The transport transformation will be driven by its benefits to society.

In recent decades a wide variety of efforts have been made to augment the benefits and mitigate the harms associated with transportation. Roads and railways have been built; emissions limits have been adopted; and vehicle safety standards have been improved. However, it has not been possible to reduce the negative externalities of the transport sector to the degree hoped for by many.
For example, more than half of Germany’s population feels burdened or bothered by traffic noise.185 The particulate concentrations produced by vehicle emissions exceed legal requirements in many places. Roads and railways represent a growing burden for the animal and plant world, as they fragment and destroy natural habitats. Furthermore, the number of traffic accidents reached a new high in the history of Germany in 2015.186

The transport sector deserves closer scrutiny, as it has failed to make a net contribution to the reduction of Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions over the last quarter century. While there are many reasons for this, one particular problem complex is particularly relevant: Millions of people are responsible for producing emissions, which greatly diminishes the relative responsibility borne by the individual. In addition, at least in Germany, the consequences of global warming are difficult to recognise, or can only be imagined as part of a distant future. This undermines public support for policies to curb carbon emissions.

However, transport transformation can create direct and near-term benefits for the individual. In our view, the directly experienced benefits of policies to promote carbon-neutral energy and sustainable mobility patterns will become an important driver of the transport transformation.

185. UBA (2017c).
186. Destatis (2016d).

  • The transport transformation offers greater benefits than climate protection

    Emissions-free vehicles improve air quality, thus reducing pollution impacts to human health. Electric vehicles are also considerably less noisy than automobiles with internal combustion engines. Less noise means less stress, and, by extension, lower long-term health risks such as cardiovascular disease. As low-income segments of the population are disproportionally exposed to the negative effects of vehicle traffic, reducing noise pollution and toxic emissions also makes a contribution to environmental justice.

    The health benefits of physical exercise – including walking or riding a bicycle – are well established. Wide and well-connected foot and bicycle paths promote local mobility while also making alternatives to personal vehicle use more appealing. Furthermore, lower speed limits in urban areas can promote road safety while encouraging a built environment that is more people friendly.

    The transition to sustainable mobility promises to improve air quality and reduce noise pollution while also promoting more physical exercise. In this way, it doesn’t just promote the health of the individual, but also helps to slow the rise in health care spending, including individual health care premiums. According to a study conducted by the American Lung Association in ten US states, the widespread adoption of electric vehicles in 2030 would save 13 billion US dollars in terms of avoided health care expenditures and lost productivity.187 Similar studies should be conducted for Germany, as they would lend fresh momentum to discussion concerning the health benefits of environmental policy.

    Fewer airborne toxins, less noise pollution and improved traffic safety would enhance quality of life in urban areas. Furthermore, by closely interlinking various transportation options, it will become easier for the individual to forego personal vehicle ownership, including the fixed costs such ownership entails. Car sharing services promise to reduce the amount of urban space required for parking vehicles, including the traffic associated with searching for parking spots. This would boost the attractiveness of urban areas while also improving quality of life for residents.

    Moreover, in and outside of urban areas, less vehicle traffic would reduce the human impacts to flora and fauna. Ensuring the health of the natural environment is not a wedge issue: some 94% of German say that spending time in nature is part of a good life.188

    Last but not least, sustainable mobility has economic benefits. Reducing the use of fossil fuels would protect the German economy from the damaging effects of another period of rising oil prices. Embracing sustainable transport would also encourage the economic competitiveness of German industry. By contrast, resisting the inexorable trends toward sustainable transport would be associated with competitive disadvantages. In this way, sustainable transport could also help to protect job.

    187. Holmes-Gen, B.; Barrett, W. (2016).
    188. BMUB, BfN (2016), p. 62.

  • Discussion promotes public support

    Logic dictates that the directly experienced benefits of transforming the transport sector will augment public support for the policy interventions designed to promote its advancement. Ultimately, the transition of the transport sector should have direct benefits for a range of societal actors:

    • Sustainable transport should help to stabilise health care expenditures while also shoring up public faith in the ability of the government to take positive action that promotes the health and security of the populace.
    • Sustainable transport promises to improve quality of life in our cities and towns while also expanding the planning decisions that are made at the local level.
    • The private sector will increasingly recognise that the active steering of structural change offers greater opportunities than a doomed effort to preserve the status quo.
    • Last but not least, individuals will directly experience how transportation is becoming safer, healthier and less stressful.

    However, policies do not automatically garner broad public support by virtue of being beneficial. Various historical examples make this clear, including initial resistance to seat-belt laws in Germany. While the majority of drivers recognised in the 1970s that ¬seat belts are a valuable safety device, a deep aversion to buckling up persisted for many years. Psychologists working for the German Transportation Ministry even determined that opponents of seat-belt laws displayed a “willingness to engage in violent conflict”.189 Today, no one thinks twice about buckling up, as seat belts have dramatically reduced traffic accident fatality rates and awareness for this fact is firmly anchored in the public’s mind.

    However, historical experience with seat belts hints at the challenges that may arise in achieving public acceptance for the transport transformation. Public support for the changes that are required cannot be imposed from above by law or dictate. We must recruit the active support of the entire populace with rational and enlightened dialogue.

    189. SPON (2010).

  • Collective action is paramount

    In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, a commission charged with examining the future of nuclear energy in Germany emphasised that the energy transition “can only succeed with collective action at all levels of government, business and civil society”.190 The need for collective action is particularly pronounced in the area of sustainable transport, as change will be required in the daily routines of millions of people. The success of this effort will hinge on the active support of everyone, from political and business elites down to the common citizen. New organisational structures will need to be established at the local, national and international levels. For clearly, the effort to remake the transport sector is a broad-based transformational process that will be ongoing for multiple decades.

    This process will necessitate robust and reliable regulatory conditions and government support that are not called into question after each new election. Indeed, if policymakers display a flagging commitment to the overarching goal of transforming the transport sector and cannot commit to reliable subsidy conditions for business, this would critically undermine the ability of the private sector to make long-term investment decisions. Accordingly, it is imperative that policymakers present a clear roadmap and fully commit to undertaking the journey.

    The government commission on the future of nuclear energy recommended the creation of a National Forum on Energy Transition. Such an organisation is still waiting to be established. Heeding this recommendation would provide a valuable boost to transport transformation.

    190. Ethik-Kommission (2011), S. 11

Stay in touch. Subscribe to our newsletter.