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Low carbon transport part 1: focus on affluent lifestyles

Here’s the crux of a major problem facing the South African transport sector. Ethics demands that we focus on alleviating poverty and creating jobs, the politics of voting demand that we address the  desires of the middle class and the climate change agenda calls for a dogged focus on the lifestyles of the affluent.

In their inspired work in metropolitan Nelson Mandela Bay Christo Venter and Semira Mohammed demonstrated why a focus on the affluent is so key. They clearly demonstrated the skewed use of transport energy use in South Africa. They showed (in a nutshell) that “car users, although they make only 25% of trips, contribute 70% of the passenger transport energy consumption“. It’s (almost) one of the classic 80:20 situations where a small group has a dramatically disproportionate impact.

Income and modeThe graph to the left drawing on National Household Travel Survey data tells a similar story. Minibus taxis dominate transport use in the metros for the three lowest income quintiles. Train, bus and car use in this group is modest. The transport use of the most affluent 20% is dramatically different and  car use dominates. The implications for climate policy are clear. The poorest and middle income groups already exhibit the most sustainable transport behaviour possible. Measures for lowering carbon in the transport sector should not focus there.

Vasconcellos argues that to talk of sustainability is not helpful in our Southern context. Vasconcellos asks: “We should be provide sustainability for whom?” and he opens up the uncomfortable reality that transport planners focused on carbon would ideally keep the basic movement characteristics of the poorest: low private vehicle use, high use of walking and public transport.

I advocate a value-based focus to transport planning, to replace our current obsession with modes. (1) Poverty-alleviation focused transport planners intent on improving the current services to the poorest. (2) Carbon-focused transport planners intent on shifting lifestyle patterns amongst the affuent. The middle ground, the income group where car ownshership is possible, but not yet familiar and where public transport use is part of family life and history is the key “battleground” for the carbon-focused and transport planners. That is where rapid growth in energy use could happen and that is where our future will be won or lost.


Wealth-poverty photo –


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