Low carbon transport part 1: focus on affluent lifestyles

Low carbon transport part 1: focus on affluent lifestyles

Here’s the crux of a major problem facing the South African transport sector. Ethics demands that we focus on alleviating poverty and creating jobs, the politics of voting demand that we address the  desires of the middle class and the climate change agenda calls for a dogged focus on the lifestyles of the affluent.

In their inspired work in metropolitan Nelson Mandela Bay Christo Venter and Semira Mohammed demonstrated why a focus on the affluent is so key. They clearly demonstrated the skewed use of transport energy use in South Africa. They showed (in a nutshell) that “car users, although they make only 25% of trips, contribute 70% of the passenger transport energy consumption“. It’s (almost) one of the classic 80:20 situations where a small group has a dramatically disproportionate impact.

Income and modeThe graph to the left drawing on National Household Travel Survey data tells a similar story. Minibus taxis dominate transport use in the metros for the three lowest income quintiles. Train, bus and car use in this group is modest. The transport use of the most affluent 20% is dramatically different and  car use dominates. The implications for climate policy are clear. The poorest and middle income groups already exhibit the most sustainable transport behaviour possible. Measures for lowering carbon in the transport sector should not focus there.

Vasconcellos argues that to talk of sustainability is not helpful in our Southern context. Vasconcellos asks: “We should be provide sustainability for whom?” and he opens up the uncomfortable reality that transport planners focused on carbon would ideally keep the basic movement characteristics of the poorest: low private vehicle use, high use of walking and public transport.

I advocate a value-based focus to transport planning, to replace our current obsession with modes. (1) Poverty-alleviation focused transport planners intent on improving the current services to the poorest. (2) Carbon-focused transport planners intent on shifting lifestyle patterns amongst the affuent. The middle ground, the income group where car ownshership is possible, but not yet familiar and where public transport use is part of family life and history is the key “battleground” for the carbon-focused and transport planners. That is where rapid growth in energy use could happen and that is where our future will be won or lost.


Wealth-poverty photo – freedigitalphoto.net.


Low carbon passenger transport – keeping it simple

Low carbon passenger transport – keeping it simple

peta wolpe Peta Wolpe of Sustainable Energy Africa (SEA) challenged me some years ago in her characteristically incisive and insightful way on a presentation conclusion that: “reducing energy use in the urban transport sector is difficult and…complex.” The presentation was all well and good, she argued, but where does it leave us? What should SEA advise government to do in a very practical sense?

This week I’m back with SEA at a similar presentation event and Peta’s question is still haunting me. So this time I’m keeping the conclusions simple. My prescription for lowering carbon emissions from the passenger sector is a seven part manifesto for change:

focus policy attention on affluent lifestyles

increase vehicle occupancies through pricing

allocate public road space to public transport

attend seriously to the safety of “own steam” transport (walking and cycling mainly)

increase urban densities in targeted areas

challenge car culture as inevitable

support civil society movements in these areas

This is a knotty problem. You will notice that  “investing in public transport” isn’t on the list. That’s because I’m not yet convinced that investing in public transport without other conditions serves the lowering carbon agenda cost effectively. Public transport investment will serve other agendas…improving quality, providing access and choice…but  is it the best way to reduce carbon?

In the next weeks I’m going to expand on these one by one.

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