What is sustainable transport?

Developing sustainable transport solutions, whether it is for public or private use, is an important part of ensuring countries meet environmental goals amid growing concerns about climate change. It is important to start the conversation by defining sustainable transport.

The path to more sustainable transport systems involves a variety of approaches, including the shift to low-, zero-emission and more energy efficient vehicles, development of alternative fuels and their associated fuelling infrastructure, and boosting transport mode shift to public transport, micromobility, and active transport options.

Benefits of sustainable transport

Developing and introducing sustainable transportation solutions will create a range of environmental, social, and economic benefits. According to the Federal Government, Australia aims to achieve net zero by 2050 “in a practical, responsible way that will take advantage of new economic opportunities while continuing to serve our traditional markets.”

The main environmental benefits include a reduction in carbon emissions, as less fossil fuel is burnt for transportation and low- or zero-emission alternatives are favoured. This results in cleaner air, has enormous public health benefits, and will play an important role in mitigating the impact of climate change.

Economically, sustainable transport can help foster job creation by reviving vehicle manufacturing, which ceased at a mass market level in Australia when the Holden and Toyota factories closed in 2017. As well as building cars, battery, and electric vehicle (EV) component manufacturing and alternative fuel production has the potential to create new, green jobs.

For drivers, the move to EVs will eliminate paying for petrol or diesel, while hybrid vehicles use less fuel because they are powered by electric motors at lower speeds.

When sustainable solutions are introduced to public transport, the environmental benefits include fewer cars on the road and cleaner air, especially when options, such as electric and hybrid buses, and electric trains and trams, are available. When eco-friendly forms of transport are combined with reliable, regular timetables and affordable fares, the benefits multiply for consumers.

In addition, effective sustainable transport eco-systems ideally include accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists. Towns and cities become safer and more pleasant when footpaths are well-built, practical, properly illuminated at night and genuinely make it easier for pedestrians and wheelchair users to move around. The experience of cycling, a zero-emissions form of transport, is enhanced when safe, sensible cycleways are an integrated part of the transport infrastructure, rather than an afterthought.

On a macro-economic and geopolitical level, developing sustainable transport is an important pillar in enhancing energy security and independence, as reliance on imported fuels is reduced. If this development includes a boost to local manufacturing of vehicles and components, this will improve the economy and reduce reliance on products from overseas.

RMIT University and sustainable transport

RMIT University students interviewed about why they choose to cycle to campus. The university has a strong commitment to sustainable transport, as evidenced by its RMIT Sustainable Transport Plan.

Disadvantages of sustainable transport

As with any large-scale programme of change, the disadvantages and possible challenges with developing and introducing sustainable transport solutions need to be examined so the benefits outweigh any concerns.

Addressing any disadvantages is essential not just for ensuring the move towards sustainable transport is as environmentally and economically positive as possible, but it helps create widespread acceptance of new modes of transport for all stakeholders. Acceptance of new ways to travel can be a major hurdle that requires clear, factual public information campaigns, especially in areas where most people are reliant on cars.

The cost of moving to cleaner, greener transport, whether it is public or private, cannot be ignored. The upfront cost of EVs can deter motorists from making the switch from cars powered by internal combustion engines. In Australia, the cheapest new electric cars are priced around the $40,000 mark, while there are still new model petrol-powered cars on the market for around $20,000.

Additionally, availability and breadth of choice have put a brake on the uptake of EVs in Australia. However, in 2023 we are beginning to see some signs that EV sales are picking up speed as:

  • government policies change;
  • carmakers pay more attention to Australia;
  • EVs becoming more affordable;
  • more charging infrastructure rolls out across the country; and
  • more people are looking seriously at making a switch to an EV.

As well as possible increased costs to motorists, the pressure on the public purse for developing infrastructure needs to be considered. Plans for introducing sustainable forms of transport often come with the need for major investment in infrastructure, such as improved footpaths, footbridges and other walkways, cycle lanes and public transport facilities, including more rail and tramways, train stations, bus stops, bus lanes, and bus and train depots.

