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You are here: Home Our Projects Biosensitive Futures Part 5: Social Change Energy, transport Transport - biosensitive

Transport - biosensitive

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Transport for a biosensitive society

Author: Murray May


Background papers in this series argue that a combination of two options can best tackle the energy emergency linked to the production of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide), and the increasing shortage of oil. Broadly speaking these are:

  • Replacing fossil fuels with clean non-polluting sources of energy
  • Greatly reducing our per capita use of energy. This requires greatly improved efficiency of energy use in transport, and substantial reductions in our rates of energy use in transport.

Of particular relevance for transport, the assumptions underlying the “growth forever” model of the dominant culture were well put by Lewis Mumford (p. 172). He described the industrial (now globalising) era as follows: “There is only one efficient speed, faster; only one alternative destination, farther away; only one desirable size, bigger; only one quantitative goal, more”.

Transport for what? - In contrast, a sustainable transport system rests on another set of priorities including the following:

  • access to goods, services and social opportunities is emphasised, rather than mobility per se
  • less movement of goods and services e.g. by appropriate urban design, access through telecommunications
  • much more use of non-motorised means of transport e.g. walking and bicycling
  • the redesign of urban transport systems to emphasise a combination of rail lines, bus lines, bicycle pathways and pedestrian walkways
  • affordable, efficient choices of transport mode
  • limiting emissions and waste within the planet’s ability to absorb them, and minimising the use of land and the production of noise
  • use of technologies that depend on renewable resources e.g. plug-in hybrid electric vehicles that draw on wind-generated electricity, airship technologies.[1]

Aviation - The issue of aviation highlights the questions raised in the Mumford quote above. The long-distance implications of air transport on which globalisation depends, mean that distance has been transformed into a commodity that is consumed at an increasing rate. Such consumption is possible through the allocation of large amounts of energy and large amounts of public expenditure (Whitelegg). The drive to consume large distances is inherent in global tourism and air travel, and also “just-in-time” freight transport.

Pollution from aeroplanes - In Britain, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, a body with strong scientific credentials, has consistently expressed “deep concerns” about the environmental consequences of the growth in air travel. The commission says that emissions from aircraft are likely to be a major contributor to global warming if the present growth in air traffic continues. It produced a special report on the issue in November 2002 called The Environmental Effects of Civil Aircraft in Flight.

Tourism - The current reality is that aviation is a fast growing area of energy demand, with governments generally unwilling to challenge such growth. This dominant worldview is based on continuing economic growth and free market forces. Advertisements in newspapers and magazines encourage people to travel more and to be more international, whether it is to “explore New York, shop in London and sightsee in Paris”.

This ever-expanding globalisation of tourism depends on a network of interrelated, mostly transnational, businesses that include airlines and other linked modes of travel, travel agents and tour operators, international hotels and other accommodation, and theatres and entertainment venues. The rapid growth of the low cost “budget” airlines is an integral part of the expansion vision.

Growth - Air travel is generally forecast to grow at 4 to 5 per cent a year for the next 10 to 15 years. In areas such as the Asia-Pacific, growth rates of 7 per cent a year are tipped until the 2020s. Sydney Airport's most recent master plan predicts a near trebling of passenger numbers (to 68.3 million) between 2003 and 2023. Aircraft manufacturers like Boeing are planning for substantial growth in air travel, with plans to sell substantial numbers of aircraft to China, for example.

One approach is to improve aircraft efficiency. For example, Boeing's new 787 will burn 20 per cent less fuel than the 767 it will replace. The promotion of the large Airbus A380 is also linked to its lower fuel consumption characteristics. However, the efficiency improvements both per aeroplane and per passenger kilometre are small when compared with the effects of the expected growth. More and more people travelling by air basically means more airport capacity, more flights, and more pollution.

Hydrogen fuel - The UK Royal Commission also evaluated hydrogen as a possible alternative fuel for reducing the climate change impacts of air travel. It discounted this option, at least for many decades. Even if achieved on a broad scale, switching from kerosene to hydrogen replaces carbon dioxide emissions with a three-fold increase in emissions of water vapour. This raises questions about whether hydrogen fuelling would actually reduce the climate change impacts of aviation, as water vapour is also a greenhouse gas.

Demand reduction - In its eighteenth report on Transport and the Environment, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution concluded that the management of demand is the most critical factor for limiting carbon dioxide emissions from air transport. It suggested that this might be achieved through a progressive reduction in business travel and air freight, and slower growth of tourist travel. Since that report was published, the commission suggests that “the case for action to limit climate change has become even more compelling” and “that some form of demand management must be implemented in order to avoid long-term damage to the environment”.

In summary, the growth-oriented visions for aviation held by the aviation and tourism industries run directly counter to the deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that are required to tackle global warming. Questioning such growth, reducing demand, and rethinking and redesigning much of what is currently taken for granted is an important policy task.

