measures.[19] Electric vehicles are another technology which has the potential to reduce transport CO2 emissions, depending on the embodied energy of the vehicle and the source of the electricity.

The environmental impacts of transport can be reduced by improving the walking and cycling environment in cities, and by enhancing the role of public transport, especially electric rail[3]. There are major differences in transport energy consumption between cities; an average U.S. urban dweller uses 24 times more energy annually for private transport than a Chinese urban resident, and almost four times as much as a European urban dweller. These differences cannot be explained by wealth alone but are closely linked to the rates of walking, cycling, and public transport use and to enduring features of the city including urban density and urban design.[20]

Forms of green transport

Simple Walk-Cycle

Battery EV vs. Hydrogen EV.png

Solar Vehicle
Wind-powered electric vehicle

Green Vehicles also include:

Often there can be a sliding scale of green transport depending on the sustainability of the option. Public transport on traditional diesel buses uses less fuel per passenger than private vehicles so is more sustainable than private vehicles, but is not as green as using a solar powered bus.

A tram in Melbourne, Australia
Electric Car General Motors EV1

Transport and social sustainability

Cities with overbuilt roadways have experienced unintended consequences, linked to radical drops in public transport, walking, and cycling. In many cases, streets became void of “life.” Stores, schools, government centers and libraries moved away from central cities, and residents who did not flee to the suburbs experienced a much reduced quality of public space and of public services. As schools were closed their mega-school replacements in outlying areas generated additional traffic; the number of cars on US roads between 7:15 and 8:15 a.m. increases 30% during the school year.[21]

Yet another impact was an increase in sedentary lifestyles, causing and complicating a national epidemic of obesity, and accompanying dramatically increased health care costs.[22][23]

Cities and sustainable transport

Futurama, an exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair, was sponsored by General Motors and showed a vision of the City of Tomorrow.

Cities are shaped by their transport systems. In The City in History, Lewis Mumford documented how the location and layout of cities was shaped around a walkable centre, often located near a port or waterway, and with sububs accessible by animal transport or, later, by rail or tram lines.

In 1939, the New York World's Fair included a model of an imagined city, built around a car-based transport system. In this "greater and better world of tomorrow", residential, commercial and industrial areas were separated, and skyscrapers loomed over a network of urban motorways. These ideas captured the popular imagination, and are credited with influencing city planning from the 1940s to the 1970s.[24]

The popularity of the car in the post-war era led to major changes in the structure and function of cities.[25] There was some opposition to these changes at the time. The writings of Jane Jacobs, in particular The Death and Life of Great American Cities provide a poignant reminder of what was lost in this transformation, and a record of community efforts to resist these changes. Lewis Mumford asked "is the city for cars or for people?".[26].Donald Appleyard documented the consequences for communities of increasing car traffic in "The View from the Road" (1964) and in the UK, Mayer Hillman first published research into the impacts of traffic on child independent mobility in 1971.[27] Despite these notes of caution, trends in car ownership,[11] car use and fuel consumption continued steeply upward throughout the post-war period.

Mainstream transport planning in Europe has, by contrast, never been based on assumptions that the private car was the best or only solution for urban mobility. For example the Dutch Transport Structure Scheme has since the 1970s required that demand for additional vehicle capacity only be met "if the contribution to societal welfare is positive", and since 1990 has included an explicit target to halve the rate of growth in vehicle traffic.[28]

Some cities outside Europe have also consistently linked transport to sustainability and to land use planning, notably Curitiba, Brazil, Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Canada.

Major cities - per capita petrol use vs. population density[29]

The cities and nations that have invested most heavily in car-based transport systems are now the least environmentally sustainable, as measured by per capita fossil fuel use.[20] The social and economic sustainability of car-based urban planning has also been questioned. Within the United States, residents of sprawling cities make more frequent and longer car trips, while residents of traditional urban neighbourhoods make a similar number of trips, but travel shorter distances and walk, cycle and use transit more often.[30]

Sustainable transport policies and governance

Sustainable transport policies have their greatest impact at the city level. Outside Western Europe, cities which have consistently included sustainability as a key consideration in transport and land use planning include Curitiba, Brazil, Bogota, Colombia Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Canada.