In rural areas, where public transport is not usually as developed as it is in urban areas, the cost of introducing sustainable public transport solutions from scratch can be expensive.

In addition, replacing older forms of public transport, such as fossil fuel-powered buses and diesel trains with cleaner alternatives can come at a great cost, especially if these vehicles need to be imported.

The need for governments to invest in this infrastructure gives rise to debate as to whether it can be funded from general taxation, whether public-private partnerships will be more effective, or whether additional charges will be imposed on the public, such as toll roads, congestion charges for polluting vehicles or increased fares.

Convenience is a big consideration for many people, especially if they are being encouraged to commute by public transport, walking or cycling, instead of driving. Walking, cycling, and using certain forms of public transport can be difficult and time-consuming, as well as impractical, uncomfortable, and even unsafe during weather extremes and in certain areas.

For drivers looking to transition from internal combustion engines to EVs and local authorities looking to replace older buses with electric alternatives, range anxiety remains an issue. It is important to address the issue of sufficient charging points and to invest in the development of longer-range EVS to help allay some of these concerns, especially for long journeys. This can be especially concerning in remote and rural areas of Australia.

Types of sustainable vehicles

There could be moves in Australia to set a deadline for a ban on the sale of cars powered by internal combustion engines – in 2022, the Australian Capital Territory government announced plans to ban the sale of cars with internal combustion engines by 2035, which is in line with European Union policy.

It remains to be seen if the ACT is setting the direction of travel for the rest of the country, but for motorists seeking to drive cars that pollute less, there is an increasing range of sustainable vehicles on the market.

Hybrid cars, which combine a petrol engine with an electric motor, have been on sale in Australia for more than 20 years. These cars have become popular because they are not solely reliant on electric power, which eliminates the issue of range anxiety and produce much lower emissions than petrol or diesel cars.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, which have been available in Australia since 2012, is a type of hybrid car that can be plugged into an external power source to recharge its battery. This differs from traditional hybrids, where the battery is solely recharged through energy generated from braking. There are now more than 20 models of plug-in hybrids on the market in Australia.

EVs, which run entirely on electric power, will likely supersede hybrid, petrol, and diesel cars in the decades ahead. The vehicles can be charged at home charging points and, as they become more widely accepted, charging infrastructure is expanding, such as facilities at service stations, car parks, and on-street charging points.

Small electric quadricycles can also play a role in improving transport sustainability and meeting clean air goals, although these vehicles are not suitable for long-distance driving and have a poorer safety record than passenger cars.

For public transport projects, petrol- and diesel-powered buses can be replaced by hybrid and all-electric alternatives. While diesel trains are still commonly used in Australia, especially for carrying freight across long distances, electric trains are part of a more sustainable rail network. Within cities in particular, electric trams are another option for green public transport.

In the heavy goods transport sector, more low- or zero-emissions trucks are coming onto the market. Manufacturers such as DAF and Tesla have developed fully electric trucks, while Scania and Volvo are among the manufacturers that are producing hybrid trucks.

As well as hybrid and battery electric options, vehicles powered by alternative fuels with low or zero emissions than petrol or diesel are available. These include fuel cell vehicles that use hydrogen to generate electricity for powering an electric motor, with water vapour as the only by-product. Natural gas burns cleaner than petrol or diesel, and vehicles that run on compressed natural gas are another option for reducing, although not completely eliminating carbon emissions. Flexible fuel vehicles can run on petrol or ethanol, a renewable fuel made from corn or other forms of biomass.

Barcelona’s Superblocks: Prioritising people over cars

Beginning in 2018, Barcelona began its program of building Superblocks, in which public space was democratised, providing spaces in which cars were banned or restricted, and active transport options such as walking and cycling were given more, and safer, room.

Read more about Superblocks, their implementation Barcelona, and an Australian context for the topic, at Superblocks are transforming Barcelona. They might work in Australian cities too

Sustainable fuel, batteries, and efficiency

One of the major criticisms of battery-powered vehicles is whether they can be truly sustainable if the source of electricity for charging is coal-, oil- or gas-fired power stations instead of renewables. This is an important consideration when developing energy policy.

