It is Monday morning and you are in your car, crawling through slow-moving traffic. Your mind wanders and you imagine living in a green little country town where you can walk to work. Instead of wasting hours of your life on the road you would spend them with your loved ones, or just relax with a good book. You think of getting home early and heading to the park before dinner. During the week, you would arrive at work relaxed, not still shaking from road rage after a repeat offender didn’t indicate correctly, again. Wouldn’t it be nice? And then a beeping horn loudly reminds you that it was all just a daydream. But what if we could work toward that dream, and not just in country towns but major cities?
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The concept of sustainable transport focuses on bringing us closer to dreams like that. Broadly speaking, it refers to all modes of transport that do not rely on fossil fuels, which is a resource that does not regenerate itself and is therefore not sustainable. But there is a lot more to it. Making transport more sustainable could be as simple as walking or biking to get places. But to allow us to walk and bike more, our cities have to change too, so it is also about urban planning. This could mean introducing greater public transport infrastructure, building wider roads with dedicated bike lanes, and encouraging companies to relocate to high-density suburbs where their employees live, instead of the city centre. Of course, in our globalized world and we cannot walk or cycle everywhere. Therefore much is being invested in technologies that reduce or eliminate vehicle emissions, giving us cleaner air to breath. Already there are hybrid vehicles that run partly on electricity, as well as fully electric cars, and those powered by hydrogen or biofuels. Every decrease in emissions brings us closer to cleaner air.
Fossil fuel powered cars, planes and ships are some of the biggest polluters in the world. Transport contributed nearly a quarter of all emissions in 2010, according to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “The transport sector […] was responsible for approximately 23 % of total energy-related CO2 emissions,” the report read. But is it really that much of an issue? Look at it this way: carbon emissions drive global warming, which impacts on everyone’s quality of life. And no matter how much or how little you notice the effects of climate change just yet, scientists are certain that soon enough, we will notice them a lot more. Higher temperatures pose many risks for humans and the environment, from rising sea levels that will force people to vacate their homes, to more frequently occurring floods and droughts, and storms that are to become more destructive due to warmer oceans.
And it would “approximately halve the fraction of world population expected to suffer water scarcity as compared to 2°C”. So there is a lot to be said for ensuring that temperatures don’t rise beyond a 1.5-degree increase, but it requires immediate action. “Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” said IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee. And so far, these changes aren’t happening fast enough. Instead of declining, energy-related emissions increased by 1.4 % to a record high last year, according to a report by the International Energy Agency. Demand for oil grew by 1.6 %, largely due to the transport sector. There are more vehicles on roads and the trend is going toward larger cars. “Vehicle ownership levels increased in 2017, as did the share of Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) and other large vehicles,” the EPA said in its report.
But personal cars are so convenient. Why not focus only on big emitters like manufacturers and coal-fired power plants in our efforts to cut emissions? Well, to notice the effects heavy traffic has on us you don’t need to look decades into the future, as the IPCC scientists did. You just have to take a deep breath while waiting to cross a road in any big city. Flying into any major metropolis, you would have spotted that brownish layer hovering over the skyline like a blanket. That was smog, and it’s going right into your lungs. Smog refers to a combination of pollutants and ozone in the air. Ozone plays an important role in the upper layers of the atmosphere, because it protects the earth from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. A thinner ozone layer elevates the risk of skin cancers, for example. So we do need ozone, but only high up.
Ozone at ground level is very harmful. It is formed when pollutants in the air chemically react on hot days. Remember those public health warnings when levels are particularly high? That’s because ground-level ozone can cause havoc for our health. It leads to respiratory problems, and is particularly dangerous for children, older people, and those active outdoors, as well as individuals who already suffer from respiratory diseases like asthma. Ozone also reduces lung function in general, making it more difficult to meet your oxygen requirements. Repeated exposure to it can even cause short-term lung damage, because it may inflame the lining of the lung. As smog is a relatively new phenomenon, the long-term effects aren’t yet fully known. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are indications that children who are repeatedly exposed to ozone may develop broader health problems later on.
“Scientists are concerned that repeated short-term damage from ozone exposure may permanently injure the lung. For example, repeated ozone impacts on the developing lungs of children may lead to reduced lung function as adults,” according to the US Environmental Protection agency, or EPA.