Many other cities throughout the world have recognised the need to link sustainability and transport policies, for example by joining Cities for Climate Protection.[31]


Community and grassroots action

Sustainable transport is fundamentally a grassroots movement, albeit one which is now recognised as of citywide, national and international significance.

Whereas it started as a movement driven by environmental concerns, over these last years there has been increased emphasis on social equity and fairness issues, and in particular the need to ensure proper access and services for lower income groups and people with mobility limitations, including the fast growing population of older citizens. Many of the people exposed to the most vehicle noise, pollution and safety risk have been those who do not own, or cannot drive cars, and those for whom the cost of car ownership causes a severe financial burden.[32]


The term Green transport is often used as a greenwash marketing technique for products which are not proven to make a positive contribution to environmental sustainability. Such claims can be legally challenged. For instance Norway's consumer ombudsman has targeted automakers who claim that their cars are "green", "clean" or "environmentally friendly". Manufacturers risk fines if they fail to drop the words. [33] The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) describes green claims on products as very vague, inviting consumers to give a wide range of meanings to the claim, which risks misleading them.[34] In 2008 the ACCC forced a car retailer to stop its green marketing of Saab cars, which was found by the Australian Federal Court as misleading.[35]

Sustainable transport toolbox

The EU Directorate-General for Transport and Energy (DG-TREN) has launched a programme which focusses mostly on Urban Transport. Its main measures are:

  • Collective passenger transport
    • Accessibility
    • Flexibel mobility services
    • Intermodality
    • Marketing
    • Network development
    • Park & Ride
    • People with reduced mobility
    • Public private co-operation
    • Quality Corridors / lines
    • Quality of service
    • Security
    • Ticketing and tarification
    • Travel information
  • Less car intensive lifestyle
  • Urban Goods Transport
    • Clean vehicles / clean fleet
    • Distribution scheme
    • Fleet management & route planning
    • Loading and uploading
    • Loading Zone
    • Public private co-operation
    • Urban distribution center
  • Soft measures
    • Child / school / student mobility
    • Cycling
    • Integrated policies /Integrated planning strategie
    • Intermodal mobility services
    • Mobility center
    • Mobility management (for Events)
    • Mobility management (for housing areas)
    • Mobility management for companies and organisation
    • Mobility marketing and awareness
    • People with reduced mobility
    • User/Citizen Participation
    • Walking
  • Transport management
    • Access management / Enforcement
    • Guidance Systems

An idea that does not really fit in any section but very well suits the theme is proposed in the following article: Joshua M. Pearce, Sara J. Johnson, and Gabriel B. Grant, "3D-Mapping Optimization of Embodied Energy of Transportation", Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 51 pp. 435-453, 2007. [1]

See also

Non-transportation mitigation

Transportation engineering and planning



Public transit


Emissions reduction


Urban design concepts



Synonyms and related terms


  • Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming Automobile Dependence, Island Press, Washington DC, 1999. Newman P and Kenworthy J, ISBN 1-55963-660-2.
  • Sustainable Transportation Networks, Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, England, 2000. Nagurney A, ISBN 1-84064-357-9