According to the Australian Electricity Market Operator projections, renewable energy should account for 83 percent of the energy mix by 2030. More needs to be done to reach this target – Clean Energy Council figures indicate that in 2022, renewables accounted for 35.9% of electricity generation. However, this is more than double the figures from 2017, when the figure was just 16.9%.

Battery production has given rise to concerns about the supply chain and source materials, such as cobalt and lithium. The Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s largest producer of cobalt, at 70%, which raises questions about the carbon footprint to transport the material to battery plants, as well as labour rights for miners. Australia is a cobalt producer, so the development of local battery plants could offer an opportunity to use more Australian cobalt. Australia produces 40 percent of the world’s lithium, which would also help make local battery production more sustainable, as well as boosting the economy.

As the push to get more EVs on the roads continues, more charging infrastructure will need to be rolled out. Australian drivers have been slow to take up EVs, with 33,416 new electric cars purchased in 2022, according to the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries. An October 2022 Electric Vehicle Council report found that there are about 3,700 public EV chargers across 2,100 locations in Australia.

Hydrogen-run fuel cell vehicles, as well as those that run on compressed natural gas, are limited in their take-up because of a lack of fuelling stations across the country. Flexible fuel vehicles, meanwhile, have more options for filling up at Australian service stations. However, there are concerns about using corn or other biomass traditionally used for food to power vehicles, instead of feeding people. As such, it is important to examine sustainable ways to produce biomass for fuel without compromising food security. Forestry and agricultural residues, organic household, business and industrial waste, and growing crops specifically for fuel could help alleviate these concerns.

The future of sustainable transportation

The trends, solutions and ideas in the sustainable transport sector are already coming to fruition and will set the scene for future innovations in Australia and globally. As the range of EVs improves and more charging infrastructure is rolled out, the take-up rate is expected to increase among motorists, as well as more public transport authorities and taxi operators moving to zero-emissions vehicles.

Other sustainable transport trends that are growing in popularity include shared mobility solutions, which include car sharing and bike sharing. These services help reduce the number of cars on the road and can be an affordable alternative to car ownership for people who do not need access to a car on a daily basis.

Countries that are leading the way in the shared mobility sector include China, the US, India, and many EU countries. To improve uptake of shared mobility services, companies in these countries have been proactive in introducing ride- and car-sharing mobile apps and facilitating car-sharing, whether this is by providing cars for drivers or connecting people to share cars.

As well as encouraging motorists to switch from petrol- and diesel-powered cars to EVs, the trends towards improved public transport and making active transportation easier have become more prominent across different countries. These two trends are increasingly popular – and generally easier to implement – in urban areas. For Australia’s remote and rural areas, better infrastructure for public transport, electric buses with longer ranges, and EV charging will make a difference when making transportation over long distances more sustainable.

Countries setting trends for sustainable public transport include Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland, with high rates of bus, tram and train usage, all of which are powered by a mix of renewable energy sources.

Active transportation – forms of transportation that do not involve a motor vehicle, such as walking, cycling and rollerblading – have health and environmental benefits. Across the world, countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany, are leading the way with improving facilities for active transportation. In the Netherlands, more than 35% of journeys are made by bike, and this figure is more than 25 percent in Denmark. Germany’s capital, Berlin, has more than 1,000 kilometres of cycle lanes.

Smart technology is transforming journeys for road users to help relieve traffic congestion, reduce pollution, and save fuel for drivers of vehicles with internal combustion engines. Leveraging technology to optimise traffic light phasing, vary speeds on motorways and give drivers real-time transit information all help make journeys easier and more sustainable.

Elliot Fishman: Pushing for sensible transport

Elliot Fishman and the Hovenring

Dr Elliot Fishman is the Director of Transport Innovation at the Institute for Sensible Transport, based in the inner Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. His role, and that of the institute, encompasses things such as car share, bike share, integrated transport strategies, and transport modelling.

iMOVE sat down with Dr Fishman to find out more about what he does, how he came to be in his role, and his thoughts on transport issues and fixes, and more. Read the interview at Elliot Fishman: Pushing for sensible transport

Sustainable transport careers

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in this area of transport, our interview series Meet Smart Mobility Experts could help guide you.

