In late October, I attended the First International Forum on Sustainable Mobilities sponsored by SNCF (France’s state-owned railway company) and CODATU (an NGO based in France working to promote sustainable transportation policies in developing countries). It was an invigorating event, full of high-profile speakers and interviews, with the overall message that sustainable transportation must be a key part of the upcoming UN Conference on Climate Change COP21 negotiations in December. Because SNCF was the major sponsor, there was a definite rail lean, especially when various countries talked about their upcoming rail transit projects, including Morocco’s High Speed Rail, Doha’s ambitious Doha Metro Plan to build 164 km (102 miles) of subway operational by 2019, and Melbourne’s solar powered tram system.

In light of the upcoming COP21, Laurence Tubiana, Special Representative for the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, said the transportation sector is the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide, which raises several questions including:

  • What does sustainable mobility mean for development?
  • How does climate change adaptation affect transportation? Transportation of the future must be able to adapt to more extreme environmental conditions (heat, cold, storms, etc.) than before.
  • How will sustainable transportation be funded? There needs to be plans for long term investments in sustainable infrastructure.
  • Can the future “new economy” grow without CO2?
  • How do we increase performance and mobility options while decreasing CO2?

The good news is that 155 countries already have climate plans, and they are increasingly recognizing the importance of city planning in encouraging people to choose low-carbon transportation options. These options (walking, biking, transit) then have the added benefits of reducing overall driving, which also reduces congestion, household costs, and crashes.

All of the speakers were interesting and extremely knowledgeable in their fields. Below are some points that I personally found interesting or new:

Holger Dalkmann (Director, Strategy and Global Policy, EMBARQ Director, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities) underscored the importance of urban development in reducing carbon emissions. “60% of the 2050 infrastructure hasn’t been built yet,” and there is great opportunity to steer development to reduce future carbon emissions. However, cities need better long-term visions, such as transit-oriented development. With good transit in place now, people who move to cities won’t have to immediately start driving.

Vincent Kaufmann (Urban Sociology and Mobility Studies Professor at l’École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) talked about trends in Europe. In cities with 300,000-500,000 residents and more, public transportation and pedestrian mode shares increased (however, 82% Auto mode share is in many cities still a reduction). People aren’t using travel times as the main metric for mode choice anymore. Many people now just want a seat on the bus or train, even if the trip will last longer, because they see driving as a waste of time.

In addition, he explained that in Switzerland over the last 20 years, there has been an increase in public transportation, pedestrian and bicycle mode shares. He attributes it to assertive public policy, which has encouraged and supported efficient transit service and lifestyles based on public transportation, such as development around transit stations. The result is that people question how to get to their destinations, and in many cities the threshold has been reached to adopt other means of transportation besides the private automobile.

Zurich Tramways. Photo: Howard Jennings
Zurich Tramways. Photo: Howard Jennings

Stephanie Pollack (Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation) talked about modernizing Massachusetts’ 19th century transportation network into a 21st century one. Economic development used to mean more traffic and more traffic jams, but it doesn’t have to, she said.

Anne Hildalgo (Mayor of Paris) stressed that reducing diesel engines and increasing the proportion of electric vehicles in the city was important not only to reduce carbon emissions, but also a matter of public health (because of particulate matter). Paris is supporting and encouraging manufacturers of city vehicles to produce electric and battery motors by teaming with over a dozen other European cities to use their contracting leverage. She also cited the Autolib carsharing program, which uses electric cars. “Don’t pit economics against public health.”

Autolib Electric Carshare and Charging Station. Photo: Yann Cramer
Autolib Electric Carshare and Charging Station. Photo: Yann Cramer

Christine St-Pierre (Minister of International Relations of Quebec), also talked about electric vehicles. Part of Quebec’s strategy is to have charging stations along highways, even to frequent destinations of Quebecois within the US. In addition, Quebec is partnering with California on a carbon exchange, and other states and provinces are interested in partnering as well.

Sanjivi Sundar (Emeritus Professor in the Department of Policy Studies at TERI University in New Delhi) stated in India, 65% of trips are less than 5km, and up to 75% of those trips are made by non-motorized means. There are several steps India must take in order to increase mobility and reduce driving:

  • Strengthening non-motorized networks by making walking and biking safer, more convenient, and more comprehensive
  • Changing Transportation departments to mobility departments by eliminating modal silos so that they take real responsibility for transportation and carbon emissions.
  • Building up high-quality, low-cost bus and BRT transportation that can be implemented in the majority of cities quickly
Majority of trips in India are non-motorized. Photo: Ron Sutton
Majority of trips in India are non-motorized. Photo: Ron Sutton

From a 100,000 foot level, many speakers brought up the re-thinking of freedom and mobility. Mobility means freedom of movement. Whereas in the 20th Century this meant the freedom to drive everywhere, society is rethinking what freedom of movement means, and by doing so rethinking the very notion of freedom. Vincent Kaufmann framed it in European terms, in that in much of Europe, freedom used to mean the freedom to drive, but now driving, to many, means a waste of time. Freedom is more often linked now to accessibility of destinations. The challenge, another speaker stated, is to keep the advantaged mobility of the car that people have grown accustomed to, but using cleaner, more efficient 21st century technology

Guillaume Pepy, Chairman of SNCF, closed the forum by talking about the optimism of the speakers and the audience. It is possible to manage growth in mobility without increasing carbon emissions, he said. In order to do this, the transportation sector needs cooperation from the energy sector so that electric mobility is not based on fossil fuels. This growth in mobility will depend a lot on the diversity of modes available to people, including shared mobility, non-motorized transportation, and driving. Managing this transportation diversity can be a starting point for cities to effectively use big data and to become smart cities to improve other services as well.

In all, the Forum reiterated the importance of sustainable transportation in long-term climate agreements. While rail has definite potential to promote and/or complement low-carbon city planning, it should not be forgotten that the construction of many rail systems can often result in large carbon emissions. An Asian Development Bank report summarizes several rail projects in Cairo, Bangalore, and Ho Chi Minh City. It found that the construction of the Cairo subway project may equal 28 years of operations emissions, due to fuel usage of construction vehicles and the embedded carbon content of primary construction materials. This should not be taken to mean that rail projects should not be built, for they undoubtedly can lead to longer-term low-carbon lifestyles. It should simply mean that other forms of transit should also be considered for certain situations, such as buses and BRT.