EST: blueprint for better transport

OECD Observer

Can anything be done to tackle transport problems and steer them to a more manageable level? There has been no shortage of trying.

Whether to curb pollution, discourage cars, boost public transport use, or simply reconquer civic space for cyclists and pedestrians, initiatives abound. Yet, the car remains triumphant. Ownership is climbing, and the pressure on local authorities to yield more space to the needs of the car is unyielding. As for aviation, high-speed trains in Europe and Asia show that rail can compete with short-haul flights, but long-haul air trips continue to rise.

A wider strategy is needed to tackle transport problems, one that leads to a significant, though feasible, shift in behaviour. That is precisely what the OECD’s Environmentally Sustainable Transport (EST) guidelines aim to provide. These have been developed since the mid-1990s and were adopted by OECD governments in 2001. That means the world’s 30 most transport-intensive countries acknowledged that it was time to make transport more sustainable.

The aim of EST is to ensure a high level of mobility for passenger and freight and allow transport to develop within the limits set by nature: that is, protecting health by reducing pollution and noise, respecting natural resource limits, and not worsening climate change or stratospheric ozone depletion. Under EST guidelines, CO2 emissions from transport would fall by 50% globally (80% in the OECD area) from 1990 to 2030. For this, the energy used to fuel the transport system would have to be virtually carbon-free. There would be similar declines in major air pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide, reducing acidification and photochemical smog. Fewer particulates would make air healthier to breathe and smaller, quieter engines would cut noise pollution. Land-take would also be driven back or green spaces restored, so helping to safeguard biodiversity and preventing costly sprawl.

EST combines a mix of measures – mobility management policies, incentives and technology. So, while car ownership would decrease, mobility would rise by over 20% compared with 1990 levels. There would be integrated transport services combining different modes; more cars would run on, say, fuel cells rather than petrol. Smaller or lower-powered vehicles would take over in urban areas. Non-motorised transport, like walking and cycling, would be encouraged for short trips. Load management for freight would be more efficiently managed to reduce frequency of trips, much of it would travel by rail and hydrogen would be used as fuel. Innovative public transport combining mass transit and individual vehicles, including taxis and rented cars, would be developed. Long-distance air travel for business purposes would be greatly reduced, with more use of videoconferencing and other information technologies.

All of this may sound highly altruistic, but EST makes economic sense too, certainly compared with the present situation. According to this strategy, EST’s initiatives would generate not only a net benefit for the environment and quality of life, but a decrease of some 45% in the financial costs imposed on society by transport over the period to 2030.

The main problem is not EST itself, but for governments to adopt consistent and focused policies and a determination to see action through. Emission limits, fiscal incentives, tradeable permits, planning, infrastructure investments in new areas like broadband, and education: the assault would be on all fronts. The market would follow at first, though eventually take the lead by innovating new products of its own, as it is already doing with carbon-neutral electric scooters and smarter telecommunications.

EST is attainable, but applying it would be tough going. People often insist that they depend on their car to get around, to shop, to bring the kids to school. Whether public transport works well or not, the same argument is heard. Perhaps a new, cleaner, quieter technology will come along to give the car some respite. However, even then, impacts of car driving, like fatalities, injury and land-take would have to be addressed. Technology will help, but it is not enough. What is clear is that transport systems based on mechanised, fossil-fuel transport are unsustainable. Our policymakers and leaders will sooner or later have to bite lip and act – the EST guidelines will assist them in this endeavour.

• See the EST guidelines at, “documentation, guidelines”.

©OECD Observer No 233, August 2002 

Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q1 2019 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.3% May 2019 annual
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Last update: 8 July 2019

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