Transport, Environment, Economics and Health
Thursday, 07 February 2008

Promoting an All-Win Situation

By Syed Shamsul Alam

While economic gains may be sufficient in themselves—assuming a reasonably fair distribution of those gains—to improve conditions in health and education, the opposite tends to happen with transport. Market economies support transport investments and infrastructure that actually lead to worsening traffic conditions, and richer cities tend to suffer from worse transport problems—including more traffic congestion, more pollution, and more injuries and deaths from road crashes—than poorer cities.

As incomes increase, if the government does not intervene, then car use will increase. In the case of Hong Kong and Singapore, the governments quickly realized that a drastic increase in car use inTransport, Environment, Economics and Health proportion to rising incomes would lead to an impossible situation on the streets, and thus instituted strict measures for car control, such as mandating that car owners first buy parking spaces, or charging very high fees for licenses. Where governments have not taken such proactive steps—or where such steps are taken and then loosened under pressure of car manufacturers and others—the traffic situation will invariably decline as incomes rise.

While we often hear of the subsidies given by government for mass transport, few talk of the subsidies governments give for cars. Yet such subsidies play an important role in increasing car ownership, and can represent vast sums of money being spent providing free parking, road space, and other infrastructure (such as elevated expressways) for cars, or on fuel subsidies largely used by car owners. Meanwhile, the increase in cars and government moves to increase road space for them—often by limiting or banning other transport—result in a decrease in fuel‐free transport (mostly walking, cycling, and cycle rickshaws), due to danger, lack of road space, and the unpleasantness of trying to use such modes adjacent to noisy and polluting motorized vehicles.

The “free” market thus fails us by resulting in more fuel-dependent transport (FDT), with serious consequences for the environment and health. (Of course if the market were really “free”, there would not be huge subsidies for cars, and car owners would be expected to pay in real terms for the damage they cause, so that a very different picture would likely result.) Damage to the environment of fuel-dependent (motorized) transport includes air and noise pollution, space used for roads and parking that could have been green space (for agriculture, parks, and nature), and contribution to climate change. Damage to health includes rising rates of respiratory and other disease from pollution; injuries and deaths from road crashes; lack of physical activity caused both by more time spent in cars, and the inability to walk or cycle due to the presence of so many cars; increases in obesity due to lack of physical activity; and the reduced possibility of interacting with neighbors, or of children and youth enjoying outdoor recreation, due to the conversion of open spaces to parking and the danger from so many fuel-dependent vehicles.

Other problems caused by fuel-dependent transport include economics, poverty, and insecurity. For example, the average American spends $6,000/year for car costs, or 20% of gross earnings for the ʺprivilegeʺ of owning a car. Given that one main reason to own a car is to drive to work—so that one can then pay for one’s car—the futility and wastefulness of the current system is obvious. People become further impoverished due to high expenses on transport, which can represent a significant portion of monthly income. For instance, traveling by bicycle is essentially free, whereas bus fares can prove very costly to the low‐income. Those whose income is dependent on fuel‐free transport are also affected by bans on their livelihood, including rickshaw and van pullers and handcart peddlers. Finally, global insecurity is increased due to dependence on foreign oil and the wars that result as countries fight for control over existing oil supplies.

Shifting from the “free” market focus, with its emphasis on further enriching wealthy corporations, to a focus on transport for development, would lead to significant changes and gains—not only for the poor, but for everyone. Namely, such a focus would emphasize the need for more fuel-free transport (FFT). FFT has many benefits, including the facts that it is inexpensive, does not cause air or noise pollution, generates employment, provides convenient exercise (allowing people to incorporate physical activity into their daily routine, rather than having to make extra time and spend extra money on it), and increases equity by giving people of different income equal rights on the street (or prioritizing the poor over the rich, which would make a small contribution towards balancing the great inequalities favoring the rich).  

In working to achieve change in the transport‐health‐environment‐economics equation, our overall goal is to create people‐friendly cities. Given the significant role transport can play in increasing or decreasing quality of life in a city, transport must play a significant role in making cities more livable. Needed changes include an increase in fuel‐free transport (walking, cycling, cycle rickshaws), an increase in public transport, a decrease in car use (brought about by high parking fees reflecting actual land values, license controls, and car‐free areas), and encouragement of high-density, mixed‐use areas, which in turn would lead to a reduction in traffic demand as access is emphasized over mobility.

Of course bringing about changes in transport, affected as such changes are by economics and politics, is by no means easy. Significant opposition arises from a number of sources, for rather obvious reasons; such opponents include those manufacturing and selling cars, road and highway construction companies, media (consider the role of car advertisement in electronic and print media), much of government, and some international agencies.  

While there is no one set of working methods guaranteed to bring success, a mix of approaches modified for one’s own political environment is likely to include at least some of the following: signature campaigns, letter writing (to newspapers and policymakers), meetings with journalists and other ways of giving journalists information, research and publications, meetings and other communication with government officials, seminars, press conferences, and demonstrations.

Local, regional, and international alliances can also help support the work. Such alliances can include local NGOs working on the issues of environment, rights of the poor, and public health; a regional network with HealthBridge partners; and international support from such networks or groups as the World Carfree Network (WCN) and possibly the Institute for Transportation & Development Policies (ITDP).

While success is difficult in this area, it is by no means impossible. For instance, successes in Bangladesh included a major slowing of rickshaw bans, and an expressed reversal of World Bank policy in Dhaka regarding those bans. In the words of World Bank Country Director, Christine Wallich: “Any future support from the World Bank would be possible only if it can be demonstrated that aggregate positive impacts of NMT‐free conversion on transport users and transport providers outweigh the aggregate negative impact.” Other countries within the

HealthBridge network and beyond have also experienced significant successes.

There is much to learn from the work, and while the difficulty is great, there is still much cause for optimism. Significant lessons include the obvious—that accepting that defeat is inevitable guarantees defeat. That is, if we believe before we start that we will fail, and thus don’t even try, we will indeed fail. Only by trying do we at least have the possibility of success—a possibility that can, surprisingly, materialize at times! After all, as we have also learned, policies serving only a powerful elite will, necessarily, have limited appeal among the masses. While the rich have access to resources that may seem overwhelming, there is tremendous power in public opinion. Therefore, supporting the masses can succeed—if, of course, the work is done wisely.

In sum, we need to work together to guarantee a major role for fuel‐free transport (and to reduce transport needs overall by emphasizing proximity over mobility), and to reduce fuel‐dependent transport. By reducing car use, we can create an all‐win situation, in which even car users benefit. How? By supporting jobs and inexpensive transport for the poor; by decreasing pollution, congestion, and noise; by increasing levels of physical activity and thus improving health; by increasing access to convenient transport for all groups, and by increasing availability of and access to safe outdoor play spaces for children. The result of all these measures is friendlier, people‐focused cities—cities in which all inhabitants will gain.
Comments Add New
Write comment
  We don't publish your mail. See privacy policy.
Please input the anti-spam code that you can read in the image.