10.3 – Social and Environmental Responsibility

Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

Social and sustainability challenges address a range of issues such as mobility gaps, transport security, and climate change.

1. Societal Challenges

The role of transportation in society has been increasingly acknowledged, which goes beyond its economic contribution. Concerns over energy efficiency, safety, and security are becoming more salient. While energy prices have been subject to significant volatility in recent years, the long-term trend is indicative of an energy transition, often labeled as the decarbonization of transportation. While technologies may make alternative fuel vehicles a commercial option to the internal combustion engine, the main question is to what extent this transition may be associated with higher transportation costs. Energy, particularly the availability of oil, has been a salient factor in the development of transport systems. It remains to be seen about which forms of transport and mobility will take shape as the energy transition away from fossil fuels takes place.

Transportation safety issues are somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, transportation modes and terminals are incrementally becoming safer as accident rates are declining. This is particularly the case for air transportation, in which safety performance has steadily improved despite substantial growth in the number of passengers being carried. Similar trends are observed for road transportation, particularly in developed economies, as fatality rates have declined. However, road transport safety remains a salient issue in developing economies where vehicle ridership is increasing and where enforcement of safety regulations is lacking. An enduring issue is, therefore, to ensure that transportation safety continues to improve through better modal and infrastructure design, operational practices, and the enforcement of existing regulations.

Another prevalent matter concerns security practices that are now part of the business environment in which passenger and freight transport systems are evolving. Regulatory agencies impose most of these measures with consequences often challenging to assess, but always involving additional costs and delays for transport operators. A balance between security measures and the efficient flow of passengers and freight will need to be achieved through a variety of regulatory, operational, and technological innovations. The years since September 11, 2001, have underlined that security issues in transportation have played a more prevalent role.

The observed gaps in mobility across groups remains a challenge since they are associated with differences in economic opportunities and social interactions. While there are differences in mobility according to gender and income, the contribution of transportation to these gaps is not clear since it can be their cause or consequence. Income is the most relevant factor in mobility gaps, both for short (commuting) and long distances (tourism). The time spent commuting is also indicative of economic opportunities with longer times associated with fewer opportunities. Lower incomes are linked with less mobility and available transport options. Since income is an important element defining residential preferences, the spatial pattern of residential areas leads to differences in accessibility. High-income areas tend to have high accessibility, while the opposite is observed for low-income areas. The challenges remain the provision of transportation infrastructure and services that would help mitigate social gaps without resorting to social engineering and high subsidy levels.

New patterns of consumption, social interactions, and usage of transportation are also emerging. The rapid growth of e-commerce, including in developing economies such as China, has transformed retailing and the use of commercial space. With growing home deliveries, a footprint switch occurs from the retail stores to the distribution centers, involving different location patterns and forms of distribution. Vehicle sharing services, including bicycle and scooter pools, are changing how people are using transportation in a manner that breaks the conventional dichotomy between full vehicle ownership or the reliance on public transit.

2. Sustainability Challenges

The issue of sustainability has become an increasingly important consideration for the transport industry. The need to balance economic efficiency, social factors, and the environment is being recognized. Of these three, economic efficiency has always been at the forefront, and governments have been important actors in regulating social conditions (safety, security, and working conditions). As global economic development increases welfare in many societies, additional pressures are emerging to regulate and innovate in the provisions of transport technologies and services.

Despite the strong historical relationships between transport and the environment, the latter has tended to be overlooked by the industry. This is rapidly changing, and environmental issues are likely to play an ever more important role in the transport industry, particularly over these core dimensions:

  • Transport and atmospheric pollution. Air quality standards are being implemented across jurisdictions. There are still striking differences between regions and between modes. For instance, most developing economies still have limited capabilities about enforcing environmental standards, such as vehicle emissions. However, the trend is towards greater control over emissions, which will affect modes and their respective competitiveness, particularly if a mode is subject to a greater degree of legislation than another.
  • Transport and water quality. The contribution of transport to the pollution of rivers and oceans is considerable and is only recently being addressed by international legislation. Significant progress has been made in a number of areas such as ballast water, waste, and oil spills. As regulation gets more comprehensive, the more the transport industry is impacted. This is particularly evident in matters relating to dredging, where environmental constraints are placing a growing financial burden on ports seeking to deepen channels to keep pace with the growth of vessel size.
  • Transport footprint. Increased demand for transport is already placing enormous pressure on new infrastructures. Many of these transport facilities, such as airports and ports, require substantial amounts of land for their own internal operations and for the external transport links that have to be provided. Rapid motorization in developing economies has resulted in the conversion of land to provide road infrastructure. This expanded scale of transport infrastructure questions the capacity of environmental systems to mitigate the disruptions and will likely have an impact on how transport infrastructure is designed.
  • Transport and climate change. Transportation both influences and is impacted by climate change. Transport activities, particularly vehicles, account for 22% of CO2 emissions worldwide. They are thus subject to regulatory pressures to improve their environmental performance regarding the greenhouse gases they emit. Concomitantly, transportation activities can be negatively impacted by climate change. Severe weather occurrences have a disruptive effect on transport systems, particularly for air transportation, which has become a crucial element of global and regional mobility. Potential impacts on infrastructure need to be assessed since infrastructures are built with an expected life cycle, which can be reduced by climate change or increase maintenance costs. The prospects of sea level rises are particularly challenging for coastal transport systems. The extent to which climate change is influenced by and will impact global transport systems remains to be assessed more rigorously instead of speculatively.
  • Transportation decarbonization. As a direct outcome of the risks of climate change, strategies are being implemented to reduce, mitigate, and even eliminate carbon emissions by adapting transportation infrastructures, conveyances, and operations. A core aspect is switching away from technologies supported by fossil fuels to technologies that are not, thus the decarbonization. The question remains about what suitable level of decarbonization can be achieved and how sustainable this level is.

The sustainability of transportation systems will be achieved through a series of innovations and measures at improving the performance of transportation modes, terminals, infrastructure, and management. Emerging paradigms such as the circular economy now have sustainability at the core.


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