Advocating for change: When will transport have its "plastic straw moment?"

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Photo: Phil Wong/Flickr
In case you haven’t heard, plastic straws are bad news for the planet. This much was made clear over the summer as a surge of anti-straw sentiment spread across many countries. News channels all over the world highlighted how this small and light piece of hollow plastic has been contaminating the oceans and posing a risk to the environment. Outcry was swift and decisive. Practically overnight, countless individuals vowed never to use them again. Even beverage industry giant Starbucks decided to eliminate plastic straws by 2020!  
Interestingly, straws make up a fairly small share of the overall plastic pollution in our oceans, especially compared to other sources of plastic waste such as fishing nets and gear. Still, every small piece of plastic that does not end up contaminating the environment is a win. But what’s truly remarkable here is how the global community rallied behind a simple and impactful change, and then followed through with it.
The whole campaign about plastic straws and the quick reaction that ensued got me thinking about what a “plastic straw moment” could look like for the transport sector. What small change can we all take to get the world to rally behind transport?

Transport affects nearly every single aspect of our lives, from education to healthcare to accessing business and employment opportunities. As noted in the first-ever Global Mobility Report assessing the performance of the global transport sector across all modes, demand will increase 50% by 2030 to reach over 80 trillion passenger-kilometers a year, while global freight volumes will grow by 70%. An additional 1.2 billion cars will ply the roads by 2050—double today’s total. While this mounting pressure calls for a radical shift in how we move people and goods, the call for sustainable transport so far has lacked the impact and visibility that it deserves. Globally, the transport sector has failed to talk and act with one voice. At the local level, we see a lack of comprehensive policy reforms or adequate investments to achieve sustainable mobility.
The key to the straw movement going viral was recognizing that there was a small yet simple and doable step that we could all take to have a major impact on the environment. What can we do in our everyday lives that can have a similar positive impact in promoting sustainable transport?
Of course, there are several changes we can make both at the local and global level. The bad news is that, for the most part, they are either too costly or not inspiring enough to take hold. Electric vehicles are becoming more affordable and, as a result, are now more common. However, their price tag remains too high for many consumers. On the policy side, reluctance to move away from traditional fossil fuels also hinders the spread of alternative technologies. Using public transport at least one day a week could become a good campaign which many could follow, but it lacks that X factor to get it to go viral. Besides, the quality and availability of public transport differ substantially around the world.
Other possible campaigns for transport may not be as mainstream and may have been implemented on a smaller scale. Adopt a Highway campaigns in the US allow individuals and corporations to sponsor the maintenance of a stretch of road to ensure safety and good driving conditions. In other parts of the world, companies can advertise on bus stands in exchange for looking after them–contributing to the cleanliness and appeal of the public transport system. Educating consumers about the carbon impact of their food choices could also help reduce GHG emissions: transporting chicken, for instance, generates 60% less CO2 per kg of edible meat than beef.
Could any of these programs help increase the sustainability of transport? Possibly. But are any of them as replicable, simple, and “sexy” as banning plastic straws to save the oceans and marine life? I would say no.
To buck the trend, it is up to us as transport sector stakeholders to come up with ideas and actions that the public can take up with enough enthusiasm to create meaningful change, and put the transport sector back on a sustainable track.
We have achieved the first step of coordinating our efforts and vision around several goals. The Sustainable Mobility for All initiative (SuM4All) is a global platform that unites 53 organizations and agencies around a common vision and plan of action to transform the future of mobility.  Members include multilateral development banks, international development organizations and agencies, civil society organizations, and the private sector. Its ambition is to make mobility equitable, efficient, safe, and green. 
It is time for the transport sector to be bolder, more imaginative, and to propose concrete ideas that will get people and corporations to rally around the cause of sustainable mobility. As a community, let’s come up with some practical yet impactful steps we can all take to transform the sector.
Thoughts? Ideas? Please feel free to chime in and leave your suggestions below.


Shokraneh Minovi

Partnership Specialist, Transport Global Practice, World Bank

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