Feedback: Transport and climate change

Issue: 108

James Woodcock

In the last issue of this journal Paul McGarr started a welcome debate on climate change. His analysis of the magnitude of the problem is spot on as are many of the solutions he proposes but I want to argue that a different kind of transport is both desirable and necessary.

The capitalist economy is based on ever increasing travel, for both people and goods, with the biggest increases being in plane, truck and car travel. This produces greenhouse gas emissions, 1.2 million road deaths each year, air pollution, and noise. Less directly it fuels oil wars, and consumes vast quantities of land and resources. It creates massive inequalities between those with access to transport and those without, and perhaps most importantly it denies opportunities for exercise. What it does not produce is quick, safe and easy access to jobs, schools, hospitals, shops, and leisure for the majority.

There is an alternative. A society in which most transport is by walking and cycling, with most needs satisfied locally, and where our streets are not filled with dangerous, polluting vehicles but are a public space for enjoyment and socialisation.

Reducing the need to travel

A key concept for reducing transport emissions is reducing transport demand. Paul recognises this when he says, ‘In the long run a further shift is needed in the way society is organised to demand ever more travelling in the course of daily life.’ But this shift needs to be on activists’ agendas now, integrated into local campaigns. Privatisation hands assets to property developers, who profit from urban sprawl.1 The sell off of council housing makes it more difficult for people to afford to live near where they work. Fighting against privatisation and corporate led development is fighting for local services here and now.

Walking and cycling

Walking and cycling should be central to a radical transport policy. They provide exercise for the traveller and pose little danger to others. Although often grouped together, distances possible by cycle are around 4 or 5 times greater than those by foot. For journeys of up to at least 5 miles, cycling is quick and convenient. Countries with similar climate and topography manage much higher rates than the UK (Copenhagen 20 percent of trips by bike, Amsterdam 28 percent, London less than 2 percent). Where cycling is widespread it is usually continued into retirement. For children cycling offers freedom not possible with a car.

A 1998 government report argued that walking is the most ‘natural activity and the only sustained dynamic aerobic exercise that is common to everybody except for the seriously disabled or frail’. For those unable to cycle or walk this environment would be much safer and easier to adapt than car based environments. Walking provides the opportunity for interaction unmediated by commodities. Chance encounters, informal socialisation, and decommodified exercise can all be enjoyed if we have streets designed for people not cars.

Public transport

But Paul focuses on a different vision: ‘The aim should be to create public transport of sufficient quality, regularity, reach and reliability that in most circumstances no rational person would want to travel any other way.’

This quote is meant to be about replacing car travel. However, it unintentionally excludes walking and cycling. This fits into a tradition of not viewing these as real forms of transport. For capitalism the problem is they do not produce much profit. Traditionally, many on the left and in the environmental movement have supported this focus on public transport. Although public transport should be improved, this approach is flawed.

Firstly public transport as envisioned by Paul will not achieve the necessary reduction in emissions. Even though trams, trains and tubes are electric, until we have a surplus of renewables (beyond domestic and industrial use) motorised transport will use fossil fuels or nuclear power from power stations. Although there is the potential to produce vast amounts of energy from renewable sources, even with the necessary investment it will take a long time to achieve a surplus if demand keeps rising at current rates. So effectiveness in reducing emissions depends on the energy efficiency of the different forms of transport. This is determined by the type of transport, how full it is and how long the journeys are.

Consider long distance travel. Paul recognises that flying is a problem: ‘Strict overall controls on the number of flights should also be put in place, starting with slashing the number of quite unnecessary business flights.’

At 14 percent of flights the number of business journeys is only a start. The big area is tourism, now accounting for 11 percent of global GDP. I think it is important to challenge the way in which we are sold the need to travel further and further for holidays. In part this is the uneven development of a few key world class attractions, while most people live with a degraded local environment. It is also people trying to escape the global cultural homogeneity of shops, advertising and logos.

