Time to stop the endless growth of transport?

By Olaf Merk

Europe feels the heat: from Portugal to the UK, temperature records were slashed last week

A record heatwave last week confronted many Europeans with the reality of extreme weather events. Dangerously hot temperatures, extreme droughts, wildfires, melting glaciers, losses of homes, biodiversity and human lives. The immediate questions took up a lot of attention: how to avoid people from dying from the heat, where to evacuate residents from burning areas, how to extinguish the fires? But the real question is of course: how can we avoid this happening again?

The answer is depressing: we cannot. Whatever we do, things will first get much worse. Past greenhouse gas emissions have locked us into a pathway of global temperature rise that we cannot avoid, even if we were to cut emissions drastically. For most people, this was probably one of the coolest summers of the rest of their life. This makes it even more urgent to reduce emissions as quickly as possible. And here, the responses from policy makers have so far been hopelessly underwhelming.

Transport ministers generally like to build new infrastructure. Transport policies are often simply lists of new transport links and facilities, be it roads, railways, airports or something else. Even if many policy makers accept the need to decarbonise transport, the solutions are almost exclusively geared towards new investments: green technologies, alternative fuels, electrification, charging and refuelling infrastructure. Undoubtedly these are important, but most of these projects will only lead to substantial emission reductions in a decade – or later. What if we do not have time? What if we actually need much steeper reductions to make sure that things will just get somewhat worse, instead of apocalyptically worse?

Paradigm shift

A lot of consumption – especially in developed economies – is conspicuous, frivolous and non-essential. This is also true for the consumption of transport. Taking climate change seriously implies stopping to facilitate transport growth categorically, and instead introducing measures that reduce the demand for transport now, in particular the polluting and non-essential types of transport. In other words, a paradigm shift. This is even more relevant in the context of the looming energy crisis, related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If we need to ration energy and transport demand, which types of transport could we do without? I have my own list of transport examples that I think should be strongly discouraged or banned, but my list is not really the point. The point is that transport policy makers must start doing this exercise – which types of transport do they want to limit – and do it quickly.

The Spanish Minister of Consumer Affairs Alberto Garzón wrote in a tweet on the recent heat wave that hit his country: “The consequences of climate change are already here. The fetichism of endless economic growth must end to preserve life”. The time has also come to stop the fetichism of endless transport growth.


Olaf Merk is Ports and Shipping Project Manager at the International Transport Forum (ITF)


See more ITF work on Decarbonising Transport, including the Transport Climate Action Directory: an online database of transport CO2 reduction policy measures

Building back inclusive, low-carbon mobility in Latin American Cities

To mark this week’s Transforming Transportation Conference 2022 on the theme “Climate-Centered Mobility for a Sustainable Recovery”, Ernesto Monter Flores and Stephen Perkins reveal urban changes in Latin America that maximise pandemic disruptions and allow more livable cities.

Better biking: Covid pushed the creation of new bike paths in Bogotá, Colombia

The Covid-19 pandemic saw demand for transport drop significantly. Demand has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, and urban mobility patterns might show a long-term impact. There could be fewer daily commutes to work for some types of employment, increased delivery traffic seems here to stay, and we should be able to capitalise on the gains made in active mobility.

Recovery from the pandemic requires investment that creates an opportunity to rethink mobility and accelerate progress on our strategic objectives, especially decarbonisation and inclusion. Decarbonising transport will not only reduce CO2 emissions but can create green jobs and will rely on more inclusive mobility. It poses challenges, however, in financing the transition and ensuring the financial sustainability of transport systems. 

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the International Transport Forum (ITF) recently concluded a study on the most effective measures to decarbonise transport in three cities in Latin America; Bogotá, Buenos Aires and Mexico City (PDF link). These cities are each unique in terms of the legacy infrastructure, financing and service delivery models that today’s mobility is built on, but each is implementing ambitious programs to promote cycling, walking, ride-sharing, electric vehicles and public transport. 

The joint study evaluates the potential of the mobility policies pursued by each city to cut CO2 emissions. The work uses a data-driven methodology designed by ITF, adjusted for each city with input from stakeholders, and developed in collaboration with the city mobility authorities.

The ITF’s Decarbonising Transport in Latin American Cities project: helping policy makers in Bogotá, Buenos Aires and Mexico City to achieve their CO2 reduction ambitions for the transport sector

The fundamental priority for each city is to deliver safer, more equitable and inclusive mobility. But there are strong linkages between decarbonisation and interventions to create safe and secure environments for vulnerable users and improve public transport and active mobility options. Indeed without these initiatives, electrification will not be sufficient to meet climate targets. The challenge is to scale up interventions well beyond current ambitions in each of the cities.