In this series we interview a number of researchers, practitioners, department of transport executives and more. Amongst other things we cover their academic background, research activity, career progression, and more.

Sustainable transport resources

Here’s a selection of Australian strategy and project documents on the topic of sustainable transport.

Sustainable transport facts and figures

  • Transport accounts for 64% of global oil consumption, 27% of all energy use, and 23% of the world’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Each year, almost 185,000 deaths can be directly attributed to vehicular pollution.
  • Sustainable transport includes public transportation, such as electric buses and trains and BRT systems that can carry people far more efficiently than cars. Notably, while electric cars pollute less and reduce individual carbon footprints, they do not reduce congestion.
  • Over 90% of the fuel used for transportation is petroleum based, primarily gasoline and diesel.
  • From 1970 to 2010, cars and other road vehicles were responsible for 80% of the increase in emissions.
  • Despite the rise of sustainable transportation on the global agenda, the 2020 UN Sustainable Development Goals Report states only half the world’s urban population has convenient access to public transportation, according to 2019 data from 610 cities in 95 countries.
  • China, as of January 2021, had committed five times more money to clean energy than to fossil fuels. China, which prioritized electrification of its public transit with subsidies and national regulations, has more than 400,000 electric buses, about 99% of the world’s total.

Source: International Institute for Sustainable Development’s The Road to Sustainable Transport

  • The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) found that the benefits of supporting electric vehicle adoption prior to 2030 outweighs the upfront costs by a factor of 5 to 11.
  • A report by the Australian Conservation Foundation (2021) found that maintaining Australia’s current approach to managing transport emissions could cost up $865 billion between 2022 and 2050. These costs were attributed to air pollution ($488 billion), greenhouse gas emissions ($205 billion), noise ($95 billion), and water pollution ($76 billion).
  • The market share of electrified powertrains has been increasing in international markets, particularly in the light duty vehicle sector. This trend is expected to continue as battery prices rapidly fall, contributing to price parity being reached with fossil fuel vehicles by the mid-2020s. The adoption of electrified powertrains has been supported by strong international policy, including proposed bans on the sale of new fossil fuel vehicles, vehicle manufacturer commitments to increase electric vehicle sales, regulatory sales mandates, and fuel efficiency standards.
  • Lime e-scooters found that 30-50% of their Brisbane e-scooter riders reported using e-scooters instead of a car on their most recent trip. Studies suggest this micromobility mode shift can lead to a material reduction in a region’s transportation emissions.
  • Australia has a vehicle ownership rate of 769 per 1000 inhabitants, compared to the EU at 569 per 1,000 inhabitants.
  • Australia’s vehicles have been shown to emit 20%, 45%, and 50% more grams per CO2 than the U.S., the EU and Japan respectively, in large part due to the lack of fuel efficiency standards.

Source: FACTS: A Framework for an Australian Clean Transport Strategy

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Contact iMOVE

There’s still a lot of work to be done to make Australian transport systems more sustainable. If you’d like to talk to us about any R&D work in this area please get in touch with us to start a discussion.

iMOVE sustainable transport projects

iMOVE, along with its partners, is active in carrying out R&D to advance sustainable transport in Australia.

Please find below the three latest sustainable transport projects. Or click to view all iMOVE’s sustainable transport projects.


iMOVE sustainable transport PhD projects

In addition to iMOVE and its partners’ sustainable transport projects listed above, as part of our Industry PhD Program businesses, universities and PhD students work on an agreed topic over a three-year period.

These are the three most recent PhD projects that have been undertaken on the topic of sustainable transport. Click to view all iMOVE’s sustainable transport PhD projects.


iMOVE sustainable transport articles

In addition to projects, iMOVE also publishes articles, thoughtpieces, case studies, etc. that cover the many issues, solutions, and discussion around sustainable transport.

Below are the three most recent articles. Or click to view all iMOVE’s sustainable transport articles.