Sustainable Mobility in a Pandemic

Sustainable Mobility in a Pandemic

How can we balance sustainable mobility and public health in a global pandemic? Henry Man investigates how our behaviours are shifting away from public, shared, and active transportation modes and into private vehicles due to COVID-19, plus discuss the broader environmental and health implications on society.

Acknowledgements: Mike Costello, Vivian Chen, Dr Tom Cole-Hunter

Audio Transcript

HENRY MAN: Spring 2020. As I aimlessly sit at the infamous single right turning lane onto Coronation Drive, I question why I’m waiting for the lights to turn green for the fourth consecutive time, why I’m wasting my time in this gridlock traffic, and why I’m consciously polluting the environment? Like many things these days, I blame COVID-19.

This is Net.Zero, a podcast that investigates how we can be sustainable in a pandemic in an age of disposable PPE, single-use takeaway, and heightened personal health concerns.

I take a one-hour commute to campus. This time last year, there was an outbreak along the train line I usually go on, so I decided to drive for the entire semester to uni. And I soon realised how inefficient, expensive, and environmentally harmful it was – because it took the same time as going on a train and bus.

I’m not alone.

According to the RACQ, Queensland’s peak motoring body, congestion levels on Brisbane’s roads are now worse than pre-pandemic levels. On one day in February this year, there was a 90 per cent surge in congestion compared to the same date in 2020 and even 2019. That’s around 26,000 more cars. Today, commuters are still hesitant to return to public transport, with patronage down 30 per cent in south-east Queensland, marred by sporadic lockdowns and health restrictions.

News and comparisons editor Mike Costello from says car sales in Australia have spiked to its highest point since 2018.

MIKE COSTELLO: There are nearly 750,000 new car sales alone to the end of August this year. There was definitely some pent-up demand from people who couldn’t get cars last year. But then, there’s also factors around this shared mobility space. So, we live in a time where you don’t really want to be too close to a lot of people now all smooched together in a train carriage, so I think there’s been a real move to private personal mobility in that sense – more and more people leaning on vehicles and cars to get them where they need to be. Clearly, Australians love to travel. Per capita, we’re one of the biggest countries for travelling in the world. More than 20 billion dollars a year goes into just personal travel and flights. And Qantas’ loss is very much the gain for companies that produce rugged four-by-four vehicles particularly. Demand for cars like Toyota LandCruiser and pickup trucks that would tow a caravan with ease are absolutely skyrocketing, because people are saying ‘well I have to stay in Australia; all that money that I’ve saved by not travelling plus the real-estate yields that I’ve probably got from the housing spike means that I can buy that four-by-four, I can buy that caravan, I can do that adventure right here in Australia’. And so, what we’re seeing is disproportionate levels of demand for adventure-style vehicles, cars that would allow them to do that journey. Whether they actually do it or not, sometimes you’re buying into a dream, but we’re seeing those particular types of cars are the ones with the absolute peak levels of demand.

HENRY MAN: The problem is the majority of these “lifestyle” vehicles are diesel-powered – which is a carcinogen. According to the Cancer Council, diesel engine exhaust is the second most common cause for cancer in Australia. This is alarming, given transport is the third-largest contributor to greenhouse gases in the nation.

While my petrol city car has comparably less of an impact, I’m still adding pollutants into the air, contributing to the traffic build-up of other cars, and therefore more dangerous fumes to paradoxically protect my own health.

Dr Tom Cole-Hunter is a research fellow at the University of Copenhagen and policy consultant for the World Health Organisation for Environment and Health.

TOM COLE-HUNTER: Every car on the road is contributing to the problem, mostly cars with combustion engines and the emissions that fossil fuel, typically petrol also diesel, is burnt then as a by-product you get these gases that are emitted but also particles as well. Other vehicles that are not combustion engines, electric or hybrid, are better but they still resending dust from the road, therefore contributing to total suspended particle counts. Seven million people approximately are dying younger than they should because of air pollution. And cars being the major source of air pollution in economically developed cities, probably any city really around the world. So therefore, it’s the environmentally the biggest threat to human health.

HENRY MAN: So, how does my contribution to motor vehicle pollution specifically affect our human health?

TOM COLE-HUNTER: Studies have shown basically every system in the body can be impacted. The rate of asthma development is higher in more polluted environments, exacerbation of asthma is more likely in environments of higher pollution. But then, that’s the respiratory system so the airways, the lungs. The cardiovascular system is also affected, so blood pressure. In general, it’s seen as a fence or an insult to the body this exposure to air pollution. And with that chronic exposure, then you get disease development such as asthma, but also problems with the heart, heart disease, reproductive outcomes are affected so fertility, development of children. So, it’s really every system in the body that can be impacted by air pollution. I think it’s just important that we do what we can to talk about it and support active mobility, because it’s going to be better for us – we will be healthier, we would be healthier if we can do it in an environment with lower air pollution levels, and there will be lower air pollution levels if there are less motorised traffic on the road. So, it’s kind of a win-win scenario. We just need to push more to make that shift away from private motorised traffic to active mobility forms. We need to be having the conversation and making sure that the people we are putting in power to make decisions on our behalf are aware that the right way to go is to do more for sustainability. Australia has quite a way to go.

HENRY MAN: But there is a silver lining of COVID-19. Reduced mobility meant the Himalayan mountains were visible far away for the first time in a generation, nitrogen dioxide on London’s roads decreased by 43 per cent during the UK lockdown, and pollution in Paris hit a 40-year low.

Vivian Chen, a public relations student at The University of Queensland, says the pandemic actually offset her hesitancy to use public transport.

