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Sustainable transport: What is it and why is it important?

sustainable transport

Current habits of urban mobility in the UK are characterised by a continuous urban expansion because of a housing shortage and a dependency on cars. Sustainable transport arises in this context to reduce the negative impact associated with this increased urban mobility and in promoting more environmentally-friendly modes of transport. In the following article, we’ll explain how we can achieve more sustainable mobility and the types you can choose.


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Travel pollution and sustainable transport

sustainable travel

The sustainable transport definition can be best described as any type of transport that does not rely on the world’s natural resources to power it. The aim of this type of transport is to reduce the negative impacts on the environment. It includes both public transport (electric buses, zero emissions buses, metro, train, trams, etc.) and private transport (pedestrians, bikes, scooters, electric vehicles, etc.).

The increase in greenhouse gases created by transport is increasingly a cause for concern in cities where atmospheric pollution indicators are starting to be considered a public health issue. Sustainable transport contributes to a reduction in damaging carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and therefore, to a reduction in atmospheric pollution and improved air quality in cities.

Sustainable mobility contributes to the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development.

What is the environmental impact of transport?

According to Environmental Protection UK, the biggest source of both air and noise pollution comes from transport. Data shows that in 2019, the transport sector contributed 122 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (MtCO2e), around 27% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The power sector was previously the nation’s largest polluter but as steps have been taken towards using green energy, emissions have reduced, while those from the transport sector have remained relatively stable.

What is the carbon footprint of a Brit? The average Brit emits around 7.01 tons of CO2eq into the atmosphere per year.

Airplane versus car: A long-distance airplane flight emits more CO2 per mile than a journey by car with one sole passenger on board. Nevertheless, air travel is still one of the most polluting modes of transport. Why? It is all about the distance covered:

  • One person makes fewer trips but travels further by airplane than by car. Therefore, per trip, an airplane, due to its use in longer distances, emits more CO2 than a car.
  • On the other hand, if someone chooses to take a shorter flight, the result is the same. Airplanes emit more CO2 per mile travelled because it is during take-off and landing when the aircraft consumes the most kerosene.

Train versus car: A train with 8 carriages is approximately 200 metres long. You may think that uses up a lot of space. In reality, trains are smaller than two-lane roads and have a lower environmental impact in terms of land use.

What is an environmental train?The majority of trains on earth are electric, but their carbon footprint depends on a country’s energy mix. If the country produces its electricity without using fossil fuels, trains are low-carbon modes of transport with low emissions. For this reason, trains are preferable to cars, even if a car is shared. Moreover, even with four passengers on board, a car is still more pollutant than a bus or train.

Airplane versus train: Of course, an airplane is faster than a train in terms of speed if the time at the airport and 2 hours prior to boarding are not taken into account.

The average amount of CO2 emissions per mile depends on the mode of transport, the number of passengers and the distance travelled.

What is CO2 equivalent?There are different types of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, etc.) that have more or less global warming potential, depending on their radiation power or their lifetime in the atmosphere. In order to better compare and add up their impact, the IPCC has created a measurement unit called the "CO2 equivalent", (CO2eq) and measured in kg and which uses CO2 as the reference gas.

Of course, not travelling is not an option. Nevertheless, re-thinking our choice of transport allows us to better balance the environment, money, time and health.

Sustainable transport in the UK

sustainable public transport

While the UK has a long way to go to reduce CO2 emissions from the transport sector, in 2020, the Government laid out ambitious plans to move toward green mobility and a more sustainable travel model across the nation. In plans published by the Department for Transport, there were six main priorities identified:

  • Moving towards greater active transport (walking or cycling) and use of public transport;
  • Decarbonising road vehicles;
  • Reducing carbon emissions in transport used for goods and services;
  • Finding solutions to lower emissions based on location;
  • Making the UK a global hub for green technology, including transport;
  • Leading the way in carbon reduction so other nations follow suit.

Since the publication of those plans, the Government has already announced measures to spend £5 billion on environmentally-friendly buses as well as improving the UK’s network of walking and cycle paths.

How does London rate for sustainable public transport?According to a report published in Smart Transport, in 2020, London was rated as third-best city in Europe for green transportation. Helsinki and Stockholm were the only cites rated higher. The research assessed six main aspects: e-scooter legislation, sustainable transport plans, participation in European Mobility Week, eco-friendly buses, bicycle rental schemes, and sustainable urban rail.

Eco-friendly transport: Good habits to adopt in everyday life

eco-friendly transport

Changing our travel habits has many benefits: less CO2 emissions, less cost and even less stress and fatigue.

The time has come to review the use of different modes of transport according to the distance travelled:

  • 20 minutes walking is a reasonable amount of time (just over 1.6 km), considering that the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day;
  • A 30 minute bike ride (approximately 9 km) may be sufficient to buy groceries or to get to work;
  • 2 hours by train for a business trip and 4 hours by train for a weekend trip are more cost-efficient and environmentally-friendly than air travel.

Is it impossible for you to rid yourself of your car? Think about limiting your environmental impact by adopting good habits:

  • Car sharing: For example, with your work colleagues: sharing cars avoids the need to purchase and maintain them as well as the need to buy car insurance;
  • Efficient driving style: The style of driving also influences fuel usage. In this way, avoiding certain behaviours such as excess speed or deflated tyres allows one to reduce petrol consumption.

What is efficient driving?Efficient driving is a behaviour behind the wheel which is recommended to reduce petrol consumption and therefore limit costs and environmental impact. It also guarantees the correct maintenance of the vehicle and reinforces the safety of the driver and their passengers.

Therefore, we can adopt many good habits in order to limit our environmental impact during trips.

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Sustainable transport solutions: What does the future hold?

For the past few years, together with traditional bikes, skates and skateboards, many new modes of transport have appeared. Some of these examples of sustainable transport include electric scooters, hover boards, Segways, electric bikes, in essence the appearance of personal mobility vehicles (PMV). These modes of transport are still an environmentally-friendly alternative in the majority of cases.

  1. Electric bikes increasingly substitute cars for journeys of medium distances, reducing CO2 emissions by 100, but also costs. Nevertheless, its battery optimisation continues to be researched, as up until now it is made of lithium ions. In fact, this material complicates recycling and limits the lifespan of the battery. Alternatives are starting to arise based on sodium, fluoride or zinc-air ions.
  2. Electric scooters issue less CO2 than cars but more than public transport does. In many cases it does not substitute cars but rather bikes, walks, buses and the metro. Moreover, its use is generally individual and has a short lifespan: between a year and a half and three years, or even less than a month when they are rented as they are not well-maintained, are thrown into rivers, etc.
  3. Hydrogen vehicles are a new mode of transport promoted by cities, especially for buses. They must be equipped with fuel batteries which allow hydrogen to come into contact with Oxygen and create electricity. The vehicle therefore only emits water. Nevertheless, the energy balance of hydrogen vehicles depends primarily on the type of energy used to produce the chemical reaction (fossil fuels or renewables).

Discover our practical guides and see how you can further reduce your carbon footprint.

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