Low-impact transport: introduction

“Mobility will eventually collapse in cities that give priority to the car.” – Jens Martin Skibsted

What is low-impact transport?

It’s moving people and freight in ways that don’t damage nature, communities and individuals to the extent that the current transport system does – everything from carbon and pollution emissions to covering the countryside in asphalt and concrete and making communities unhealthy, ugly and dangerous. The main culprits are the car, aviation and oil industries, and their impact can be reduced in the following ways:

Reducing the need for transport

As usual, non-technical solutions are simpler than technical solutions. It would be good to build the economy around communities, where people can walk or cycle for work, shopping or leisure, rather than have specialised zones that people have to drive between (think Milton Keynes). This may mean reducing the scale of enterprises, but that works for us. Other aspects of reducing need are living closer to where we work, working from home and low-impact tourism, without flights.

Fuel efficiency / alternative fuels

Fuel efficiency only works to reduce overall fuel use in a stable, non-growing economy, as shown in this graph:

Fuel consumption has almost doubled in the US since 1970, despite fuel efficiency improvements. Source: US Energy Information Administration.

This is due to the Jevons Paradox – i.e. money saved by fuel efficiency is spent on other things, that may actually require more energy than was saved; plus GDP growth will mean that consumption increases overall.

Renewable ways to power transport include electricity (from renewables); wood gas; biodiesel (from waste cooking oil); wind; and muscle power (walking, cycling and animals).

Sharing vehicles

This ranges from sharing our private vehicles (car sharing or hitch-hiking) to sharing public vehicles (trains, buses etc.).

Freight / moving goods

Inland freight is best transported by canal (requires around 6% of the energy per tonne / km compared to trucks, and 2.3% compared to air freight), or by train (9% and 3% respectively), according to the US Dept. of Energy. International freight – well, sail cargo is making a comeback.

But again, localisation will be more effective more quickly, rather than goods being transported to remote locations to be processed (often in other countries) before being transported back for sale; or exporting and importing similar amounts of the same product (meat, potatoes, milk etc.) between countries. Exports are seen as a good thing in this crazy system, rather than each country producing for its home market. Even more locally, cycle courier co-ops are springing up everywhere, which we think is great.

This is low-impact transport…

What are the benefits of low-impact transport?

Environmental

  • Reduces fossil fuel consumption: transport produces more carbon emissions than any other sector in Western countries – around a third.
  • Reduces roadkill.
  • Reduces the need for new roads or to widen existing roads, which destroys habitats and makes the countryside uglier and noisier. We could even allow motorway or dual carriageway lanes, or even entire roads, to return to nature and become wildlife corridors. This has a precedent – the Saxons had no need for the Roman road network that allowed soldiers to move around the empire, and booty to be transported to Rome. They based their economy on local markets, and the old roads became overgrown.

… and this isn’t.

Community / individual

  • Reduces accidents, congestion and noise (and fewer giant articulated trucks trundling through your town or village).
  • Fewer front gardens paved for parking.
  • Improves safety, and allows children to play in the street (over 3000 people per year die in road traffic accidents in the UK, and over 30,000 in the US).
  • Improves health and fitness via improved air quailty and more cycling and walking; fewer cars means more space for cyclists, which means fewer cars, and so on in a virtuous spiral. Also, buses don’t go very fast, and their doors don’t open outwards, like car doors – so buses and bikes complement each other well.
  • You can read or work on public transport.
  • If you can do without a car, you’ll also be doing without repayments or initial cost, MOT, service & repairs, fuel, oil, breakdown service, spares, insurance, parking fees, road tax, fines, tolls and congestion charges – you’ll have more money and fewer headaches.

In the Netherlands, they’ve understood the costs and headaches incurred by congestion, accidents and ill-health, and have funded cycle paths, pedestrianisation and public transport accordingly. Local businesses have benefited.

Democracy

  • Fewer cars sold and fewer flights means less money for car, aviation and oil corporations and less wealth concentration, which corrupts democracy.

What can I do?

If we want a sustainable transport system, then the private car has to take the brunt. But ultimately, if we want to move away from an expensive system that causes regular gridlock and damages the environment as well as our health and communities, then it should be cheaper and easier for four people (let alone one) to travel by public transport rather than by car – and we’re a long way from that. So we have to accept that car use should be a bit more expensive / inconvenient to allow public transport, walking and cycling to become cheaper / more convenient. We’re never going to get a transport system like the one above unless we start to change our habits.

