Monday, September 26, 2011

Op-Ed, Cornie Huizenga: The transport sector as leader in the sustainability debate?

There are a lot of reasons which need to be investigated if we are to have a snowball's chance in hell of winning the sustainable transportation wars. The first step in this necessary process is to accept that by any reasonable measure, we are losing the war and losing it badly -- in such a way that each day our sector in cities around the world is one that is in a state of increasing disruption and destruction, aggressing our most fundamental human and social values. It is that bad, and anyone who refuses to accept this is very definitely part of the problem. But then, once we have accepted the bad news, it is time to stop the weeping and figure out how can start to reverse this mounting tide of poor policies, unwise investments, and other abject indifference to all of those who are left worse off in the process. Let me stand aside here and give the word to Cornie Huizenga who has some thoughtful positive suggestions s to where we might go from here.

How can the transport sector overtake the energy sector in becoming a leader in sustainability?

- Cornie Huizenga. Vice-Chair, CAI-Asia Center, Manila Philippines

Over the last few years I have been involved in many discussions on how to better position the transport sector when it comes to on sustainability. Both in the Asian Development bank (ADB) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), where I have been involved in such discussions it appears that transport is still involved in a catching up game with the energy sector. This catching up appears to be a wider problem and one not limited to the development banks.

Why is it a problem that the energy sector is in the limelight and transport in the shadows:

a) developing countries feel that they need to focus their attention (staff and budget) on the energy sector, rather than the transport sector, because of the possibilities to link up with the international initiatives on sustainable energy

b) new climate change modalities, like CDM, GEF and CTF favor energy sector by the way they are designed;

c) the energy sector, in its perceived leadership role, picks up a disproportionate amount of additional resources that are being made available in MDBs (like ADB and IDB) for e.g. climate change mitigation;

d) because of its perceived leadership role the energy sector finds it more easy to attract external financial resources, including from private sector, for co-financing of energy programs and projects.

We can see that good gains have been made in catching up with the energy sector through:

(a) bringing together stakeholders on transport and sustainability through the regional Environmentally Sustainable Transport Forums in Asia and Latin America, the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport, the Bridging the Gap Initiative, the annual Transforming Transportation events in DC, the plans for a global transport data base etc.

(b) increases in the scale of operations of Sustainable Transport NGOs like ITDP, EMBARQ, CAI-Asia and CAI-LAC;

(c) increased focus on sustainable transport in MDBs which shows in policy initiatives like the Sustainable Transport Initiative - Operational Plan in ADB and the Regionally Environmentally Sustainable Transport Action Plan in IDB and shift in MDB transport lending away from road construction in favor of urban transport, freight and logistics, road safety etc.

Yet when I read the following: "Leaders from global corporations, financial institutions, and foundations will join with UN agencies and member states to produce a comprehensive and concrete sustainable energy action agenda leading up to the Rio+20 conference next year. (" I felt that the energy sector is pulling away again from the transport sector.

Of course one can argue about whether this Sustainable Energy for All initiative will be another general commitment without follow-up. One can however also look it in a way that if we would have something similar for the transport sector that it would help in getting a better seat at the table when it comes to defining the role of transport in a post 2012 climate regime and associated new climate change financing modalities.

Having a similar internationally agreed upon set of goals for sustainable transport could also greatly facilitate the policy dialog with developing countries on sustainable transport and subsequent prioritization of sustainable transport in policy development, capacity building and budget allocation .

I am taking particular interest in this because of the ongoing discussion on the future of the Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT). In the last few months we have started to look actively at the possibility to have a stronger role of UN organizations in SLoCaT, including the possibility to set up UN-Transport, along the lines of UN-Energy ( or UN-Water (

Yes, we should be skeptical about the capacity of the UN to actively coordinate stakeholders but taking a step back I wonder whether it is more than a coincidence that for both the sectors where a UN coordination mechanism has been put in place: water and energy that there are global goals in place or under development. Yet, transport which is in many countries the most important, or second important, economic sector lacks both a formal global coordination mechanism and agreed upon global strategy for sustainable transport.

