Sustainable Transport Evaluation

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Sustainable development balances environmental, social and economic objectives. Sustainable transport planning refers to transport policy analysis and planning practices that support sustainable development. This is important because transport policy and planning decisions can have diverse, long-term impacts. A critical component of sustainable transport planning is the development of a comprehensive evaluation program that evaluates transport system performance based on an appropriate set of environmental, social and economic indicators[1].

The Need for Sustainability Indicators

Sustainability in transport is a widely acknowledged necessity due to negative environmental, social and economic impacts movements of passengers and goods. In order to identify the impact of transportation and provide a basis for policymaking and awareness raising, indicators are needed. As defined in the European COST 356 project (COST 356, 2010, 28), “an indicator is a variable, based on measurements, representing as accurately as possible and necessary a phenomenon of interests”, i.e. sustainable transport. One may thereby further distinguish between indicators measuring progress in establishing a more sustainable process (outcome), and indicators that measure results (outputs) of actions by governments to contribute to that. Although indicator schemes exist for various cities, countries and regions international processes cannot refer to a comparable evaluation scheme on a global level. In addition, most of the developing world lacks the necessary data for indicators and/or has not yet defined sustainability goals in transport.

The evaluation of the sustainability of a national transport system provides benefits for countries participating in a scheme. The following six categories summarise advantages of evaluation schemes on a national level[1].

They are ordered from very general to rather specific and more conflicting benefits:

  1. Identification of challenges: A consistent and comparable evaluation of different indicators enables both official stakeholders and the public to identify the major challenges towards achieving sustainability in the transport sector.
  2. Transparency and information: A reliable panel database of relevant indicators enables countries to prove progress towards defined targets. On a more local level, an internationally driven effort to provide necessary data will help those who are dealing with the more immediate (negative) effects of transportation. For example, transport planners and engineers require good information on transport facilities and activities, and public health officials rely on sound data on traffic casualties or pollution exposure.
  3. Knowledge transfer: Evaluation schemes identify parties with high performance (e.g. low number of road fatalities, low carbon intensity,…) Countries can therefore learn from others, especially from countries with a similar stage of development, what are good practices and what can be done to improve sustainability.
  4. Policy target setting: Countries that choose to establish a sustainable development strategy for transportation may use a set of indicators for sustainable transport and define objectives which they can strive to reach. They can refer such targets in national transport and development policies. Once targets are set, the indicators can serve monitoring process towards sustainability. Countries can control whether political measures contribute to progress towards sustainability goals. If necessary, they can readjust their concepts.
  5. Gaining competitive advantages: Countries can present themselves in comparison to others to prove their attractiveness as a location for economic activities and as a safe and convenient place to live. This issue is even more important for evaluation schemes on an urban level, as cities worldwide are already facing increasing competition.
  6. Linking international standards with local action: Broad international guidelines for evaluating sustainability in the transport sector may inspire local initiative. Setting derived and/or additional individual indicators at the local level can help to improve local governance and networking by initiating dialogue between multiple stakeholders.

Sustainability Indicators and Evaluation Schemes

A set of indicators is able to describe a current situation. If data are collected repeatedly, it can even illustrate trends.

What are suitable indicators for sustainability?

Indicators must be accurate but easy to measure, acceptable but not influenced by interests, measurable, timely and understandable. With regard to a possible global scheme to assess sustainability in transport, it is worth pointing out a few issues.

  1. Indicators should cover all dimensions of sustainability (social, environmental, economic and governance). At the same time, they must be limited in number in order to keep necessary international efforts on large-scale surveys and measurements on a realistic level. Furthermore, it is desirable to achieve a certain compatibility with other global indicator schemes and to complement such sets with additional transport-specific indicators.
  2. In order to avoid problems with acceptance of indicators, they must be selected in a participatory process involving experts and policymakers from participating countries.
  3. It is important that indicators correspond to underlying sustainability goals derived from the chosen definition of sustainability in transportation. Otherwise they do not contribute to assess progress towards sustainability and to serve policy purposes.
  4. Although quantitative indicators are easier to compare across a large sample of countries, there is a need for additional qualitative information and interpretation. This refers especially to the institutional environment.

The table below shows how a set of indicators could look like. It is beyond the scope of that article to present a definitive choice. Rather, is the aim to emphasise some issues that need attention when choosing suitable indicators[1].

Ten Key indicators for sustainable transport.png
Ten Key Indicators for Sustainable Transport