Would our communities be better or worse without all this?

Starting with the assumption that you have a car, these are the things you can do, in order of effectiveness (some of you will start further down this list than others):

Increasing the fuel efficiency of your car

Reduce the amount of fuel you burn by:

  • Following smarter driving tips to save fuel;
  • But not rushing to buy a new fuel-efficient car: any fuel efficiency benefits are likely to be dwarfed by the extremely large amount of energy needed to manufacture it;
  • And not having a 4×4 unless you live on a farm.

Changing the fuel your car uses

Move away from fossil fuels by:

Walking – the greenest mode of transport of all: the more you do, the fitter you’ll get, with no environmental side-effects.

Sharing your car

Help reduce the number of vehicles required by:

Phasing out your car

With a global population heading towards 10 billion, there doesn’t really seem to be a way to have cars sustainably (unless you think that only certain privileged people should have them). In a world without cars, we’d have to reorganise ourselves so that most of what we need to do is within walking and cycling distance.

40% of car journeys are less than 2 miles. Only 27% of people questioned disagreed with the statement “Many of the journeys of less than 2 miles that I now make by car I could just as well walk.” Source: UK Office for National Statistics.

Bearing in mind the above benefits, do you think that a carless world would be a better or worse place than this one? If you think it would be better, you can use your car less, or bin it altogether by (in order of difficulty):

  • Using teleconferencing / video meetings – they’re getting easier and more popular (meet.coop is a co-operative option);
  • Using public transport more;
  • Walking and cycling;
  • Including with your kids to school rather than the car run, or enrol your child in a walking bus group (or organise one if there isn’t one);
  • Car sharing in someone else’s car;
  • Working from home;
  • Moving closer to work (or working nearer to home);
  • Having a go at hitchhiking.

Combining some or all of the above

For example, you could work from home 2 days per week, car share on the other 3 days (in an electric vehicle), and cycle or walk for any other short journeys (that’s covered most things!). You can hire a car or get the occasional taxi (we don’t recommend Über – but there are co-operative options now – just search for coop taxis and the name of your town), when you need to.

Co-operative apps are being developed to provide an alternative to the exploitative gig economy for cycle couriers.

But people are wary of giving up their car, especially in rural areas, when public transport can be unreliable, so…

Campaigning

You can help to campaign for more sustainable transport generally – see the Campaign for Better Transport or Sustrans. Campaigns could include subsidies for public transport, stopping bus and train route closures, cycle lanes, giving coaches their own lanes on motorways, pedestrianisation etc.

Not flying

Reduce your air miles, or better still, give up flying altogether. Again, with a population of 10 billion, everyone flying ‘only’ once a year would be suicidal; but if only a small percentage of the world are able to do it, that’s really elitist. We have to stop burning fossil fuels, so a sustainable society can’t really contain an aviation industry.

Here’s a suggestion – See the world when you’re young – overland. For example, a couple who used to work for Lowimpact.org in the UK travelled back to Australia overland, by train, bus, foot, hitch-hiking and boat, and blogged about it here. You could even do it by going WWOOFing, and you can hitchhike oceans too. After that you can take flightless holidays and help build a thriving, safe, fun, unique, interesting and beautiful community where you live. Let’s make all the places we live desirable places to be.

Greenhouse gas emissions from aviation are set to rise from 7% now to 25% by 2050 – but aviation fuel is exempt from taxes (House of Commons Library Briefing Paper, Oct 2019).

Freight

Support sustainable freight buying local, downshifting and/or finding goods brought from overseas via sailing boats.

We’ll leave the last word to Simon Fairlie of The Land Magazine, about what it might be like with fewer cars:

“… garages will make a comeback, providing hire cars, minibuses, bicycle repairs, light engineering and jobs for youngsters who like messing about with motors. Pedestrians, children, cyclists and horses will reclaim the streets. Old people will walk to the shops, and younger adults bike to work. Verandas will replace car ports, bus stops will replace speed cameras, allotments will replace bypasses, and chickens will once again be able to cross the road and get to the other side.”


Whilst you’re here, why not take a look at the other 10+ transport topics available? And don’t forget to visit our main topics page to explore over 200 aspects of low-impact living and our homepage to learn more about why we do what we do.


 


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