Earth On The Move, The Ecopolitics of Transport

Nicholas Low

The growth of the global economy and free trade is driving increased movement of people and goods everywhere. We also know that this ever-growing mobility has enormous costs: lives lost in traffic accidents, pollution dangerous to health and life, ecological and cultural damage to city and countryside, use of precious agricultural land, louder noise and, most dangerous of all, depletion of the capacity of the biosphere to absorb greenhouse gases (RCEP, 1994). In all developed nations transport is the fastest growing contributor to greenhouse emissions.

Planners and consultants are placed in the difficult position of mediating between the needs of capital and those of humans and nature. Planners can and should take an independent line in assessing the virtues or otherwise of transport infrastructure projects, balancing the strident demand for investment against the need for social justice and ecological sustainability.

The ecopolitics of transport is mostly a local politics. Battles are fought out in particular nations, at particular sites within these nations over particular issues, and these issues vary widely. Often these local struggles appear, or are portrayed as, NIMBY ('not in my backyard') politics, struggles over local 'turf' on the part of locally affected interests resisting the wider national economic good. But the politics of transport should not be understood as a conflict between local and national interests. The conflict is between blind capital expressed as the drive for mobility, and environment. Local struggles are a symptom of this conflict, which is essentially a global one.

Massive and continual investment in transport infrastructure

On globalisation, the American economist Paul Krugman's favourite story is about the rapid rise of the vegetable exports of Zimbabwe (Krugman, 1999: 85). The vegetables are picked and trucked to the airport in Harare (the capital) and flown overnight to Heathrow (London Airport) where they appear on the supermarket shelves the next morning. Not only the spatial expansion of capital into new regions of the world produces increased mobility, but also flexibilisation: the ever increasing choice of location of production of anything and everything. Will the growth of electronic communications make physical movement redundant? Not until our broccoli can be digitally transmitted! (see Sachs, 1999: 196). In fact transport growth seems to be a function of economic growth - business growth - as measured by gross domestic product. Transport grows faster than GDP by a significant factor (see DETR, 2000: chart 5).

There have been some significant changes in government attitudes to transport infrastructure, especially in Europe. In Britain, as is well known, there has been a shift in thinking about transport away from building roads. This change was characterised by Phil Goodwin and his colleagues as the 'new realism' which took hold gradually from around 1990 when it became clear that urban road capacity could not be expanded at a rate that could match the demand for travel (Goodwin 1996: 7). Britain was catching up with ideas which had already taken firm hold in northern Europe. But while the shift away from roads may occur in some places as road infrastructure reaches the limits of its capacity to deliver economically and socially sustainable mobility, investment in road building will simply move to other parts of the globe.

Looking at the European Commission's overview of transport infrastructure investment two things seem clear: massive investment in infrastructure is continuing; and investment in road building has moved to Southern Europe. More than $US5 billion, for example, is to be spent on motorways in Greece. ( From 2000 more than 70 billion ecus of investment is planned ($US80 billion at the prevailing exchange rate). Unfortunately the meaning of 'sustainability' has also undergone a change. Joining the word 'sustainable' to 'mobility' places the emphasis on mobility. There is a nod towards 'the environment' in the transport policy of the European Union (titled 'Sustainable Mobility: Perspectives for the Future') but the report leads with the storyline of economic globalisation. Liberalising market access is the number one goal (EC, 1999: 3). In the summary descriptions of European infrastructure plans it is evident that economic development, and the increased speed of movement of freight and people within the common market is the primary objective.

In the USA the major federal initiative of the 1990s, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), was designed to integrate land use and transportation planning, with an emphasis on environmental improvement and 'community' planning - as well as funding new roads. But Title 1 of ISTEA targetted seven times more funds to highway-related projects (US$63.9 billion) than to non-highway projects (US$9.2 billion) (ISTEA: 2000: 3). ISTEA has now been replaced by TEA21. The Transportation Equity Act for the Twenty First Century (TEA21), which became law in June 1998, continues the ISTEA direction but with a reduced funding share for new highways. However TEA21 increases funding over ISTEA by 40% over six years to $217 billion with $172 billion in 'guaranteed funding' for highways and $36 billion for transit (public transport).

These figures may seem large, but during this century infrastructure investment in the developed world will be dwarfed by that of the new growth economies. China and India are set to catch up with the rich nations and capital will flow into both road and rail projects on a massive scale. The government of the Indian State of Maharashtra, for example, which contains the booming city of Mumbai declares: 'The high dependence on the roads for transportation and the increasing pressure on existing roads, especially the national highways, accentuate the urgent need to rapidly increase the road network. Plans towards this end have been launched by the central government'. Maharashtra has opened the door to global capital to build whatever roads can turn a profit. Global economic institutions such as the IMF at present not only favour such opening up to investment flows but insist upon it. The State of Maharashtra has vast potential for growth of mobility and infrastructure. Mumbai has a population of about ten million but in 1996 there were only 724,000 motor vehicles. If annual GDP growth continues at 6 or 7 percent, transport growth may well be run close to 10 percent annually.


