Enhancing the Role of Transport in achieving the Sustainable Development Agenda

Written by Edna Odhiambo & Thomas van Laake from the Young Leaders in Sustainable Transport

By determining our access to socio-economic opportunities, transport plays a pivotal role in shaping human lives and wellbeing. It has a direct effect on the liveability of our shared habitats, whether they be urban or rural. As countries around the world contend with the adverse impacts of climate change, it is imperative that the transport sector is used to leverage low-carbon development pathways. This would not only reduce emissions and fossil fuel dependency, it would also improve the everyday lives of all humans by sustainably securing their access to goods, services, and each other. Yet as societies become increasingly mobile and urban, there seems to be little change to our current carbon-centric model for transport and mobility infrastructure.

To name a few alarming developments: passenger vehicle emissions are rising rapidly, while access to these vehicles remains unequal; road deaths continue to rise, particularly among vulnerable users in developing countries; and air travel – driven partly by tourism and luxury travel – is expanding despite its enormous carbon footprint and socio-economic exclusivity. While there are many positive trends as well, including the revaluation of urban cycling and the electrification of bus fleets, the general outlook for sustainable transport seems to be quite critical.

In this context, SLoCaT, the Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport and the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations (VREF) launched the Young Leaders in Sustainable Transport (YLST) programme in June 2019. YLST is a programme that seeks to empower six young transport professionals from a variety of backgrounds including research, policy and practice, to build on their knowledge and engage in policy making and practice regarding sustainable transport. The programme recognises the importance of preparing and enabling future decision makers in the mobility sector.

Within the calendar of major events regarding sustainable transport, two major international processes were singled out for the YLST to attend: the United Nations High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. The HLPF and UNFCCC spaces work in complementarity to achieve the aspirations of a liveable earth for both current and future generations. Consequently, three of the young leaders, Edna Odhiambo, Hirotaka Koike and Thomas van Laake, attended the HLPF in New York this July to examine and promote the inclusion of sustainable transport more robustly in the review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Under the guidance of experienced SLoCaT staff, the Young Leaders attending were able to participate in the HLPF by way of the UN Major Group on Children and Youth (UNMGCY). The Major Group is one of the 9 formalised civil society groups that are empowered to officially participate and influence the HLPF, providing a counterweight to the state-oriented format of the UN. As Young Leaders, the natural avenue for participation was the UNMGCY, which is fortunately also a very active and outspoken group. In particular, the leaders were involved in the drafting of statements on SDG13 (Climate), which was under review at this year’s HLPF.


Sustainable transport at the HLPF2019

Under the theme of Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality, this year’s HLPF reviewed the following set of goals:

  • Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
  • Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
  • Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries.
  • Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
  • Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
  • Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development


Bearing in mind the cluster of SDGs under review this year, the role of transport in empowering or disempowering is clear. The child who has to walk for miles on unsafe paths to access a classroom will not attain the quality education envisioned by Goal 4; the labourer who cannot afford the bus to access more economic opportunities will languish in poverty and thus stunt achievement of Goal 8; if highways and increased personal motorisation are the order of the day, we can forget about achieving the Paris Agreement’s aspirations; and if inequalities exacerbated by poor transport systems that deny access continue to thrive in our spaces, then an uneasy calm will be the best for which we can settle.

Focusing on the climate impacts of transport, the Young Leaders enjoyed a first-hand experience of the review of SDG 13 on climate action. It was encouraging to note that the preambular speech by the presidency emphasised the strong linkages between transport and achieving climate goals, and that transport ministers will be present at the conference. Additionally, regarding the upcoming 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the minister of the Chilean Presidency Ms. Carolina Schmidt signaled its intention to open up spaces to new actors, including transportation ministries, in order to discuss areas of action and synergies. Moreover, there were several encouraging statements from various UN member states. China emphasised the importance of improving public transport, and it is well documented that efficient mass transit is one of the flagships of sustainable transport systems. On the important topic of fuels, France called for much needed changes in the fossil fuel and car industry sectors. Israel stood out by declaring its intentions to make its cities more walkable, increase green spaces and curb urban sprawl. Norway, a leader in electric mobility, reiterated its investment in the electrification of transport. Finally, Spain participated in the session by seeking decarbonisation of our cities, an aspiration which can only be fully achieved by strongly leveraging the opportunities to decarbonise our transport systems.

Though there was mention of sustainable transport, there was a little focus on how to actually implement these measures. The Young Leaders observed that HLPF sessions only allow for quick statements rather than a more in-depth analysis of the proposed interventions. How much more powerful would the HLPF be if UN member states moved beyond the rigours of reporting requirements and took this opportunity to share best practices, to demand genuine accountability, and to inspire and encourage one another towards the desired sustainable future? This brought forward some key questions about how sustainable transport fits into the 2030 Agenda.