However, Paul argues that, ‘A systematic drive to replace flights in Britain and Europe with high-speed rail connections (with cheap fares) should also be planned and implemented.’

The new fast trains planned from London to Edinburgh may, according to some calculations, produce nearly the same level of emissions as flying (although they will cause less climate change as the emissions will not go straight into the atmosphere).2 Also by making long distance travel easier tourism and commuting will continue to increase emissions. The average train commuter is both better off and travels further than the average car commuter. Supporting their journeys does not reduce emissions but subsidises long distance journeys in which the commuter will usually drive to the station and use their car for other journeys.

Public transport is least effective when added onto car based living. For a suburbanite far from shops, jobs and friends public transport is always going to be energy inefficient. In fact a bus journey outside London produces similar emissions per person to a car journey per person. A convenient service requires many buses travelling long distances with few people on board. This means high emissions. If services are less frequent, the better off will take the car.

A public transport system has to be designed to challenge car driven sprawl, not to accommodate it. For public transport to play a positive role it must prioritise local services and networks, and support cycling and walking. We do need a comprehensive rail system equivalent to that of the 1950s but this means opening small lines not faster intercity services. Public transport under capitalism often means prestige business and commuting services (like Crossrail) rather than local services.3 Such projects although public actually support the high-travel, high-emissions economy.

Improvements in public transport, without restricting car use, will not stop enough people driving. The car provides the biggest advantages when the least people use them. If we reduce congestion we make car journeys more attractive. Congestion is the main focus of capitalist attempts to limit car use, as it holds up freight and the rich along with the poor.4

Policies that have cut driving involve reducing the space (for driving and parking) available to cars, making car journeys slower and less convenient.5 This should be the start of a timetable to end car use, not just the use of particularly obscene vehicles like SUVs.


The question of local provision comes up again with freight. Paul argues that ‘Road freight must also be slashed, and driven back to rail and water.’

However, for both freight and passenger transport, the problem is not that sea, bus and train travel have fallen but that car, truck and plane travel has risen. In fact in the EU freight by short sea shipping has increased nearly as fast as by truck over the last 30 years. In the UK the recent increase in train travel has occurred in conjunction with more car use not less. The corporate agenda wants to see more rail and water transport combined with increases in truck, car and plane travel.

The alternative is local production and networks. The case is particularly stark for food. The ever expanding movement of goods exploits the inequalities in wages, and development that capitalism has produced for further profit. Beans can be grown in one country, flown thousands of miles to be packed in another, where labour is cheaper, and then flown back to be consumed in the first country. Our shops have lost vast numbers of traditional UK crops. The availability of year round non seasonal, fresh produce represents the illusion of choice and the reality of often low taste, unhealthy, global homogeneity.

Transport offers an opportunity to both massively reduce emissions and improve quality of life. The changes would save millions of lives, drastically improve our environment and, if this was not enough, are now made urgent by climate change. The solutions are radical but the barriers are not technology, or cost, but rather the challenge they pose to the system of accumulation, its dominant economic interests and accompanying ideologies.


1: For example, PFI hospitals are often built on green-field sites which are hard to access without a car.

2: R Kemp, ‘Transport Energy consumption’, Lancaster University, September 2004, available at

publications/transport%20energy%20 consumption%20discussion%20paper.pdf

3: Trams offer a cheaper and more pleasant alternative to underground development. Trams are far more efficient than diesel buses and do more to counter sprawl.

4: According to UK government methodology, the social cost of congestion associated with food transport is £5 billion. This compares with £2 billion for crashes and £2 billion in total for greenhouse gases, air pollution, noise and infrastructure. DEFRA report, July 2005, ‘The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development’, available at

5: Although many working class people in the UK drive, they are also pedestrians, parents, and worry about mobility in old age. This approach offers a chance to challenge the ideology of seeing their interests as drivers.

6: White paper, ‘European Transport Policy for 2010: Time to Decide’, September 2001, available at