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by David Mozer and Brenda Thickett

"We cannot solve the problems that we have created with the same thinking that created them." [Albert Einstein]

Sustainable Access

The phrase "sustainable development" buzzes around politics and economics today, but seldom is the phase defined and even more rarely is the concept rigorously applied to the future of transport and access issues.

The traditional gauge of "development" has been "GNP" or "GDP." Lately, these have been discredited because of their inability to accurately reflect the "quality of life." An equitable definition and measure of "development" must reflect broad changes in the quality of life, not just the increase wealth of a privileged few. But development can never be "at all costs."

"Sustainability" draws in the environmental considerations and dictates that the system must not only meet the needs and improve the quality of life of today's generation, but must do it without compromising the quality of life of future ones. Recognize that no human activity (as well as elephant, rhino, whale, seal or hummingbird activity) occurs without some effect on the environment. For "sustainability" we must select actions which, along with their bundles of secondary and tertiary consequences, can heal -- preferably from natural, but possibly from constructed systems -- within a reasonable period of time.

Finding a sustainable system in transport will require bigger lifestyle changes than reducing water use with low-flow toilets, reusing beverage bottles and recycling paper. To paraphrase Einstein, "We cannot solve our problems with the same technology and lifestyles that created them."

In "more developed countries" and "less developed countries" alike, a keystone of environmental degradation has been roads. In almost every ecological crisis a road figures someplace in the scenario. Every mile of road that is graded opens more land to vehicles and signals the spread of high impact human activities. But don't roads provide access to education, health care employment, and markets -- the basis of a better quality of life? How fundamental are roads? In many parts of the world less than one percent of the people own cars and less than twenty percent can afford any form of motor transport, yet they all in some way or another get to education, health care, employment and markets. Even where wealth is not a constraint there is a growing number of examples of people having access without relying on the privilege of affluence -- the private automobile. The fundamental enabling element in the current transport system in most of the world is a "laissez-faire" policy towards the public supplying of roads to meet the increasing demand of private automobiles. For example, in Washington State, USA, in the twenty years from 1970 to 1990, the population grew 34%, the number of registered vehicles grew by 76%, the number of person trips increased 85% and the total vehicle miles traveled shot-up by 123%. (Growth Management Clearing-house, Univ. of Washington) These, not atypical figures, show that the number of trips and the distances traveled has increased much faster than the rate of population growth. The government's response has been to build more roads to make it easier for more people to drive more. Congestion has not been reduced and pollution continues to poison the area.

Projections for the future, north and south, are as alarming: Bogota, Columbia, a city of 3.8 million in 1980, is expected to grow to 8 million in the year 2000. While it had a very low motorization rate of 4% in 1980, by 2000, every tenth inhabitant is expected to own a car. The car population will grow from 150,000 to 800,000. At the same time, the population density is expected to decrease slightly (with suburbanization), causing the average trip length to grow and mobility to increase slightly (from 1.5 to 1.92 trips per day.) Combining all these factors, the required road space will have to increase by 500% (Urs Heierli, "Environmental Limits to Motorization.") In the process of supplying and using the system of demand-by-private- automobiles we have collectively: fouled oceans, rivers, lakes, ponds, wells and estuaries; sealed-over 50% of many urban areas for streets and car storage (storage for one automobile takes more space than many people have for living); killed millions people; maimed tens of millions more; poisoned the air for hundreds of millions; increased asthma and allergies; exacerbated urban flooding, caused nutrient rich topsoil erosion and river silting; denigrated fish spawning areas, fish populations and wildlife habitat; choked, starved and compacted aquifers; created mountains of used tires and auto bodies; and, changed the earth's climate. If a faction of any city's cars were collected in a factory building and left running, the factory would quickly be shutdown because of its cloud of emissions.

In addition to the environmental consequences, roads and motor vehicles have social implications. Roads benefit primarily the rich who can afford cars and widen the development-gap between rich and poor. Similarly, the negative impact is harsher on the poor than the elite: roads have formed barriers across neighborhoods, and between homes and education, health care and employment for peoples whose most affordable travel mode is as pedestrians and bicyclists.

In the end the burden of change should not be a question of north vs. south, or urban/suburban vs. rural. Culpability more often runs between rich and poor. The transport decisions of the poor, and certainly the rural poor, on all continents, are not the cause of major environmental destruction or social dislocation. In spending public money on infrastructure that disproportionately benefits the rich, resources are diverted from project to serve the poor, who are further impoverished. Once resource have been poured into roads for a few, they can't be used to improve the walking and bicycling access of the many.

A society and economy which is undermining its livelihood like this clearly is not sustainable. Which means it is self- destructive, or in a word, suicidal. Not a happy thought. And we can not assume that individuals will see their self-interest in this dead-end scenario: After all, if one person bicycles to work, but his neighbor drives his car, the bicyclist will be inhaling the car fumes and the driver has one less person competing for his road and parking space. Another major obstacle to implementing a sustainable transportation system is the urban planning decisions makers who are usually the in or near the economic class that can afford cars and are more insulated than other socio-economic groups from many of the most negative consequences of the present system.

The new paradigm of sustainable access must satisfy the demand for access without continuous destruction of the environment. The specifics of a system will probably and logically be different from location to location, but the main elements will likely come from a common menu. To affect system supply:

  • Implement policies to increase utilization of existing infrastructure, i.e. convert use to only high-occupancy vehicles such as bicycles, motorcycles, carpools, vanpools, buses.
  • Design any new infrastructure that is necessary to primarily serve sustainable systems.
  • Develop an official program to raise the awareness, respect and status of environmentally-friendly travel.
  • Revise traffic codes to favor pedestrians.
  • Create a bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure.
  • Reduce the current infrastructure, i.e. de-paving.
  • Limit urban parking, particularly long-term.
  • Institute traffic calming.
  • Adopt and enforce vehicle emissions standards.
  • Establish and enforce fleet mileage laws.
  • Require the use of zero-emissions motor-vehicles.

Investment in alternative supply systems goes hand in hand with demand restraint policies. To affect traffic demand:

  • Encourage an ethic that, when at all practical, all trips of less than 6 km (3 miles) are by non-motorized modes.
  • Establish progressive road-pricing programs.
  • Institute public- and private-sector "earth-smart" or "green-travel" incentive programs.
  • Adopt growth policies to inhibit urban/suburban sprawl.
  • Revise zoning or land use codes to permit appropriate mixed- use development which reduce trip volumes and distances.

Big cities, north and south of the equator, must work to reduce or avoid large vehicle volumes in the built-out core, where the infrastructure cannot grow. By using travel space optimally and moderating the demand for urban car trips, we will then be closer to a system of sustainable access. 

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The International Bicycle Fund is an independent, non-profit organization. Its primary purpose is to promote bicycle transportation. Most IBF projects and activities fall into one of  four categories: planning and engineering, safety education, economic development assistance and promoting international understanding. IBF's objective is to create a sustainable, people-friendly environment by creating opportunities of the highest practicable quality for bicycle transportation. IBF is funded by private donation. Contributions are always welcome and are U.S. tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.

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