Among most significant sources of pollutants that react to form ozone are vehicles, according to the EPA website. So no matter how convenient your personal car is, heavy traffic isn’t doing us any good. The World Health Organisation (WHO) said that air pollution alone kills three million people a year. “Air pollution represents the biggest environmental risk to health. In 2012, one out of every nine deaths was the result of air pollution-related conditions,” said WHO in a report published in 2016. “About 90% of people breathe air that does not comply with the WHO Air Quality Guidelines,” according to WHO. Making transport more sustainable therefore benefits the health of every individual on this planet, including you.
Nobody likes to breathe polluted air, but we still have to get to work every day, pick up the kids from school and do those large grocery shops. For many, their personal car is the primary way to achieve that. So how then can we create a world where we can do all these things but still reduce emissions? For example, we could start thinking about meeting our transport needs in other ways. We could push for more investment in public transport infrastructure to make train or light rail more attractive. If you only had to walk a few steps to sit on a comfortable and fast train to get to work, wouldn’t you consider public transport a good option? You could use the time to read, or prepare work presentations, instead of staring at a road. And you won’t be stuck in peak traffic morning and evening, losing valuable time you could instead spend with family. Infrastructure like Park & Ride stations can also make it easier to use public transport. People in suburbs could either drive their cars or ride bikes to a train station that provides secure parking.
Obesity is associated with a higher risk of developing conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease and high blood pressure. Decentralising cities and moving more places of employment from the centre to the suburbs also plays an important role, as more people could walk or cycle to work. “It’s about integrating our urban planning, so that people live close to cycling and public transport infrastructure so that they are able to use a mix of cycling, walking and public transport instead of relying on the motor vehicle,” former ACT Deputy Chief Minister Simon Corbell said. Encouraging more physical activity also requires employers to do their part. “It’s also about investing in good end-of-journey facilities like secure bike parking, shower and change facilities if needed, both private and public facilities,” said Mr Corbell. And to help you handle your weekly shop, shopping centres could offer broader and fast delivery options for your groceries and other goods, eliminating the need to use your own car.
However, for some things using a car will likely remain unavoidable. So apart from taking cars off the road, we also need to reduce the environmental impact of the existing vehicles. And that brings us to electric cars. With the exponential growth in solar and wind, we have the opportunity to fuel electric cars with renewable energy, which makes their operation cheaper than running a fossil fuel vehicle. Together with government incentives in many countries, this makes them an increasingly attractive option.
Volkswagen is even gunning for Tesla’s crown and plans to become the biggest player in the electric vehicle arena. “We intend to offer the largest fleet of electric vehicles in the world, across all brands and regions, in just a few years,” VW Chief Executive Officer Matthias Müller said in a statement in March this year. The German carmaker wants to operate 16 production sites for electric vehicles by the end of 2022 and produce three million annually by 2025. Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, is also ramping up investment, planning to spend more than EUR 10 billion on its electric vehicle business. “Our customers will thus have the choice of at least one electric alternative in every MercedesBenz model series, taking the total to 50 overall,” Ola Källenius, responsible for Daimler’s Group Research, said in a statement. And BMW said it also plans to make further investments in the segment.
“By 2025, the company will offer 25 fully electric and plug-in hybrid models worldwide,” BMW said in a press release.
Clearly, major car companies are preparing for a boom. After all, going electric is getting cheaper and cheaper. Powering your car with electricity costs you less than half of fuelling it with gasoline, according to the US Department of Energy. The cost of purchasing an electric car is still significantly higher in most cases, but the chief executive officer of Australia’s Electric Vehicle Council, Behyad Jafari, said prices are coming down rapidly. “Both due to production and due to efficiently in the batteries inside the vehicles the cost are falling dramatically while the power and performance of the vehicles are rising dramatically,” he said. In just a few years, the overall cost for electric cars is expected to drop below that of fossil fuel cars, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
“During the 2020s EVs will become a more economic option than gasoline or diesel cars in most countries,” said a Bloomberg NEF article.
In Australia, emissions in the first quarter of 2018 were at the second-highest level in five years and the country is expected to miss its targets from the Paris Agreement, according to carbon consultancy NDEVR Environmental. However, emission from energy generation fell to a three-year low, because of greater wind energy generation in the states of New South Wales and Victoria. So what sector is the culprit, if not energy? That’s right – transport. Emissions from that sector surged to the highest level on record in the reporting period, with diesel fuel the biggest contributor. And changes are slow to come. Uptake of electric vehicles has been sluggish on the continent. “In Australia, we are reasonably behind in the uptake of electric vehicles compared to other developed nations. In 2017, we sold a total of 2,284 electric vehicles, accounting for a market share of only 0.2%,” said Australian Electric Vehicle Council CEO Behyad Jafari.