Basic investments are critical: in sidewalks protected from cars; in surfaced roads in peripheral suburbs so that buses can reach them; in maintenance of roads to be safe for cyclists; and in providing partially separated space for cycling. Particular attention needs to be paid to the approaches to public transport stops so that pedestrians can access buses and Bus rapid transit (BRT) safely, without dangerous crowding dangerous carriageway crossings.

Bogotá has long invested in safe cycling infrastructure and has much the highest share of cycling in daily trips among the cities. Biking is used for commuting across Bogotá’s population, not just for the young in wealthier quarters of the city. The one benefit of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the accelerated extension of protected cycling networks in all three cities. Temporary cycle lanes were established rapidly to cope with the shutdown of public transport systems during lock-downs. And most of these lanes are now being made permanent.

Tempus fugit: Mexico City’s informal microbuses don’t always move when you want

Public transport accounts for the largest share of daily trips in all of the cities; over a third in Bogotá and Buenos Aires and two thirds of trips in Mexico City. Buses and BRT account for most of the heavy mass transit services in all three cities, but in Mexico City half of all public transport trips are on microbuses. Microbuses operate under an incomplete regulatory framework that fails to control routes, frequency and quality of service. Services are inefficient, overcrowded and slow as drivers wait to pack in passengers before departing. Travelling from the periphery to centres of employment requires several changes. This can represent a significant share of daily wages even though fares are controlled and low in relation to operating costs.

The city is introducing GPS tracking to keep operators to agreed routes and investing in better public transport exchange stations. But more fundamental concession reform will be required for increased investment and to achieve the levels of planning control over routes and service quality of a city like Buenos Aires.

The key to making journeys better for the worst-off commuters is direct public transport from the periphery to the centre, where employment opportunities are concentrated. Providing targeted, time-based subsidies for the poorest users is also effective, as Bogotá’s Sisben travel card system demonstrates, even if it has difficulty in reaching citizens on the most precarious incomes. Targeted support has proven more effective than capping fares at low levels, which tends to drive a vicious cycle of underinvestment and declining quality.

Funding public transport is always challenging. A combination of fare revenue, general taxation and local property or business taxes is usually needed for operation and especially investment. The impact of Covid-19 on operator revenues is forcing authorities worldwide to look again at how they fund public transport to attract more car users and meet climate goals. Contributions from commercial property development is part of the answer. Examples range from Mexico City’s under-used provisions for betterment charges to London’s developer contributions, currently being used to fund extensions to metro lines.

Sparking innovation: Santiago de Chile’s electric buses thrive thanks to public-private partnerships

Looking beyond the three cities, Chile reconcessioned the bus services in Santiago during the period of study, building on the successful regulatory models of Singapore and London. Ownership of the vehicle fleets has been separated from the concessions to run services, which are let for short periods through competition. This has allowed electric utilities to invest in electric buses, rapidly establishing the continent’s biggest electric bus fleet. Bogotá has increasingly ambitious electrification plans. On the other hand, Mexico City has focused on upgrading and expanding its small existing electric trolley bus system. This is the right place to focus initially. However, the scale of electrification needed to decarbonise transport, in step with decarbonising power production, will require finance of the scale achieved in Santiago.

Urban transport demand is expected to grow 3.5-fold in Latin America to 2050. Under existing policies to shift travel to public transport and active travel, improve vehicle fuel economy, and electrify mobility, CO2 emissions may ‘only’ increase 1.7-fold. While this is encouraging, it is not in line with the global objective of reducing CO2 emissions to a level that will limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees. Emissions in the three cities have to fall by much more.  

Fast forward: Watch the ITF’s Transport Outlook team’s projections for transport demand to 2050

This requires investment to expand bus, BRT, metro and rail systems to reach the periphery with good quality services. Public transport electrification must be scaled-up alongside sales of electric cars, funded through taxation and innovative financing partnerships of the kind used in Santiago. Policies to manage demand for car use and reallocate road space to public transport and active mobility will also be critical. The rapid expansion of protected space for cycling in the three cities during the pandemic is a highly successful precursor of what is to come.

The policies pursued in Bogotá, Buenos Aires and Mexico City for safe, inclusive and environmentally sustainable mobility are effective. But they need scaling up if they are to match climate ambitions, and for that they need sustainable funding.


Ernesto Monter Flores is Principal Transport Specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank.