The relationship between sustainable transport and the 2030 Agenda

When considering the role of sustainable transport in the SDGs, a first question would be whether it is actually taken into account, and secondly, whether the SDGs contribute to positive change in the sector. At a glance, it would seem so. While there is no specific goal for transport, the importance of sustainable transport is reflected by the multiple SDG targets that relate to it: most prominently 3.6 (Road safety), 7.3 (Energy efficiency), 9.1 (Sustainable infrastructure), 11.2 (Urban access), 12.c (Fuel subsidies), and 13.1 and 13.2 (Climate Action). Action on these topics would go far to promote real change, and the way forward is often quite clear (for instance, removing fuel subsidies) or well-documented (such as action on road safety, for which there are successful models to follow). Other policy areas are more vague, but refer to key topics: such as ‘energy efficiency’, ‘urban access’ and ‘sustainable infrastructure’, which are worthy of thorough action, but lack specification. Finally, it seems to be crucial to link transport to climate targets, where there is perhaps the most urgency, making difficult decisions such as decarbonisation and travel demand management more palatable.

While a brief review makes clear that transport is a key topic in achieving the 2030 Agenda, and that SDGs have great potential to promote sustainable mobility policy, looking in-depth at the process paints a more negative picture. SLoCaT’s useful review of the SDG process (available here: /vnr) points out some clear gaps: this year, only 4 out of 47 Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) reported transport targets, demonstrating a lack of attention to the topic; VNRs tend to focus on transport infrastructure, such as number of airports or total road length, rather than sustainability targets; there is an alarming lack of attention to non-motorised transport, only mentioned by 10% of VNRs; and even road safety, despite being a specific indicator of SDG 3, is only reported on by 32.5% of VNRs. This seems to indicate that, despite the ample knowledge on what must be done to achieve sustainable transport and the presence of transport-related indicators in the SDGs, countries are taking a very selective and/or incomplete approach to achieving sustainable transport. Indeed, if progress on transport is measured in terms of infrastructure alone, we are likely to continue on the current path of carbon-centric transport development, in direct contravention to the spirit of the SDGs and the Paris Agreement with serious consequences for future sustainability and climate action.

With many other worthy goals on the agenda, sustainable transport can seem to be a fringe area, perhaps of secondary importance. We would argue it is not, in fact, it is one of the most important challenges facing sustainable development. In the face of mounting challenges and government inaction, there is a pressing need for guidance from multilateral institutions and more ambitious targets. Our experience at HLPF indicated that this is not forthcoming in the current SDG process, due to certain factors:

  • Sustainable transport, though related to various goals and represented in specific targets, does not have a specific goal where it could be discussed in-depth. The format of the HLPF, where only a fraction of the goals are under discussion in any given year, means there is little space for examining cross-cutting topics like transport.
  • Focusing conferences and reviews on single issues means we lose sight of the interconnections between goals and the positive feedback loops. There is a risk this may happen at the UNFCCC COP25 this December as well, with discussion of transport likely to focus on carbon emissions alone, leaving out issues such as land use policy, road safety, and even infrastructure.
  • Likewise, the political nature of the HLPF means topics are discussed in broad and general terms, with many platitudes such as ‘enhancing progress’ or ‘meaningful participation’ and little attention to the technicalities of actual implementation. When the methods for achieving sustainable transport are well-established (for instance, the Avoid-Shift-Improve framework), we gain little from generalities – what is necessary is to talk about how to start implementing these measures consistently around the globe.
  • The current VNR framework leaves reporting on transport goals up to the UN member states, who understandably focus on easily measured indicators such as road length. Obligating or at least encouraging reporting on indicators such as non-motorised travel would not only improve the relevance of VNRs to sustainable mobility, it would also stimulate data collection in UN member states, with benefits far beyond the VNRs alone.


In conclusion, while the HLPF experience was very interesting and stimulating to the Young Leaders attending, it also provoked much reflection on the role of high-level political processes and their relevance to the daily practice of sustainable transport policy. For those transport practitioners with a strong focus on the daily realities on the ground, the long-winded deliberation and lack of precision inherent to the UN process can be discouraging. Yet it is clear that without advocacy for the importance of sustainable transport and a seat at the table at the HLPF and similar forums, the sector would see even less attention and resources. In light of this, the role of SLoCaT as an influential actor and megaphone for sustainable transport issues on the global stage is invaluable. With the underlying issues and challenges increasing in relevance and with an articulate and critical voice at the highest level of policy-making, sustainable transport looks set to raise its profile in the sustainable development agenda.

Find out more about the Young Leaders in Sustainable Transport here.