The challenges of sustainable transport

My first car was a Morris Minor, barely large enough to hold me. The paint was scratched and faded, one of the seat belts was attached by a knot and it seemed to use more oil than petrol. But for all its faults it was mine and I could go where I wanted, when I wanted. It never once occurred to me that the fume cloud that blossomed from my rattling exhaust was somehow affecting the planet. I had the independence of my own wheels and that was all that mattered then.

Though that was years ago, I suspect these sentiments endure through each new generation of driver, and feed the resistance to change that so many environmental managers meet when trying to promote sustainable transport within their companies and communities.

After all, how do change behaviour when it is linked to something so personal? Your own vehicle provides comfort and convenience as well as a feeling of security. Things that many drivers believe are not provided by the sustainable alternatives.

So what is the answer? Well, in my experience there is no single solution. Rather a strategy needs to be developed that offers options that educate the commuters and then allows them to cobble together their own sustainable transport plan.

This approach has been adopted by many organisations and is increasingly popular within the tertiary education sector, where universities are keen to reduce their emissions footprint. This article looks several projects established by the Australian National University in Canberra as part of a multi-faceted transport strategy.

Transport audits

In Australia, my home country, commuting by car is the norm. For example, on any given day, 70% of drivers use their vehicle to travel to work, while 88% use it for private commuting. Annually, Australians drive 167 billion kilometres – the equivalent of 20 return trips to Pluto.

Note that as of 2013-14 the average emissions for Australian passenger vehicles were 190g/km. While this figure is reducing with more efficient motor technology, it remains substantially higher than Europe at 132.4g/km.

Though not an overly large city, the culture of driving in Canberra is fed by a very effective road system and reasonably affordable parking. There is public transport in the form of a bus service – a light rail system is currently in early stages of construction – but negative perceptions about its reliability and safety have grown over the years (a common belief in many public transport systems around the world). These are often used to justify driving a car.

When the Australian National University developed its campus environmental management plan, sustainable transport was a key element. However, establishing an effective strategy for change was difficult because there was very little information about commuter behaviour. To fill that gap, a series of ‘audits’ were conducted, in which auditors – mostly volunteer students – were placed at all entries to the campus, where they did a simple count of the number of single occupant and multiple passengers vehicles, cyclists, walkers and commuters disembarking at the university bus stop.

The data confirmed that the majority were single driver vehicles and further analysis was then undertaken to identify any barriers that might be preventing commuters using alternative transport options.

Buses and car pools

Public transport was an obvious alternative to private vehicles but interviews with drivers identified a very poor knowledge of the Canberra bus services. Additionally, services to the campus were not scheduled to meet the community needs, particularly those of students whose classes were running outside normal peak demand periods. To address this the university management collaborated with the local transport authority to develop a more effective schedule. This resulted in some increase in bus commuting, though was probably most effective in reducing ‘decay’ – that is, minimising the number of users swapping to private vehicles because they were more convenient.

Like most transport strategies, attempts were made to promote carpooling, thus reducing the number of vehicles travelling to campus. A database was developed to allow drivers to find suitable matches (people living in the same area, working the same times etc) and again, while some used this service, the uptake was minimal, in part because there was artificiality in the relationship. Many people were uncomfortable with the idea of sharing a vehicle with a complete stranger. We found that a more effective approach was to encourage families to drive together where practical, emphasising in media a goal of reducing their family environmental footprint, as well as saving a few dollars on petrol.

The mighty bike – peddling for the planet

The transport audits showed there was an underlying willingness among some staff and students to ride to campus (Canberra has a very good cycle track network), but the lack of end of trip facilities was a barrier.

Community interviews highlighted concerns there were no secure storage for bikes on campus and limited locker facilities in buildings. A project was established to address both these issues. Lockers were retrofitted into many areas and were part of the fit out of new buildings. Adequate shower facilities were also part of new designs.

The university then began a staged construction of free-standing bike enclosures in close proximity to teaching research and accommodation areas. To date, 35 enclosures have been completed with enough storage space for more than 2,000 bikes. This is in addition to the outdoor bicycle hoops outside every campus building. Though definitive data is still being collated, anecdotal evidence suggests there has been an increase in cyclist numbers on campus, with most of the facilities being fully utilised.

To further promote the use of bicycles, the university also introduced a corporate bike fleet which allows staff and students to book bikes for intra campus travel.

However, perhaps the most innovative programme implemented was the Go Green, Get Lean Cycle-to-Campus Challenge, which deliberately combined sustainable travel with improving physical fitness and overall health. The key features included:

  • Weekly exercise sessions supervised by a professional trainer
  • Additional exercise, nutrition and sustainable lifestyle information
  • Friendly competition with prize incentives
  • Free fitness appraisals and quantified feedback of fitness improvements

The participants undertook a 10-week fitness programme, which involved a progressive substitution of motorised commuting with cycling. Weekly exercise sessions provided participants with additional strength and flexibility conditioning and built their confidence to continue a safe and effective exercise regime. In addition to exercise training, participants received instruction in rider safety, nutrition and bike maintenance.

Car share

In the last couple of years sustainable transport initiatives have focused on addressing the issue of convenience provided by having your vehicle on campus.

The use of car share services has increased globally and taking a lead from that broader community, the university has partnered with a commercial provider to establish its own programme on campus.

This service provides an alternative for department vehicle fleets, with staff being able to book a car for business use using an online register. The same service also allows private bookings at a competitive hourly rate, thus providing people who elect to commute to campus using public transport (or any other means) with access to a motor vehicle if needed during the day.

While motor vehicles are still a prominent feature on campus, the combined effect of these projects is seeing some change in attitudes. Alternative transport options are there and every now and then a commuter will make the decision to catch the bus or ride to work that day, rather than drive. Small steps but important ones on the real journey towards a sustainable lifestyle.

Photo by Peter Blanchard

Bart Meehan

Bart Meehan

Visiting fellow and research associate, Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University

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