Mobility: Interview

Future transport: Middle of the road

Sustainable mobility in the future? Jack Short, Secretary General of the International Transport Forum, is optimistic but doesn’t expect a revolution. 
A mime artist at Sao Paulo\'s Paulista Avenue is part of a campaign which was organized by the CET .../ Credits: Reuters
Jack Short, Secretario General del Forum Internacional de Transportes. Jack Short, Secretary General of the International Transport Forum Allianz Knowledge: Rising fuel costs, carbon-saving politics, consumer aspirations and the car industry – which has the biggest impact on alternative fuels development?
Jack Short: The market is the most important factor. But I would also say that you need political signals given the fact that transport is so highly dependent on oil. As over half of the oil in the world is used for transport, and 96 percent of transport uses oil, the sector is strategically vulnerable.

To what extent is it necessary to change the energy base of transport from crude oil to alternative fuels?
Transport ministers in the ITF said two years ago that we should be looking to change in the long term the energy base for the transport sector away from oil.

The difficult question is how fast we should go and what levers to use to get there. My view is that we should be careful about the costs of trying to go too quickly to a new energy base.

Motorists don’t have to worry about where they can get fuel. What needs to happen to make alternative fuels just as readily available?
Don’t underestimate the ability of the market to provide solutions. Proponents will be delighted if governments want to provide support, but they should do so selectively.

You are never going to introduce new cars and fuels and infrastructure if consumers won’t buy them. Prices need to be closer to the prices of conventional cars. Second, overcoming consumer hesitancy about the range of electric cars is needed.

Brazil has radically de-carbonized transport and achieved significant independence from oil. Can other countries do the same?
You should take into account the specific circumstances in Brazil. It has a climate that’s very suitable for producing ethanol. It has low labor costs and these factors make the production of ethanol using sugar cane efficient.

Other countries with similar climates and labor conditions could probably do the same but it’s not true everywhere. China, for example, has a colder climate so it’s not so easy to see how China could replicate the experience of Brazil.
Change often means rising costs. What is government's obligation to provide incentives for both consumers and car makers?
This is an important debate. On the one hand, critics say government subsidies of up to 10,000 Euros per car are needed and that this is too expensive.

On the other hand, supporters point out that to get a new technology underway we need to give it a kick start to help achieve the scale that will bring production costs down.

My own view is that we should not rush the process. There are other factors to bear in mind. Most importantly, existing technology can be made much better. This is the reason why we have launched an initiative called 50 by 50 whereby conventional cars will be 50 percent more fuel efficient by 2050.

Which new transport technology is the most promising and when will it go mainstream?
Electric vehicles seem to be more promising, probably via plug-in hybrids. But this takes time. Several countries had a 10 percent target for electric vehicles by 2020. This seems to me to be too high and not achievable in a cost effective way.

I wouldn’t expect to see electric cars making up more than 2 or 3 percent of the fleet by 2020. Electric vehicles are still expensive and require further improvements and innovations.

So I think it is better to combine immediate efforts to improve internal combustion engines with longer term strategies to switch to electric vehicles on a large scale.
In his book ’Two Billion Cars’ Dan Sperling warns that cars are one of the greatest man-made threats to human society. What is your response?
I think transport policy has underestimated the benefits of private mobility. Cars have provided great improvements in independent mobility and this should not be forgotten.

Obviously, we must deal with the negative side effects. One of the most difficult problems concerns the CO2 emissions. But trying to solve it by limiting mobility is not going to work. People in China and India are entitled to cars just as Californians are.

We can restrain the use of cars in certain circumstances. We can manage them better in cities, and we can keep working to encourage cycling, walking and public transport. But I don’t think we are going to move to a new paradigm of mobility.

How can meeting users' expectations be balanced with encouraging more sustainable transport use?
This is an important question because the challenge lies in finding the balance between individual benefits and societal benefits.

We can approach this through a combination of measures; we can downsize cars, and make them much more fuel efficient, we can have more integrated public transport systems in our cities, we can use information technology better to avoid trips, we can walk and cycle more.

But finding a new balance also means taking into account the needs of the individual. People’s trip patterns have become more complicated and these are more suitable to a car than to public transport.

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