I believe that it is in the interest of all SLoCaT members to actively support the strengthening of global action on sustainable transport. I believe that in discussing the pro's and con's of how to best develop a future institutional structure we should not focus only on what the UN is not good at but rather how we can use UN involvement as a game changer in strengthening global action for sustainable transport. And yes, we should find a solution for continuing and improving joint action in those areas that the UN is not good at.

I very much look forward to hear your views on this question how we can avoid that the transport sector falls (further) behind in international policy making on sustainable development.

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* Click here for SLoCaT 2013 work program:

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You are cordially invited to contact Cornie at with your comments and suggestions, as well as to comment directly here.  For further information on the Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT), click here. For a listing of SLoCaT's extensive international membership, click here.

About the author:

Cornie Huizenga is Joint Convener of the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT). He has a distinguished career of over 20 years in development in which he has dealt with various environmental issues. He managed projects in Pakistan targeting domestic energy saving for Afghan refugees and the local population in Pakistan. Following this he set up and managed for four years a consulting company focusing on institutional development and environmental management. After a brief spell in which he advised the Asian Development Bank on its operational business processes he had a lead role in the establishment and institutionalization of the Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities (CAI-Asia) which has grown into the leading regional initiative on urban air quality in Asia. Cornie  served as its Executive Director until the end of 2008. He also is a consultant on transport and climate change for both the Asian Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. You can reach him at

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  1. The achilles heel of the transport sector is its failure to engage citizens and particularly their organizations, at both the community and the thematic levels, in framing the issues and setting political agendas. Part of the problem is that "innovative" projects themselves often interact with existing urban systems, particularly parks and public space, as brutally as highways, sending a very negative message to city users, i.e. citizens. Hard to identify BRT with a socially just, inclusive transport plan when it is destroying bike lanes and public space, as occurred in Santiago (Chile) with Transantiago.

    Transport engineers and planners continue to insist on transportation as if it were just a "technical" problem, involving project design and implementation. But above all it is a political issue, which requires careful attention to the design of processes that will favour innovation in thinking, planning, design and use of cities. Where are the grassroots advocates of BRT and other more sustainable transport systems? We all need to take a good look at how cyclists and walkers are successfully pushing their highly marginalized modes back onto public agendas, all over the world. We need to learn from them. And work with them, as well as neighbourhood, recycler/wastepicker and other constituent communities.

    An additional weakness to date is that cities and neighbourhoods are treated as if they were just smaller versions of national (or global) issues, rather than cultural and spatial realities with their own very particular possibilities for pushing a sustainable transport agenda ahead, or blocking its progress.

    It is largely citizens and particularly those organized in civil society organizations at different policy-making and implementation scales that have put the environment and energy on public agendas so successfully. Until innovative and sustainable transport initiatives can start building broad coalitions that bring in walkers, cyclists, environmentalists, poor and marginal communities and other organizations, sustainable transport may hit the occasional political agenda, but it will not stay there long enough to really make the kind of deep changes required for a sustainable world in the face of 21st century challenges.

  2. I agree with what you say. I think transportation authorities alienate the people who use the transport system, and so get no cooperation from them. Our roads are a 'commons', and we need to learn how to use them as a commons. That doesn't automatically mean pricing them. We have to change the social contract for use of of the roads. In Western cities where 93% of road space is used by single occupant vehicles, this means convincing everyon to become a passenger at least some of the time. Enough people doing this would defeat congestion, and separate carriageways for other modes would not be needed.

    What I do not agree with is your apparant automatic assumption that BRT = sustainable transport. I would like to see a life-cycle analysis of the emissions from building these busways, and operating buses empty half the time (on the return trip), compared with vanpooling and carpooling. Nothing against buses, but I think the theology should be challenged.


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