Stephen Perkins is Head of Research and Policy Analysis at the International Transport Forum


Further reading:

Decarbonising Transport in Latin American Cities: A Review of Policies and Key Challenges

Decarbonising Transport in Latin American Cities: Assessing Scenarios

Dream on: the overnight rail comeback that’s revitalising inter-city travel

As night trains return in force, Selwyn Parker revisits the old adage that the journey can be just as important as the destination

Europe to Asia while you snooze: The famous Trans-Siberian Express connects Moscow with Vladivostok over eight nights’ travel

As the European Year of Rail reaches its close, one of its legacies will be the restoration of arguably the most loved of all journeys after a long absence caused primarily by cheap flights that have undercut overnight rail and by the advent of superfast trains that slashed travel times between cities.

Night trains are being revived in several regions, notably Europe, as rail authorities bow to passengers’ growing recognition that speed is not always the most important consideration. As Veronika Haunold, EU and international affairs manager for Austria’s state-run OBB rail service that helped pioneer the recovery of overnight travel with the launch of the Nightjet in 2020, explains: “What matters most to night train passengers is what time they arrive at their destination in the morning, not how long it takes them to get there.”

Fresh arrivals: Nightjet passengers the morning after | Photo credit: © Harald Eisenberger www.eisenberger.co.at

The aftermath of the pandemic may also be exercising its influence as inter-city commuters seek more personal space in the form of separate compartments with individual facilities. And by no means least, there’s flight-shaming, the movement that disapproves of travel by air because of the high emissions per passenger. Governments are under pressure to at least restore the regulatory balance between rail and aviation.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the night train is making a long-awaited comeback. In Europe, several companies have ambitious plans for the near future. France’s Midnight Trains expects to start selling tickets in 2024 for cross-border travel. OBB’s Nightjet, which is run in co-operation with government-owned rail groups in France, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland, has proved so popular that frequencies will be steadily increased as tracks become available. And there are moves afoot to expand Eastern Europe’s EuroNight service between capitals with the co-operation of OBB and other rail groups.

Sleeping on a Vietnamese … sleeper

And that’s just in Europe. Indonesia revived its night trains in 2018 after a long period of neglect and now provides facilities akin to business class in aircraft.

In some countries, though, the night train never went away. For Thailand, Bangkok’s long-running sleepers may be basic – no showers, for instance – but they have been popular with locals, commuters and tourists for years. In 2016, more luxurious sleeper cars were added.  But the grandaddy of night trains is surely Britain’s privately-owned Caledonian Sleeper, running Sunday to Friday from the top of Scotland to London Euston. Launched in 1873, the Sleeper survived in various guises until 1988, an astonishing 115 years, before it was revived in 1996 and has been going strong ever since, picking up carriages during the night. Completely new carriages were introduced in mid-2019, replacing tired rolling stock with worn interiors. Britain has a good record in domestic night trains – a second service, the Night Riviera Sleeper between London Paddington and Penzance on the Cornish coast, was revived in 1983.

A no-frills express sleeper in Thailand

The revival of the overnight train is a victory for passengers. Rail enthusiasts treasure the experience it provides – dining and drinking while the countryside flies by before falling asleep to the clickety-clack of the wheels. As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in From a Railway Carriage: “All of the sights of the hill and the plain/Fly as thick as driving rain;/And ever again, in the wink of an eye, Painted stations whistle by.”

It all started going wrong for overnight rail in the 1990s. In the teeth of competition from aviation, state-run rail largely allowed the overnight service to wither and nearly die. Most European state-run companies poured their resources into domestic networks and cut the cross-border links on which overnight services rely. And having given up the fight almost before it started, they parked up their cars. As rail consultant Mark Smith of The Man in Seat 61 points out: “[Some] operators abandoned night trains and scrapped the stock or let it rot in sidings, so it was no longer fit for purpose without major expenditure.”

While Brussels may have the best of intentions for night trains, some countries just aren’t working together and red tape is rife. In just two examples, as OBB’s Haunold points out, locomotives must be changed at the German border to comply with local standards, while Belgium insists that doors can only open for disembarkation on one side. In short, more cross-border co-operation is required. “What is needed is a timetable that is co-ordinated throughout Europe,” she told a seminar this year. Other operators complain about cross-border tax complications such as VAT, something airline passengers don’t have to pay.

Arriving in style: Austria’s ÖBB entice new Nightjet passengers to “dream now and enjoy tomorrow”

Another factor in the near demise of the night train was the need for speed. Both passengers and rail companies everywhere became excited about flagship superfast trains hurtling through the countryside at 200-300km/h. Before 1965 when Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train started slashing travel times between cities by half, overnight rail in the basic “blue sleepers” was common. Today there’s only one surviving night train in all of Japan, the Sunrise Express serving two destinations out of Tokyo. However, berths are so popular, especially the private cabins, that it’s essential to book well in advance.

