sustainability transport

The hierarchy of sustainable transport

There’s an agency in Australia called the Institute for Sensible Transport, and with a name like that it ought to have offices in every country in the world. They advise on transport policy, sensibly, and this is a graphic from a research report into modes of transport in Melbourne.

It shows the carbon footprint and the land footprint for a series of modes of transport. Victorian car in this context refers to the region of Australia, by the way, not the turn of the 19th century.

There are a few notable points to draw from this comparison. The first is that the car is by some distance the most polluting and inefficient way to travel, and that an electric vehicle is little better if charged from the current grid. If you’ve got solar power or a green supplier, an EV charged on renewable energy is a massive improvement on the carbon footprint. But the amount of space it takes up in the city is exactly the same as any other car. There’s no improvement in traffic or infrastructure costs.

On the other side of the equation, the most efficient way to travel is on one’s own God-given feet. Assuming you’re not walking out of an all-you-can-eat steakhouse, walking is the cleanest form of transport and has the lowest land needs. Investment in walkable cities is one of the most effective ways to lower emissions from transport, and every person who chooses to walk frees up road space and reduces traffic too.

It’s also worth mentioning buses, which are the greenest form of public transport and are generally underappreciated. Again, the land footprint of buses and trams are small on a per user basis, and the carbon emissions are a fraction of cars. Make them electric buses on a rapid transit system, and you’ve got true 21st century public transport.

You probably know all this already, but the buzz in sustainable transport always seems to be around electric vehicles. Supporting walking and public transport instead has a double benefit: lower carbon emissions and a safer and more liveable city at the same time.


  1. They were trying to sell electric cars in Durham today. “Sustainable” transport indeed. Time to stop thinking about the cars however they are powered. On the plus side, electrically assisted bikes were also on display, but…

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