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The definition of ‘sustainable transport’ is “The ability of a transport system to maintain itself over time. This attribute includes financial, economic, social, community and environmental aspects.”

Listing the benefits of the use of sustainable forms of transport is not hard; it enhances economic growth, improves accessibility, and respects the environment. It improves social equity and addresses health problems. Finally, it also both strengthens the resilience of cities and the productivity of rural areas

So in general terms, what are the five most sustainable forms of transport?

‘Smart’ Roads

A Portuguese scheme has planned to create around 1,000 kilometres of smart roads throughout Spain. These will have wireless communication between road-based infrastructure nodes and smart cars.

It’s not just safety issues that technologically enabled roads can help address. Sweden recently completed a pilot project that saw two kilometres of road transformed into an electrified track. This would then recharge electric cars and trucks while they drive.


Researchers at China’s Southwest Jiaotong University are testing an ultra-fast bullet train prototype. This will be based on magnetic levitation (maglev) technology, and could potentially reach speeds of up to 1,000km/h.

Adaptable urban bus/tram networks

As the future of mass transport lies in increasingly extensive urban areas, this form of transport has various dimensions.

  • Fuel and propulsion systems: In the absence of breakthroughs in second-generation biofuels, electrification is the most important pathway to low carbon transport (electric cars use low carbon power at less than half the footprint of the best hybrid)
  • Fuel efficiency:  by improving fuel economy we can get the same mileage while generating fewer emissions, achieved by making engines more efficient, vehicles lighter, and bodies more aerodynamic
  • Urban planning and design: In 1950 less than 30% of the world’s population lived in cities, by 2010 that figure was over 50%, and by 2030, it is expected to surpass 60%. This natural trend towards urbanisation is a huge opportunity for lowering both distance travelled per person and the carbon intensity of that travel

Eco-air travel

Air travel represents a relatively low proportion of the overall environmental impact of transport on the world. However, the airline industry is still responding in ways that make it a much cleaner form of transport than in years past;

  • More direct flights and a smart pricing policy, meaning a greater occupancy rate per plane
  • New developments in aerospace technology, making commercial airliners and freight planes quieter, cleaner, and cheaper and allowing them to fly more frequently and burn less fuel
  • Longer-range capacity, meaning a reduction in the number of long-range flights

People power

  • Cycling: as an example, Bristol was the UK’s first cycling city. It encourages the use of bikes by having bike festivals, investing in cycle lanes and supporting projects which promote cycling
  • Car sharing: The cheapest and simplest way to lower the carbon footprint per kilometre is to increase vehicle occupancy. Car sharing schemes for areas poorly served by public transport would be a great example of serving this concept
  • Virtualisation: the rising use of technology (internet, mobile devices) has made travel less necessary and possibly less attractive. In business communication (for example, teleconferencing) and in the leisure world, virtual worlds reduce the requirement for travel over long distances

Some of these forms of transport contribute more to the protection of the environment than others, just as some of the ‘forms’ of transport are not strictly examples of engine-driven vehicles.  For ultimately, the issue of transport in the future is multi-dimensional and has to go hand-in-hand with data-based intelligent planning and behaviour change on the part of an increasingly better-informed public.