Today’s night trains are a definite improvement on those of yesteryear. The new operators are improving the experience: mini-suites with individual toilets and showers, more comfortable beds, working facilities, quieter carriages, high-quality bars and food. Passengers are happy to pay a premium for this level of comfort, with tickets prices roughly pitched at the equivalent of a night in a four-star hotel, including travel. All that’s required now is for EU-wide regulators to get together so that costs and complexity can be reduced.


Selwyn Parker is an independent journalist and author of Chasing the Chimney Sweep about the first Tour de France of 1903.


The International Transport Forum’s Decarbonising Transport initiative promotes carbon-neutral mobility to help stop climate change. It provides decision makers with tools to select CO2 mitigation measures that deliver on their climate commitment. Learn more

The latest ITF Statistics Brief includes data for a full picture of transport trends during 2020, including passenger and freight rail transport. Get the Brief

The fine art of taking good aim (when trying to save the climate)

Nobody throws a lance when they have no target: what climate policy can learn from human resource management  

Natural disasters are now more frequent and ferocious (Photo: D. Futalan, Pexels.com)

By Hans Michael Kloth

The annual round of climate negotiations known collectively as COP kicks off on 1 November in the Scottish port city of Glasgow. It will be the 26th edition of the “Conference of the Parties” to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change since 1995, the year when signatory countries began to meet annually to assess progress in their efforts to combat climate change. 

This year’s edition, COP26, is a critical meeting for that combat, for time is running out. Most data-based scenarios see temperatures rising far above sustainable levels if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut radically. And scientists warn that climate change will become irreversible as various tipping points approach that threaten to cascade and conjure a “hothouse” climate that will be less inhabitable for humanity. 

Changed dynamic

COP26 is also critically important because the positive dynamic has also changed. The pivot was the Paris Agreement, negotiated in the City of Lights at COP21 in December 2015. There, nearly 200 countries agreed to draw up national decarbonisation strategies and to submit them to a public registry maintained by the UN.  

COP21 created a positive dynamic (Photo: Bruno Chapiron/MAEDI)

More importantly, they committed to continually tighten the screw for carbon emissions and submit more ambitious reductions strategies every five years. COP26 marks the first of three rounds in which plans with increased ambition, better measures and concrete targets must be put on the table (the original date of 2020 was pushed back because of Covid-19).  

In between these five-year intervals, the world community will take stock of whether the world is on track to achieve net-zero emissions and climate resilience by 2050 – or not (see illustration below). 

The process set by the Paris Climate Agreement (Source: Climate Watch, WRI, CC BY 4.0)

Not looking too good 

At the moment, it doesn’t look too good.  Only eight parties to the Paris Agreement have enacted a legal net-zero target, according to Climate Watch. Fourty-four more have made a political pledge to implement net-zero or evoke this target in policy documents. But six years after Paris, 145 countries have not in any way indicated that they are working towards net-zero in 2050 or how – and these 145 make up just under half of GHG emissions.   

review of how countries tackle transport CO2 in their decarbonisation strategies – commonly known as Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs – does not make for encouraging reading either. Only 14% of NDCs contain a concrete target for reducing transport CO2, which is responsible for around a quarter of man-made CO2 emissions – a disappointing share that also hasn’t changed with the new submissions since 27 September (there was only one in fact, from South Africa). 

Public transport users in Toronto, Canada (Photo: Andre Furtado, Pexels.com)

To make matters worse, this group of committed transport decarbonisers which have set an overall reduction target for the sector accounts for a paltry 5% of all transport CO2 emissions.  Conversely, a look at the ten largest overall emitters reveals that all of them acknowledge the role of transport for decarbonisation of the world economy and 7 out of 10 propose concrete measures. But only one of them, Canada, has a concrete transport sector target (and there, it is only the province of British-Columbia, which aims for a 27-32% CO2 reduction by 2030 compared to 2007 levels). 

A glass half full?

Those who like to see the glass half full can point to the fact that three quarters (77%) of Paris Agreement signatory countries at least list transport decarbonisation measures and that these generate fully 87% of global transport CO2 emissions.  Some of these even have sub-targets for specific parts of the transport sector.

The European Union’s Green Deal, for instance, sets the goal of a 55% CO2 reduction from cars and 50% from vans by 2030, and zero emissions from new cars by 2035. Such specific targets are valuable and worth applauding, but they raise the question why such help to get their bearings right is not extended to airlines or the road haulage sector and, ultimately, transport as a whole. That said, the EU does have an economy-wide target of reality climate-neutrality by 2050. 

High-level targets help to create a sense of purpose, align efforts and bundle available resources. Based on decades of research in the cognitive sciences, human resource professionals advise managers to set “SMART” objectives for their teams – goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based. They also recommend that targets should be a bit of a stretch to activate energy, motivation and learning.  

It sounds just like what most national climate strategies need now.