Planning ecologically sustainable transport infrastructure


The consequences of the world wide spread of mobility without corresponding improvement in ecological sustainability can scarcely be overstated. Developed nations must immediately take further steps towards ecological sustainability in transport infrastructure. The challenge for scientists and engineers is not merely the rapid development of ecologically sustainable transport technology but also the social infrastructure necessary to bring it to fruition. We may hope that the nations now following the path of market industrialisation will also take up this challenge, but unless the core of the global economy does so - especially America and Europe, this hope will not be realised.

First, and least controversial, the means of measuring the sustainability of transport infrastructure must be developed and applied. Because of the greater fuel efficiency of rail transport, the construction of new rail lines may be a positive contribution to 'sustainability'. But we do not know that. The drain on the Earth's atmospheric sink capacity as a result of the construction process itself is rarely added to the calculation. Lifecycle analysis of ecological impact is needed for every transport infrastructure project (see Stiller, 1993).

Second, more needs to be understood about the blocks to ecological sustainability in the transport field. The public politics of opposition to roads projects is out in the open - often literally. Opposition to sustainability is largely invisible and unacknowledged. It is situated in the entrenched attitudes of some engineers trained to respond to the demand for mobility. It is situated in funding and regulatory institutions geared to the needs of the last century. It is in the national political recourse to big projects to win votes (sometimes known as the 'edifice complex'), and in the entrenched economic interests involved in the construction and use of infrastructure. It is in global economic institutions whose purpose is to encourage the flow of capital to megaprojects in the developing world. It is in the failure to understand that economic growth does not correspond with human wellbeing.

Third, the government capacity to plan must be revalued. The limits of the market need to be recognised and adherence to market solutions relaxed. A market approach effective for improving sustainability requires, at minimum, that: environmental and social costs be reducible to money, true environmental costs be entered into pricing calculations, that the welfare of future populations not be discounted, that markets deliver socially just outcomes. None of these conditions can be met. Therefore there is no alternative but to rely on careful deliberation and regulation by means of democratic institutions.

Fourth, the consequences of reducing mobility must be seriously assessed. Goodwin (1996: 18) argues that 'now is the time to consider, very cautiously, some questions still in the realm of speculation'. One of them is this: 'is there too much road space already?'. The question which should be: 'Is there too much mobility already?' Discretionary human mobility is an emancipatory force, but compulsory mobility is largely a waste of time and energy. So we need to ask how compulsory mobility can be reduced - especially the journey to work.

Finally the role of participatory democracy in the governance of infrastructure investment must be reinstated and the role of local protest revalued. It is clear that in Europe, transport projects have been hotly contested, the 'Dennis Package' ring motorway around Stockholm for example, or proposals to enlarge the road system to permit increased transalpine freight movement to and from Switzerland. The best protectors of a local environment are those who live in it. Far from being an obstructive and narrow-minded response, local protest is the best warning we have. It is the voice of the 'canary in the coal mine' warning against environmental danger. Planners need to view local residents as their allies in the battle to preserve the global commons.



Ecological sustainability is the greatest challenge facing engineers and scientists today. Engineers and scientists are innovative and ingenious thinkers, and here is a field offering enormous potential for exciting innovation. But if that potential is to be realised, engineers and social scientists must work together. Most importantly an advance in effective political institutions is as valuable as a new material product or technology. Indeed the introduction and expansion of ecologically sustainable technologies depends upon social and political innovation. Greatly increased investment is needed in social and political research supportive of ecologically sustainable technology.

The dangers to the environment from global transport infrastructure investment are extreme and urgent. Infrastructure investment is a global industry requiring global regulation. Action cannot be postponed for much longer. The world we must construct is one in which social innovation accompanies and supports technical innovation.


Goodwin, P. B. (1996) 'Road Traffic Growth and the Dynamics of Sustainable Transport Policies' in Cartledge, B. ed. Transport and the Environment, The Linacre Lectures 1994-5, Oxford: Oxford University Press pp. 6-22

Hine, J (1999) 'Transport Policy' in Allmendinger, P. and Chapman, M. eds Planning Beyond 2000, Chichester UK etc. John Wiley

ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act) (2000) ISTEA's's website: ''Who Is Working Against ISTEA?'

Krugman, P. (1999) The Accidental Theorist, London: Penguin Books

DETR (Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, UK) (2000) Developing an Integrated Transport Policy, London: HMSO (

European Commission (1999) Sustainable Mobility, Perspectives for the Future, Brussels: European Commission.

RCEP (Royal Commission on Environment and Pollution) (1994) Transport and the Environment 18th Report, London: HMSO

Sachs, W. (1999) Planetary Dialectics, Explorations in Environment and Development, London: Zed Books

Schweizerisches Bundesrat (1996) Botschaft ?ber Bau und Finanzierung des ?ffentlichen Verkehrs Bern: Schweizerisches Bundesrat 26 June

Stiller, H (1993) 'Material Consumption in Transport Infrastructure' Fresenius Envir Bull pp. 467-472

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