The report by Northern Ireland Environment Link (1) is comprised of a series of 13 short articles, with 8 case studies, by various environmentalists, public officials, and academics, all addressing the issue of the status and future directions for sustainable transport polices in Northern Ireland. The impetus for the report is that the Assembly’s Committee for Regional Development is undertaking an inquiry into sustainable transport and the Regional Development Strategy and the Regional Transport Strategy are undergoing reviews. Transport emissions continue to play an important part of the struggle to control greenhouse gases (GHG) for both the devolved and UK governments.
One of the values of the report is the broad range of points-of-view represented in the report and the balance the report tries to maintain with regard to those views. Rather than attempt to summarize the articles, each of which is only a page or two, this Summary will try to highlight the critical issues that surface in many of the articles and indicate what differences might exist with regard to these issues.
Transport of people and goods becomes unsustainable when it creates problems for the environment and/or for socio-economic conditions in excess of what benefits it delivers. The benefits are fairly obvious — we use transportation to get from one place to another and to ships goods. The faster the better. The detriments are becoming clearer, with the help of reports such as the present one from NIEL.
Several writers note the growing concerns with up to 59% of adults in NI either overweight or obese and about 10% of children obese. Obesity can contribute to a host of health effects, including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer, each with its own high costs to the health care system. As more and more people in NI rely on private cars to move around, for even the most mundane tasks to nearby locations, fewer and fewer people get the necessary physical exercise. As one article notes, “Belfast is today the most car-dependent medium size city in Western Europe.” Kelleher, Smyth, and Ellis. About 84% of people in NI commute to work by private transport, compared to less than 70% in the UK. The next generation is learning that such behavior is common as the children are increasingly being driven to school, no matter how close, with 20% of cars in peak periods taking children to school. Interestingly, Kelleher et al. also suggest that the high level of car dependency in NI is, in part, a legacy from 30 years of political instability that was accompanied by widespread ethic and religious segregation and a selection of schools based on academic or religious grounds rather than close proximity.
Walking and cycling are well-known alternatives to driving around in private cars, or being driven around. Even public transport requires passengers to engage in 19 minutes of physical activity for each average trip, which amount of physical activity equals two-thirds of the 30 minutes of daily activity recommended by the World Health Organization. Of course care needs to be taken that diesel-powered school buses do not endanger the children they transport, as a number of studies in the United States have identified the health risks from dirty diesel emissions that infiltrate inside school buses. (2)
The articles report on a number of important initiatives providing for safe routes and economic incentives for getting children to walk and cycle to school with friends, and for getting parents to change their mind sets about driving their children everywhere. On a wider scale, one of the case studies, on the City of Freiburg, comparable in size to Belfast, demonstrates what is possible when the political will is developed and the financial resources are expended on a sustainable transport policy. In Freiburg, 65% of residents live within walking distance of tram stops, one-third of daily commuters use public transport, and one-third commute by bike. In contrast, in Belfast 59% of people commute to work by private car.
While over-reliance on private car transport can contribute to obesity which in turn can contribute to heart disease and other ailments, the emissions from transport vehicles contribute directly to a variety of health effects, including heart conditions, asthma, and other respiratory diseases. The health effects from direct exposure to emissions from cars and trucks in particular have been well documented elsewhere although not covered in any depth in this report. (3) Claire Higgns of the Institute of Public Health in Ireland points out that air pollution attributed to vehicle emissions disproportionately impacts disadvantaged urban areas, as there are different outcomes in health for different population groups. (4)
Transport and Planning/Land Use
Over the past several decades, we have all learned that efforts to preserve and protect the environment are inseparable from efforts to develop sustainable planning. Sometimes environmental protection crashes mightily with planning issues. Seamus óg Gallagher of NIEL hits that nail on the head when he suggests that, “We must increase the density of housing in major settlements and concentrate future rural development in established settlements to reduce individuals’ need to travel by car and to provide a larger customer base for public transport operators.” It is difficult, if not impossible, to reduce an over-reliance on private cars if government and planning policies support building housing, or commercial/industrial facilities, only where private cars can provide transport. This conflict is most evident in the controversy over one-off housing and housing development in rural communities.
Several articles point out that government policies clearly support private transport over public transport, as the allocation of funds reveals. For 2008-2011, the devolved government has allocated £612 million for roads and only £ 181 m for buses and rail; for 2011-2018, it is £2.5 billion for roads and only £450 million for buses and rail. More roads lead, typically, to reduced travel times, which usually encourages more people to travel by private cars or ship goods by road transport. It is pointed out that other policies, such as increased parking costs and congestion charges, can lead to a reduction in private transport use. The challenge, for public officials and citizens, is how to lead the general public to a more sustainable use of transport.
Transport and Global Climate Change
The articles reveal the conflict behind certain government policies on transport and the efforts to control GHG emissions. In addition to the priority of funding for roads over buses and rail, access to frequent and inexpensive air travel is seen by many as critical to attracting more tourists, more business and inward investment. Yet emissions from air transport contribute to GHG levels and will need to be reduced if there is any hope of meeting GHG targets. The targets themselves present a challenge as the UK has adopted a commitment to reduce by 2050 GHG emissions by 80%, and to reduce by 2020 GHG emissions by 34%, with 1990 as the base against which the reductions will be measured. The NI devolved government has committed to reduce GHG emissions only by 25% by 2025. It appears that NI is not pulling its own weight in the struggle to control GHG. Meeting any GHG reduction target is made more difficult because of the increase in emissions from transport which have increased 51% since 1990 in NI, compared to an increase of 9% in the UK.
Many of the implications drawn out in these articles, and the steps necessary to address these problems are summarized by Seamus óg Gallagher of NIEL.
1. Northern Ireland Environment Link (NIEL) is the forum and networking body for organisations interested in the environment of Northern Ireland. It assists members to develop views on issues affecting the environment and to influence policy and practice impacting on the natural and built environment of Northern Ireland. For more information about NIEL, visit their website at www.nienvironmentlink.org/ where this and other reports can be found.
2. See, for example, studies done by Natural Resources defense Council:“What Parents Need to Know About Diesel School Buses,” www.nrdc.org/air/transportation/qbus.asp#how
3. See, for example, www.eea.europa.eu/themes/air/about-air-pollution
4. A similar finding has been found in the US in what are characterized as “environmental justice” communities, that is, communities of color or low income that typically have the heaviest traffic and/or most polluting facilities located within their community.