What is sustainable transportation?

Once when I did a visioning session with some German engineering students, they had no trouble seeing sustainable farms, sustainable forestry, even sustainable chemistry… But none of these engineers could envision a sustainable transportation system, though some of them actually worked in designing solar vehicles. Finally they concluded that transportation is a cost, not a benefit, that it’s noisy, disrupting, energy- and time-consuming, and inherently unsatisfying, and that it would be best if everyone were already where they wanted to be, with whom they wanted to be. In a sustainable society, they concluded, travel would be almost unnecessary.  –Donella Meadows, Envisioning a Sustainable World

Changing our world begins with imaginative ideas.  A vision of where we are heading.  What does it mean to want sustainable transportation, and what would that world look like?  A scientist advised me that nothing in nature is sustainable.  We use things and matter changes form.  Since then I’ve thought of sustainability as more of a guidance system, a continuum.  Not a point of perfection that we’ll reach, but a standard we’ll measure by, an ideal to strive for, a prism to look through.  We want to work wisely with nature, not use it up.  We want to align our lives with nature, not work against it. Sustainability is a principle we infuse throughout our living processes.  When applied to transportation, sustainability steers our approach so it is more renewable, uses less finite materials, and is fitting with the whole context of nature, especially as indicated in the human form and measured by wellness and self-sufficiency.

The good news is nature equipped us with renewable transportation.  Sustainable transportation is human-powered mobility.  When we exercise it makes us stronger.  Since we were babies we longed to move our feet.  Walking and talking develop together.  They are simple yet profound.  Combine them and you have some of the most compelling expressions of human force, such as public marches, and lifestyles that show a commitment to “walking the talk”, metaphorically speaking.  It’s strange that we’ve designed transportation systems that alienate us from our native powers and make us reliant on more costly methods.   Just like no-till agriculture prevents unnecessary waste, human-powered transport meets most of our needs neatly and sufficiently.  And in fact, it seems almost like it is a requirement to live close to our nature, as our health and well-being suffers if we don’t.  It seems that tending to nature is a moral imperative.  We should plan and design for walking and cycling at every instance, so citizens can act on our positive inclinations whenever we can, especially for transportation needs at the local and community scale.  Transportation needs include commuting, recreation and exercise.  We need recreation and exercise!

In an essay called Living Lightly and Inconsistently on the Land from The Global Citizen newspaper column, Donella Meadows cautioned against “setting up us/them and right/wrong categories”.  We live in a culture and era where living lightly on the land is nearly impossible.  The key is keeping our life simple when we can, and growing in areas where there are no limits, such as developing our capacities to understand and appreciate the world, extending our network of relationships and growing our concept of family so it’s more inclusive, and increasing our compassion and care.  Walking and cycling are amazingly practical tools that help us to grow as people, accomplish our daily living objectives, while simultaneously activating curiosity, wonder, empathy and vision.  They actually shift our perspective, transform us.  Through better integration of the activities of walking and cycling in the way we design our cities and set up our living arrangements, by refining our transportation practices, we may even experience a taste of the world we envision, as if our picture of the ideal life we wish for could be granted today.  Try and we shall see.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:  “The central Unity is still more conspicuous in actions…An action is the perfection and publication of thought.  A right action seems to fill the eye, and to be related to all nature.  The wise man, in doing one thing, does all; or, in the one thing he does rightly, he sees the likeness of all which is done rightly.”  Sustainable transportation doesn’t mean we have to walk and cycle all the time, only that these choices should be primary, open, dignified, seen as useful, and be well-planned for, so that we may join freely with nature, while exercising our own good nature to make a better, longer lasting and more fulfilling world.  We can see it out there and move towards it.

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