Why Are the Two Most Sustainable Forms of Transport Missing from the UN Sustainable Development Goals?
Walking and cycling may be the two most basic modes of transport, but they may also be the most promising for a sustainable future. In a car-filled world, it’s the people who use their own two feet or two wheels that are making efficient use of space in crowded cities while creating health and environmental benefits for themselves and others.
Yet in a forthcoming international agreement that will steer development policy and funding for the next 15 years, the question remains whether these active transport modes will be recognized as a proven way of creating more sustainable cities.
The United Nations will host negotiations later this month on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a new set of globally agreed-upon goals by national governments to replace the existing Millennium Development Goals. These negotiations will culminate in a meeting in late September to adopt this new post-2015 development agenda.
In the current proposal for adoption, cities are taking a larger role, with a stand-alone goal to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” A set of targets within this goal address specific issues, and one of them mentions transport, stating, “by 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities, and older persons.”
This is no doubt a promising opportunity to raise the profile of cities, transport, and traffic safety to unprecedented levels of public awareness. Yet while the target for sustainable transport specifically mentions expanding public transport, it leaves out walking and bicycling.
Why active transport is integral to sustainable urban mobility
Enhancing active transport is a necessary step toward improving overall urban mobility, as it is a broad category that includes, for example, taking a walk to public transport or a nearby store, commuting by bike to work, or using a bike share system for short trips.
Active transport produces the least pollution, requiring no use of fossil fuels. There are significant health benefits to regular walking and cycling. Given that the world is facing steep declines in physical activity that harm health and result in severe economic burdens, prioritizing active transport can be a necessary tool for making the world a healthier, safer, and more sustainable place. Additionally, investing in walking and cycling infrastructure helps address traffic safety by protecting these vulnerable users, who bear a significant brunt of traffic deaths. Lastly, moving around by walking and cycling can provide mobility not bound to the kind of congestion caused by motor vehicles.
Walking and cycling levels in low and middle-income countries are on par with or surpass those of public transport. In Latin American countries, walking and bicycling comprises around 30 to 40 percent of all trips in most cities. In Mumbai, walking and cycling represent 51 percent of the city’s mode share. Walking represents 70 percent of total trips in Addis Ababa and nearly 50 percent in Dar es Salaam. And currently, bicycling in the city of Copenhagen accounts for nearly 36 percent of all trips to work or education, demonstrating the bicycle’s potential to become a staple of city life.
How to internationally recognize the value of active transport
The current Sustainable Development Goals proposed could be revised to include not only mass transport, but walking and cycling as well—capturing the three most impactful forms sustainable transport. In his commentary on the Sustainable Development Goals in the SAIS Review of International Affairs, the World Resources Institute’s Dario Hidalgo notes that “the means to provide better mobility, notably through public transport, may also need to include the concept of quality and the inclusion of infrastructure for walking and bicycles. Sustainable urban mobility involves not only public transport, but incorporates all three sustainable modes.”
Hidalgo suggests a small edit that could accommodate active transport: “By 2020 provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding QUALITY public transport and infrastructure for walking and bicycling with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons.”
For cities wishing to provide sustainable urban mobility that increases residents’ quality of life, active transport must be a priority. Expensive rail projects and new highways may be attractive to some, but recognizing basic human needs and quality of life are more important in the long term. As for the Sustainable Development Goals, it’s a major step forward that cities in general—largely excluded from the Millenium Development Goals—are a focus of the new post-2015 agenda. Whether walking and bicycling will ultimately be included in the goals is yet to be seen, but they would certainly strengthen an already ambitious agenda to shape a more sustainable, prosperous planet.
Editor's note: one answer to the question posed in the headline is here, where it's suggested that industry lobbying and the composition of the advisory panel are to blame.
WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities works to make urban sustainability a reality. Global research and on-the-ground experience in Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Turkey and the United States combine to spur action that improves life for millions of people.