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Just transitions in the transport sector: insights from Sweden

Do you ever wonder what all these new transport technologies and policies we read and hear about in media will mean to you? Driverless electric trucks, bans on new petrol-burning cars, tax subsidies for petrol or even for charging stations for private electric vehicles. You might be excited or concerned about the changes these will lead to, on their impacts on how you conduct your day-to-day activities, on your professional opportunities, on your well-being more broadly.

Claudia Strambo, Jindan Gong, Maria Xylia / Published on 12 September 2023

A tram in motion on "Tvärbanan", a light rail line in Stockholm, Sweden.

In an age of shifting technologies and policies meant to meet climate change goals set under the Paris agreement, your experience as a transportation user may not be off to a speedy and auspicious start. And you are not the only one.

Truck drivers, train riders, just about everyone who uses transport in Sweden will be affected as policymakers move to transition away from fossil fuels, in a low-carbon transition. But policymakers in Sweden and elsewhere can use the knowledge gathered by SEI researchers to smooth the road, for both users of transport and the people that work in the sector.

At two conferences last week, three SEI researchers, Maria Xylia, Jindan Gong and Claudia Strambo, presented research findings on how to get to a fair and just transport transition, in a way that takes into account the people that must use and work in transportation. Presenting at the 51st European Transport Conference and the 2023 Euro Working Group Transportation (EWGT) conference, their findings come from two SEI projects, “Governing a fair transition to a fossil-free welfare society”, which studies the equity implications of the fossil free transition across the Swedish society, and  “Just Swedish Transport Industry Transitions (JUSTIT)”, which aims to assess the impact of a low-carbon transition on transport workers in Sweden.

Here are three main takeaways they highlighted for a fairer transport transition, based on the case of Sweden:

  1.  The impacts from decarbonizing transport systems vary depending on socio-economic and geographic circumstances.

This applies to both transport workers and transport users.

From the perspective of transport workers, the uptake of vehicle electrification and automation technologies will not have uniform implications. For instance, older drivers might find it more difficult to adapt to these new technologies due to lower digital literacy. Meanwhile, drivers in remote areas and on long-distance routes might find it more challenging to access supportive infrastructure, such as charging stations and telecommunication connections. The latter enables real-time data exchange, which is essential for many digitalization and automation features.

For transport users, the impacts of transport decarbonization also vary. For example, individuals from low-income households rely less on passive transport means, i.e., modes of transport powered by external energy sources, such as cars, taxis or motorbikes, compared to the average. Inhabitants of Norrland, the least densely populated region of Sweden, tend to rely more on passive transport means. These two groups also tend to have more mobility-related limitations to perform certain activities important for their well-being. Individuals from a low-income background feel more hindered from visiting green spaces and participating in leisure activities (37%) than the average (33%), while Norrland residents find themselves more limited with regards to travelling for vacations (48%) and for engaging in activities with family (41%) and friends (34%) than the average Swedish resident (35%; 31%; 30%).

Overall, policies that raise the costs of driving or public transportation risk creating more barriers for people to engage in activities key to their quality of life. This extends beyond the activities traditionally included in policy assessments, such as accessing basic services, employment and education opportunities.

From left: SEI Researchers Claudia Strambo and Jindan Gong presenting at the 51st European Transport Conference (ETC) in Milan, Italy.

2.     A just transition in the transport sector requires decarbonization policy to account for these differences – whether geographic or socio-economic, from workers’ and users’ perspectives – and support those groups that are likely to have a harder time adjusting to technological changes and decarbonization policies.

Transport workers need to be involved in shaping transport-related decarbonization strategies, so that their needs and aspirations are addressed. It also includes providing workers access to appropriate training adapted to their learning needs. Infrastructure for workers – particularly transport drivers – will require improved charging station and telecommunication coverage to avoid the potential risk of becoming stranded on trips in remote areas.

For transport users, a just transition approach involves improving access to low-carbon transport solutions, including access to charging infrastructure in remote and low-income areas, and making public transport more affordable. Here, policymakers also need to address informal norms that prevent behavioural change. For instance, SEI research shows that men are less inclined than women to choose their transport mode based on environmental considerations. Indeed, in Europe, gender norms contribute to women on average being more concerned than men about climate change.

3.       While people may face various types of losses, the transition in the transport sector can also cause significant improvements in sometimes overlooked aspects of well-being, including access to green space.

There is a strong overlap between the activities that individuals highly value and the use of cars. This includes aspects of quality of life that tend to receive less attention from both academia and transport planners and policymakers, such as social interactions and leisure. However, decarbonizing transport also implies significant improvements for people’s quality of life. For example, both transport users and transport workers recognize the health benefits of the transition.

Although it has become very common for transport and climate mitigation policy to consider health outcomes, there is another aspect that has received less attention so far: increasing access to green space. Being in nature or visiting parks is very important for people’s well-being. As SEI research shows, despite Sweden providing easier access to green space compared with other European countries, a third of the country’s population still feels hindered by mobility constraints when it comes to being in nature or visit parks. This is particularly the case for people in low-income households. This highlights the importance of better incorporating access to green space into transport decarbonization plans.

Overall, SEI research highlights that it is essential to develop transport policies that both decarbonize the sector while improving quality of life. It will be critical to identify groups at risk of losing out on the transition to low-carbon transport, and develop strategies to mitigate their losses. Neglecting to do so could significantly impede any transition.

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