Framework for Sustainability Indicators

  • Ranking: A basic, but nevertheless efficient method to illustrate the range of values for any quantitative indicator. An example is the Human Development Index (HDI) country ranking, which has gained high popularity even in the general media. Rankings are also used by some concepts for sustainable transport. Without a reference value, an individual rank does usually not provide consistent information about whether the situation the respective indicator is describing can be considered sustainable or not.
  • Benchmarking: A benchmarking scheme may be described as a tool to compare performance against some kind of reference or target value. Depending on the purpose, this may be the value of the best performer (most common variant found in classic business administration), a predefined policy target, or simply the average value of an indicator. As part of the benchmarking exercise, the reasons for any shortcoming relative to the target value are analysed. In a final step, a set of measures necessary to reach the goal is created. In a less competitive environment (as assumed for the purpose of sustainability evaluations), this offers a particularly good opportunity for knowledge transfer.
  • SWOT-Analysis: the analysis of Strength, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats is a rather qualitative tool to assess the current situation and the future challenges of a given system, and to derive adequate policies. The latter follow four principles: Build on strength, eliminate weakness, exploit opportunities, and mitigate the effect of threat.
  • Audits: used for example in international schemes for quality management such as the ISO 9000 series, audits have become increasingly popular. They constitute a systematic and documented process for assessing the accomplishment of certain predefined criteria. Usually checklists are used. The focus is rather on the evaluation of knowledge and the existence of certain procedures than on quantitative measures. Audits may be performed internally, or by external organisations. In the context of an international evaluation for sustainability in the transport sector, audits may for example serve to assess the inclusion of sustainability issues in official policies.
  • Labels: Labels may be considered a possible outcome of some of the above exercises rather than constituting a true evaluation scheme. Organisations can be awarded a label upon fulfilment of certain criteria. An example is the label “Energiestadt” (now also known as European Energy Award), which rewards cities with sustainable energy policies, or the Chinese “Eco-City” label.
  • Awards: Similar to labels, awards improve the image of the recipient and help to raise awareness for certain issues. Criteria for awards may be more or less stringent, and often rely on a more qualitative evaluation. An important difference, e.g. to a label or certificate is that awards often include more qualitative indicators and recipients usually have no obligation to continue their efforts after having been rewarded, unless they choose to apply again for the next round of the respective.

A Review of Existing Concepts in the Transport Sector

Measuring sustainability is not a new topic. There are numerous approaches in the transport sector. They differ with regard to the definition of sustainability used, the dimensions covered and the level of the transport system they are applied to. The table below evaluates the different approaches.

Sustainable Transport Evaluation of existing concepts or projects.png
Sustainable Transport Evaluation of Existing Concepts/Projects

Suggestions for Further Discussion – Towards Evaluation of Sustainable Transport

Given current trends in the transport sector, sustainability is unlikely to be reached unless transport policy is reoriented towards explicit sustainability goals. These goals can become more transparent and progress towards policy goals could be assessed through the use of indicators. Furthermore, indicator schemes are necessary to identify country-specific challenges. However, the lack of an agreed international definition of sustainable transport as well of necessary data to establish a set of relevant indicators requires multilateral efforts to remedy these shortcomings[1].

A Definition for Sustainable Transport

As a first step, it is recommended that the UN Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) acts as a participate platform to internationally agree on an acceptable definition of sustainable transport, and to derive more specific goals within the dimensions of sustainability. This process should involve all stakeholders from member countries to legitimate the outcome. International standards should be compatible to local processes and targets.

Selection of Indicators and an Evaluation Method

Based on the selected definition and goals for sustainable transport, corresponding indicators and benchmarks for achieving the goals could be agreed in order to set up a suitable scheme for evaluation or at least presentation of results. Available indicators for sustainable transport such as presented in this article may serve as basis for discussion. Procedures for the selection of indicators have also been established in the CSD context (UN 2007, pp.29).

A key issue at this stage is to identify and evaluate existing transport related data available from international organisations (e.g. UNFCCC, IEA, IRF, UNDP, ITF, World Bank and others). Problems with these data sets should be identified, including the types of data collected, the geographic areas where they are collected, and the quality and availability of the resulting data. Action can then be initiated to address data gaps.

Building on Existing Approaches

In methodological terms, it is suggested to keep the task as simple as possible: Indicators and evaluation schemes may be used rather to “send signals about sustainability” than to prove sustainability, something which is unlikely to be conceptually possible in the near future. In addition, a selected set of quantitative indicators plus qualitative information may be more suitable than any composite index, which is likely to be neither conceptually sound nor acceptable for policy purposes.


Following the selection of an evaluation scheme, CSD should task a suitable international agency with implementing the scheme. A second option is to establish a co-ordinator between existing agencies. Whatever approach is chosen, it’s important that the agency or co-ordinator is independent and does not involve specific commercial interests and is supported by as many stakeholders as possible. International financing must guarantee this independency.

Applicability and Benefits of an Evaluation Scheme

Once established, the evaluation scheme may be used for several different tasks. CSD member states will benefit from the possibility to identify their specific challenges, enabling them to reorient their policy based on objective measurement, and to assess progress towards choses sustainability goals. In addition, the indicators used in an evaluation scheme may be used by donors – esp. multilateral development banks – to make sure their funds contribute to projects that foster sustainable transport.

Last, but not least an evaluation scheme may evolve into a powerful tool to raise public awareness about the subject of sustainable transportation.

Further Information

  • Further and more detailed information can be found on the homepage of the Sustainable Urban Transport Project. The Sustainable Urban Transport Project aims to help developing world cities achieve their sustainable transport goals, through the dissemination of information about international experience, policy advice, training and capacity building.
  • Portal:Mobility


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 D. Bongardt, D. Schmid, C. Huizenga, T. Litman 2011, Sustainable Transport Evaluation – Developing Practical Tools for Evaluation in the Context of the CSD Process, Eschborn, Germany