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November 05, 2001
Businesses Convey Interest in Sustainable Mobility
    by Mark Thomsen

Report on the challenges of achieving long-term sustainable transportation offers multinational automotive and energy companies, as well as governments, food for thought.

A new study commissioned by a cooperative business group concludes that the most formidable hurdle to realizing sustainable mobility has less to do with technology breakthroughs and more to do with getting people to make decisions. Specifically, the report says the chief barrier is the inability of political institutions to tackle current transportation problems effectively.

The study, entitled “Mobility 2001,” was issued by the World Business Council on Sustainable Development’s Sustainable Mobility Project. The Sustainability Mobility Project is a cooperative effort of eleven multinational automotive and energy companies seeking to develop a global vision for sustainable mobility.

The first phase of the project, represented by this report, involves assessing the current status of mobility and identifying the major issues.

The eleven WBCSD members participating in the project are BP Amoco (ticker: BP), Daimler Chrysler (DCX), Ford (F), General Motors (GM), Honda (HMC), Michelin, Norsk Hydro (NHY), Renault, Shell (RD), Toyota (TM), and Volkswagen.

Philip Watts, Chairman of Shell’s Committee of Managing Directors and one of the three co-chairs of the project, was not surprised by the study’s conclusions. “It is research that confirms what I think many people suspected - that if we are to avoid a continuing descent towards unsustainable gridlock and environmental degradation then the way we move ourselves about is going to have to change.”

The study was conducted by a group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Charles River Associates, a Boston-based economics, finance and business consulting firm.

The study’s snapshot of the state of mobility names some of the more compelling reasons why changes are needed. “Mobility systems currently are significant contributors to congestion, deaths, injuries from accidents, climate change, resource exhaustion, public health problems created by air pollution and noise, and ecosystem collapse,” write the researchers.

Transportation systems can also contribute to social inequality by offering limited choices to certain societal groups, such as the elderly and poor.

The report also notes that many of these problems find their root in the almost universal trend toward privately owned vehicles and away from public transportation modes such as bus and subway. Hence the most formidable hurdle: how to get policy makers to resolve effectively the trade-offs between the demand for mobility and the demand for environmental protection, energy conservation and safety.

WBCSD defines sustainable mobility as “the ability to meet the needs of society to move freely, gain access, communicate, trade, and establish relationships without sacrificing other essential human or ecological values today or in the future.”

With this in mind, the research team identified seven “grand challenges” to sustainable mobility: 1) ensuring transport systems serve essential human needs; 2) adapting vehicles to evolving requirements on emissions, fuel use, capacity, and ownership structure; 3) re-inventing public transport to provide a reasonable alternative to those who do not have access to cars; 4) re-inventing the process of planning, developing, and managing mobility infrastructure; 5) reducing carbon emissions; 6) resolving the competition for use of infrastructure between personal and freight transport; and 7) tackling congestion.

Discerning readers might be scratching their heads: why are automotive and energy companies talking about challenges when they themselves are a significant reason some of these challenges exist? One recent example that comes to mind is the automotive industry’s resistance to higher fuel efficiency standards for sport utility vehicles.

Mr. Watts attempted to explain why. "Given that the members of the project are drawn from the energy and motor manufacturing sectors it may seem surprising that we are publishing such a frank analysis, but we are well placed to be part of the solution to these issues. We believe that our own commercial future depends on our ability to adapt and meet these challenges.”

Social investors will be watching to see how far these companies go in “walking their talk.”


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