According to Mr Jafari, Australia lacks policies to encourage greater uptake. Many other countries offer subsidies, while Australia hits electric vehicle buyers with a 33 % tax if an imported car is above the luxury car tax threshold. The tax kicks in for conventional vehicles over AUD 64,132, and fuel-efficient vehicles over AUD 75,526. Many electric models available in Australia are still above that threshold. Unlike many other countries, Australia also doesn’t have fuel efficiency standards in place, Mr Jafari pointed out. “As a result of that, the incentive to make vehicles more efficient and less polluting isn’t there, it’s not regulated,” he said. Without a government that signals its support for the country’s transition toward electric transport, car companies are hesitant to introduce more models, according to Mr Jafari. But to activate the market and catch up with international uptake levels, the introduction of more affordable models is essential.
In August 2018, Australia’s population reached 25 million, exceeding previous forecasts. Twenty years ago, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) still predicted that Australia’s 1997 population of 18.5 million would grow to only between 23.5 and 26.4 million by the year 2051. Now the population is expected to exceed 30 million by 2031 and 41 million by 2061. Transport networks in cities like Sydney are already struggling to keep up with demand from a booming population. Data by the New South Wales agency Transport for NSW shows that peak trainloads in March 2017 reached 185 % on some lines. Nobody enjoys having to get cosy with strangers on overcrowded trains that offer standing space only. Former ACT Deputy Chief Minister Simon Corbell said that the current network is not keeping up, but the government is working to fill the gap.
“The level of infrastructure development that is currently underway is very substantial and is attempting to respond to the very significant population growth that we are seeing, particularly in cities like Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane,” he said.
“There are new heavy rail and underground metro rail systems, multi-billion dollar projects, being built in Melbourne and Sydney and we are also seeing light rail in some of the smaller cities,” he added. “There is still more work to be done, but the level of investment now is perhaps the largest it’s been for many decades.” In addition, various states and territories in Australia are trialling electric buses to reduce emissions. “That’s a really exciting step and I think we will see electrification of public bus fleets very, very quickly over the next five years or so,” Mr Corbell said.
And electrification isn’t the only option. Hydrogen fuel cells are currently also being trialled.
Australia also has vast agricultural land available that is suitable to growing biofuel, which could transform the aviation sector – a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Early October, Virgin Atlantic operated its first commercial flight that was partly powered by biofuel. The Boeing 747 flew from Orlando in Florida to London. Mr Corbell said trials are planned in Australia as well. “We are already seeing a number of major airlines, for example Qantas, sign up to trial the use of biofuels for their aviation fleet,” he said. But as discussed earlier, the changes required to make transport more sustainable are broad, and in Australia it will require significant changes to urban planning. Anyone who has every cycled in Sydney knows that it can be a very dangerous undertaking, as most roads don’t have dedicated bike paths.It is often too difficult to widen existing roads, but many new suburbs are constructed with a focus on making cycling more attractive, according to Mr Corbell.
“In places like Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide, and indeed new developments in most other large cities, there is a very strong emphasis on improving active transport,” Mr Corbell said. Canberra, for example, has a Bike & Ride system that provides bike cages and other secure locking options at public transport stations to encourage people to cycle to the train.
In combination with strong public transport systems, driverless vehicles could do many runs to ferry passengers to and from stations instead of being driven once and then parked at the train, as in Park & Ride systems. “A single such vehicle could, for example, collect two to five people, drive them to a rail station for the morning commute, then return empty to collect three or four more loads of commuters in the morning peak period,” Prof. Newman writes in his research article ‘City of the Future’. “One light rail vehicle plus a fleet of perhaps 15 autonomous vehicle shuttles (10 at the origin end and 5 at the destination end) could effectively replace 100 long-distance private car commuting trips,” said Prof. Newman in the article.
Places of employment, shops and residential areas would be increasingly concentrated along public transport hubs and corridors, as well as in satellite cities to reduce the need for cars, according to Prof. Newman. His research shows that roads transport only 1,500 to 3,000 people per lane per hour, while light rail, suburban rail and metros carry between 3,000 and 30,000 passengers per track per hour. A greater focus on public transport would also reduce the need for parking spaces. “In Sydney, it has been estimated that car parking occupies at least 100 sq. km. of land, worth in the order of AUD 100 billion if put to other uses,” according to Prof. Newman’s ‘City of the Future’ article. Reducing the number of cars could therefore also free up space for public parks and bike lanes. Just imagine living in a big city where life entails clean air, green spaces, bike lanes, fewer roads and cars, and many people living so close to their jobs that they can walk to work. It’s a future worth investing in.