Options for demand reduction - A number of options for redesigning aviation and tourism are possible (May, 2006). A huge reduction in international air travel is essential. The British royal commission outlines a range of policy actions that can be used to moderate and reduce demand. A hyper-mobile culture is part of the problem. Where mobility is needed, more efficient and less environmentally damaging forms such as high-speed rail need support. Businesses and organisations can consider more teleconferencing and very much less physical travel by air to meetings. Likewise the royal commission says that air freight must be reserved for high value, and usually perishable goods, and questions the trend to allow the development of “express parcel hubs”, with their significant greenhouse consequences.

Land transport - With land-based transport, the increasing use of cars worldwide needs a radical rethink in how modern societies view and use the car. Cars are marketed for their speed and power. Can we imagine a society where most private motor vehicles are small, fuel-efficient, low polluting and designed for relatively low travel speeds?

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, once promised for 2004, are now not expected for another 10 to 20 years, and possibly never. Not only are their costs still high, but there are problems with noble metal catalyst availability, durability of fuel cells, on-board hydrogen storage, safety and fuel availability (Moriarty & Kennedy). On the other hand, Lester Brown outlines how switching to petrol-electric hybrid vehicles can lead to very significant reductions in petrol consumption. This would include the use of wind-generated electricity to power these vehicles.

When looking into the future, it is tempting and comforting to focus on technological solutions to current problems. However, when looking back 30 years and tracing the development of urban sprawl, it can be seen that technology has so far only increased transport problems including much increased traffic congestion, as people have used private transport for short, frequent trips (Kay).

What is mobility? - The issue of “what is mobility?” arises again, including how much of it we need, and how we do it. TravelSmart programs in Australia have the explicit aim at the household level of switching individual travel behaviour from the use of cars to public transport, walking and cycling. At the organisational level, they seek to have employers accept responsibility for how their staff travel. Travel behaviour change programs of this kind have yielded a lowering of the order of 5-18% of personal transport emissions.

Travel to and from childcare and school - Reducing the number of parents who drive their children to school each day can be achieved through programs such as the Walking School Bus. A "walking bus" of school children accompanied by at least one adult volunteer "driver" follows a set route to the local school picking up children as it proceeds. Walking Buses were conceived by David Engwicht in Brisbane, and Walking School Buses are now widespread throughout Australia, New Zealand, Canada, America and England.
A more integrated public transport system that is responsive to people’s needs is also needed to effectively address the perceived autonomy afforded by private vehicles. Further, a networked economy allows for increased working from home, taking pressure off the transport system.

Transport futures - When discussing and envisioning transport futures for a biosensitive society (especially with respect to climate change and “peak oil”), the following are some useful factors to consider:

  • new technologies
  • changes in public attitudes and behaviour
  • changes in advertising
  • changes in urban design and planning
  • changes in governments’ policies at the national, state, and local levels.



Brown, L. R. (2006). Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a planet under stress and a civilization in trouble. New York: W. W. Norton.

Engwicht, D. (1999). Street reclaiming: Creating livable streets and vibrant communities. Sydney: Pluto Press.

Kay, D. (2004). Queensland transport futures 2003-2020. Journal of Futures Studies, 9(2), 29-36.

May, M. (2006). Aviation meets ecology--redesigning policy and practice for air transport and tourism. Transport Engineering in Australia, 10(2), 117-128.

Moriarty, P., & Kennedy, D. (2004, 12-15 December). The future of car travel and the car industry. Paper presented at the APIEMS Conference, Gold Coast, Australia.

Mumford, L. (1971). The pentagon of power. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson.

Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. (2002, 29 November). The environmental effects of civil aircraft in flight (News release). Retrieved 2 October, 2003, from

Whitelegg, J. (1997). Critical mass: Transport, environment and society in the twenty-first century. London: Pluto Press.

Useful additional reading

1. Centre for Sustainable Transportation. (2000). Sustainable transportation monitor No. 3: The future of aviation. Available from

2. Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. (2002). The environmental effects of civil aircraft in flight: Special report. London: RCEP. See also the RCEP website for various news releases on aviation e.g. “Building more runways is wasteful” (23 May 2003). Davidson, S. (2005). Air transport impacts take off. Ecos (123 January-March), 15-17.

3. Hillman, M. (2004). How we can save the planet. London: Penguin Books.
(Amongst other things, this book addresses car-based lifestyles, public transport, and air travel within the context of climate change.)

4. Low, N., Gleeson, B., Green, R., & Radovic, D. (2005). The green city: Sustainable homes, sustainable suburbs. Sydney: UNSW Press. (Chapter 5 is on sustainable transport.)

5. Monbiot, G. (2006). Heat: How to stop the planet burning. Melbourne: Allen Lane (Penguin Books). (Chapters 8 and 9 address land-based transport and air travel respectively.)