Towards a Sustainable Transport System

This is a paper I wrote with Richard Douthwaite of Feasta and Kevin Leyden of West Virginia University for Comhar‘s conference on Sustainability in the National Development Plan.  It is now online here.

The introduction is below.


A transport system can be regarded as sustainable only if it is possible to imagine it being continued
unchanged for several hundred years because it is not damaging society or the environment and is not
dependent on a non-renewable, depleting resource to run. However, as this report shows, the Irish
transport system has developed over the past few years in a way which has made it less sustainable by
becoming, on a per capita basis, more heavily dependent on one increasingly scarce non-renewable
resource – oil – than perhaps any other system in Europe. This dependency has arisen largely because
of the recent under-priced, uncontrolled growth in the use of the private car. Many of the houses,
shopping centres and industrial estates built recently will turn out to be very badly located if cars become
too costly to use on anything like the present scale as a result of the increased cost of oil, whether the
increase is a result of resource depletion or measures to protect the global climate.

This report begins by looking at the increased use of the Irish transport system in recent years and the
extent to which the increases were necessitated by the country’s economic growth. It shows that the
increase in freight transport was largely unavoidable given the growth path followed but, if the pattern
adopted in other EU countries had been followed, more of it could have been carried by rail. In Ireland,
unlike most EU states, rail freight tonnage has declined in the past ten years.

However, where the country went more seriously wrong was in keeping the cost of driving a mile in a
private car very low, with the result that demand for car use was higher than it would have been if the
same tax burden had been imposed on motorists in a different way. Specifically, Ireland made the cost
of owning a car high, but the cost of using one low, too low to cover the externalities imposed by a
vehicle’s use on the rest of the population, Removing this subsidy would have encouraged people to pay
more attention to minimising the distance they travel to work and to lower energy transport modes. As
aviation has also been subsidised by allowing it untaxed fuel and by the state paying a large proportion
of the cost of flights from Dublin to regional airports, overall, the historically low cost of energy and the
subsidies have encouraged people to use highly energy intensive transport modes and for less energy
intensive ones to grow more slowly or to decline.

The report discusses the far-reaching environmental and social effects of allowing these changes to
happen. It then turns to look at the policies and techniques that are available to rectify the situation.