VIVIAN CHEN: I definitely thought about it and it did make me anxious knowing that I might have close contact with someone who might have COVID on public transport. However, I think because many other people had the same thought and decided to drive, I actually noticed that patronage on public transport was lowered, so I actually could go on my commute without actually having to sit next to anyone, and also thankfully TransLink upped their service as well so the buses weren’t as busy. There is quite a big separation point between sustainability and convenience. And often times, as we know, convenience usually wins. I think that this is a big issue that the government should solve, because if you’re not investing in transport or if you’re not investing in the facilities to make it easier for people to get around, say like bikeways or footpaths, obviously people are going to take the most convenient outlet – which is driving.

HENRY MAN: Vivian, in your four years you’ve been at UQ, have you ever considered driving like I did?

VIVIAN CHEN: So, over the past four years I’ve found myself recently actually driving to uni sometimes, but only on the weekend. And the reason for that is, every Saturday or Sunday, say if I want to go into uni for study, the services for that uni bus comes every 30 minutes. And that’s ridiculous. There was one time where I was running a bit late and I tried to catch the bus, and it just left! So, I thought ‘you know what, why not; I’ll just give driving to uni a shot’. And so, on my way to uni, I found it took the same time as I would if I just caught the bus. It took the same time but driving just felt a lot easier and I do understand why people would resort to driving. I just know that if I were to do the same thing on weekdays, I would just be caught in the 5pm city peak traffic. I couldn’t begin all the emissions and pollution that comes out of that travel. I usually would not prefer to drive to uni if possible, just because it is really quite far for me to drive. It’s just not very fuel efficient considering, if you actually look at the route to drive to uni, I would have to go into the city, through Coronation Drive, and then into Saint Lucia. Obviously UQ is absolutely massive. You have thousands of students and staff coming all over from Brisbane and possibly even further. Parking at uni isn’t easy. But also I think the other issue stems from because of their lack of access to public transport, they might need to drive in. They could be driving in from Ipswich or somewhere quite far. And I think having those car spaces allows them the ability to move around, that ability to even come into uni. It’s a very sticky situation.

HENRY MAN: So, is there a middle-ground alternative instead of driving my own car or going back to public transport?

Mike Costello says mobility as a service schemes, like car sharing, will be a significant part of how we commute.

MIKE COSTELLO: You tend to see Australia a little bit behind the curve when it comes to new innovations in the auto space. Right now, people have a sort of habit more than anything else that they just need to be in their own car. When you look around you, 80 per cent of cars have one person in them. But I think as choices become available, it’ll be a significant part of the industry absolutely. There are a ton of companies I’m watching at the moment, all of whom are in their early stages – whether it’s a subscription to a vehicle, whether it’s a car sharing model where five or six people share it, whether it’s a digital key when you buy a vehicle with an app-based key you can share with five of your friends. All these things are happening in droves. The technology is there; it’s only going to be the consumer behaviours.

HENRY MAN: Driving to campus was a real journey. Following the back of an old ute spitting black smoke was a daily occurrence and breathing in those exhausts through my car’s ventilation system became an unavoidable norm.

But Mike, how many cars in Australia are zero-emission electric vehicles?

MIKE COSTELLO: The Australian EV market share is at about 1-1.5 per cent, which is double of what it was this time last year. That being said, Norway is more than 70 per cent, the UK is more than 10 per cent and that’s going to spike now they’ve got fuel shortages there. So, we are a long way behind. What we’ve seen in the last few months has been a really big push from the states to offer a lot of incentive packages to drive EV uptake, whether it’s rebates, whether it’s stamp duty wavers, whether it’s encouraging government fleets to turnover their fleets for EVs to create a used market down the line. What we’re not seeing is much action from the Federal Government. It’s just a reality that the Federal Government hasn’t put in place firm CO2 mitigation targets for national EV incentives. And when a car manufacturer goes ‘I’ve got a factory and I can make a million EVs and I’ve got 2 million of slots of people wanting them, I’m going to allocate that limited supply to markets where there are the most incentives to sell it’. And Australia is not one of those markets yet, which is why it’s this ‘chicken and egg’ thing around sales a low, there’s not a lot of choice, and they kind of continue and perpetuate because of one and another. Sustainable mobility is obviously the catchcry of every OEM in the automotive industry at the moment. It’s the single biggest issue pretty much politically there is, is climate change and how to stop of. And the automotive industry is largely punching above its weight I think. You look at just about every major car company and they’ve all got significant electric car roll out plans. A lot of them have said ‘by 2030, 2035 that’s all we’re gonna make now’. But if we want to make the world as green and as sustainable as we possibly can, it’s not just the vehicle emissions at the tailpipe, but it’s the way they’re manufactured, it’s the way they’re transported, it’s the way the batteries are being produced and the mining that goes into it. There are a lot of well-to-wheel whole cycle of production issues to wade through. The car industry is kind of at the absolute nexus of this massive change that we’re seeing at the moment in the world and every single aspect of the car industry from the products down is going to be revolutionised over the next five or 10 years because of this move to sustainability.

HENRY MAN: Balancing sustainable mobility isn’t easy in a pandemic. It’s challenged by protecting our own health from a virus, outright convenience, and Australia’s lagging transport and infrastructure developments.

Driving to campus last year was a moot point. For me, it’s simply too inefficient, expensive, and unsustainable. For others, it’s a way of life these days.

On the train, I’ve been a casual contact of an infected case, I’ve witnessed some fishy people, and I’ve been subject to piercingly loud school kids. Despite all odds, I’m now back on the one-hour train and bus – and looking down on streams of gridlocked cars from the comfort of more sustainable public transport.