  1. ^ Schafer, A. (1998) "The global demand for motorized mobility." Transportation Research A 32(6), 455-477.
  2. ^ ">World Energy Council (2007). "Transport Technologies and Policy Scenarios". World Energy Council. Retrieved 2009-05-26. 
  3. ^ a b c Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007). "IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Mitigation of Climate Change, chapter 5, Transport and its Infrastructure" (pdf). Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Retrieved 2009-05-26. 
  4. ^ "National multipollutant emissions comparison by source sector in 2002". US Environmental Protection Agency. 2002. Retrieved 2009-03-18. 
  5. ^ World Health Organisation, Europe. "Health effects of transport". Retrieved 2008-08-29. 
  6. ^ Social Exclusion Unit, Office of the Prime Minister (UK). "Making the Connections - final report on transport and social exclusion" (PDF). Retrieved 2003-02-01. 
  7. ^ Todd Litman (1998). "Measuring Transportation: Traffic, Mobility and Accessibility". Victoria Transport Policy Institute. Retrieved 2009-03-18. 
  8. ^ Todd Litman (2009). "Sustainable Transportation and TDM". Online TDM Encyclopedia. Victoria Transport Policy Institute. Retrieved 2009-04-07. 
  9. ^ "Walking benefits". Transport for London. Retrieved 2009-05-16. 
  10. ^ "March 18, 1662: The Bus Starts Here ... in Paris". Wired. Retrieved 2009-05-16. 
  11. ^ a b "Transport Statistics Great Britain 2008: Section 9, Vehicles". Retrieved 2009-03-18. 
  12. ^ "Making Transit Work: insight from Western Europe, Canada and the United States" (PDF). Transportation Research Board. 2001. Retrieved 2008-07-22. 
  13. ^ "Promoting Safe Walking and Cycling to Improve Public Health:Lessons from The Netherlands and Germany" (PDF). American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 93. Retrieved 2008-08-30. 
  14. ^ Cities and Automobile Dependence: An International Sourcebook, Newman P and Kenworthy J, Gower, Aldershot, 1989
  15. ^ >"White Paper on Transport". 2004. Retrieved 2009-07-04. 
  16. ^ Cairns, S et al. (July 2004). "Smarter Choices, Changing the Way we Travel page v". Retrieved 2008-07-27. 
  17. ^ [ similar study]
  18. ^ "Mitigating Traffic Congestion". 2004. Retrieved 2009-07-04. 
  19. ^ OECD. "OECD’s Economic Assessment of Biofuel Support Policies".,3343,fr_2649_33717_41013916_1_1_1_1,00.html. Retrieved 2009-07-31. 
  20. ^ a b Kenworthy, J R Transport Energy Use and Greenhouse Emissions in Urban Passenger Transport Systems : A Study of 84 Global Cities Murdoch University
  21. ^ U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Active Transportation to School Then and Now — Barriers and Solutions". KidsWalk-to-School: Resource Materials - DNPAO - CDC. Retrieved 2008-07-22. 
  22. ^ World Health Organisation, Europe. "Health effects of transport". Retrieved 2008-08-29. 
  23. ^ "An interview with Dr Reid Ewing". Relationship between urban sprawl and physical activity, obesity, and morbidity. American Journal of Health Promotion 18[1]: 47-57. September-October 2003. Retrieved 2008-07-25. 
  24. ^ Ellis, Cliff. "Lewis Mumford and Norman Bel Geddes: the highway, the city and the future". Planning Perspectives 20 (1): 51–68. Retrieved 2009-06-14. 
  25. ^ James Howard Kunstler (1993). The Geography of Nowhere. 
  26. ^ Lewis Mumford. "Lewis Mumford on the City". Retrieved 2009-03-18. 
  27. ^ Hillman, Mayer. "Children Key publications". Key publicatonson children's quality of life by Dr. Mayer Hillman. Retrieved 2009-03-18. 
  28. ^ van den Hoorn, T and B van Luipen (2003). "National and Regional Transport Policy in the Netherlands". Retrieved 2008-07-27. 
  29. ^ Newman & Kenworthy 1989, Andrew White Associates, DETR
  30. ^ Ewing, R and R Cervero (2001). "Travel and the Built Environment: A Synthesis" (PDF). Transportation Research Record, 1780: 87-114. 2001. Transportation Research Record 1780,87-114. Retrieved 2008-07-22. 
  31. ^ "ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability". Cities for Climate Protection. International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. 1995-2008. Retrieved 2009-03-18. 
  32. ^ "Making the Connections: Final report on transport and social exclusion". UK Social Exclusion Unit. February 2003. Retrieved 2008-07-22. 
  33. ^ "Norways Says Cars Neither Green Nor Clean". 2007-09-06. Retrieved 2009-10-04. 
  34. ^ ACCC: Green marketing and the Trade Practices Act, 2008, accessed 2009-10-04
  35. ^ ' Coming clean on green, accessed 2009-10-04

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