“Economic shocks, climate change, and COVID-19 have changed transportation systems in a fundamental way. We can’t waste a crisis. We can increase access to transportation while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We can achieve more mobility with fewer impacts,” argued Ani Dasgupta, president of the World Resources Institute (WRI), at the 20th annual Transforming Transportation conference.
For two days, global leaders reflected on the state of transportation systems worldwide at the hybrid event in Washington, D.C., which was also watched by tens of thousands online. The event was co-organized by WRI and the World Bank.
Transportation still accounts for 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and up to 30 percent of emissions in developed countries. Transportation is a diverse sector that include sidewalks, bikes, cars, buses, trains, subways, ships, and planes.
Dasgupta said if sustainable transportation was easy, “we would have solved it by now” after twenty years of conferences. “Transportation is a lagging sector when it comes to decarbonizing. But we can’t achieve our climate and biodiversity goals without transportation.”
Still, some progress has been made. The Biden-Harris administration’s historic investments in infrastructure will accelerate the decarbonization of transportation in the world’s biggest economy.
At COP26 in Scotland in 2021, the World Bank launched a global facility to decarbonize transportation. The fund is meant to help fill the $944 billion sustainable transportation financing gap in developing countries.
And there are other reasons to be optimistic: In India, six states joined forces to procure over 5,000 electric buses. By leveraging their combined purchasing power they were able to lower the price of e-buses 27 percent below diesel buses. Another initiative in the works will lead to the purchase of another 50,000 e-buses across multiple states. “This is a market transformation story.”
And in the U.S., the federal government and Bezos Earth Fund are investing heavily in decarbonizing all 480,000 of the country’s school buses. 26 million children depend on school buses, but that means they are also breathing in toxic diesel fumes on their way to and from school. Decarbonizing school buses is a climate solution with significant health benefits. And given many low-income communities rely on public school buses, it’s also about equity.
According to WRI’s System Change Lab, global transportation will achieve positive tipping points if greater progress is made in ensuring reliable and safe access to transportation, reducing avoidable air and vehicle travel, shifting to public transportation, and decarbonizing. “But the speed and scale of this all needs to be much faster.”
And as transformation occurs, climate change will add more challenges. Climate impacts are expected to “increase the cost of maintaining roads by 2.5 times.” Even more reason why communities must invest in complete streets with pedestrian and bicycle access and public transport.
Other highlights from wide-ranging discussions at Transforming Transportation:
Public transportation: Of all transportation-related emissions, 90 percent is from road vehicles. Approximately half of those emissions are from passenger cars. And 70 percent is from urban road transport. So in cities, “we need fewer people in cars, less car ownership, more public transportation, and more walking, biking, and scootering,” argued Mohamed Mezghani, Secretary General, International Association of Public Transport.
“I would rather have a diesel bus in its own exclusive lane rather than an electric bus stuck in traffic. A clean traffic jam is still a traffic jam,” he added. His essential point: an integrated approach to reducing road space dedicated to cars will have more substantial benefits in terms of climate, health, and travel times than just electrifying the status quo. (Also, bus rapid transit [BRT] systems are far cheaper than subway lines and can help reduce congestion).
During COVID-19, Rio de Janiero, Brazil saw its bus system collapse, with bus workers going on strike multiple times. “Bus companies went bankrupt; 50 percent of lines weren’t working,” said Maina Celidonio, Rio’s Secretary of Transportation. To improve resilience, “we changed the city contracts with bus operators so they are now paid per kilometer traveled instead of by passenger. Transportation is now a public service.”
Bicycle infrastructure: In Lima, Peru, the World Bank has supported the development of more than 100 miles of protected bike lanes, 13 miles of cable car lines, and new digital traffic systems. The city’s bike lanes alone are estimated to avoid an estimated 22,000 tons of vehicle emissions per year. This shows the potential of large-scale projects to reduce car use and emissions. But despite incredibly cost-effective projects like this, which also have significant health benefits, biking still isn’t on the agenda in COP climate meetings. More metrics are needed to show emission reduction results.
The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) has launched a global cycling campaign, with the goal of 25 million more people having access to nearby protected bike lanes by 2025. 30 major global cities have signed on, said Heather Thompson, CEO of ITDP. Protected bike lanes are viewed as the most important way to increase bike access for younger and older riders of all genders and abilities.
Access: Transportation access and affordability remain stubborn challenges. Underserved and historically marginalized communities experience lower access, longer travel times, higher costs, and greater safety risks worldwide. In many Latin American cities, large percentages (30-45 percent) walk miles each day to work, not for health reasons, but because they can’t afford transportation. Walking in areas without safe sidewalks is a major driver of traffic fatalities and injuries.
Women, children, older adults, and disabled people also face significant obstacles. In the Caribbean, women depend on public transport the most for work, healthcare, and childcare. But because of violence, they are also most afraid to use public transport, said Tonni Brodber, Representative of the UN Women Multi-Country Office – Caribbean. Gender considerations need to be woven into all transportation planning.
Electric vehicles: The global shift to electric vehicles is underway. According to Elaine Buckberg, chief economist at General Motors, by 2030, 50 percent of cars in China, 60 percent of cars in the EU, and 45 percent of cars in the US will be electric. Battery costs have fallen 90 percent in 10 years and continue to decline, which means the prices of EVs will continue to drop. Different EV models are being designed for cities in the developing world, with lower ranges and speeds that maximize lower-cost batteries.
The EV revolution will mean significant changes for the power sector. EVs will raise demand for electricity, but to help the planet, that extra energy needs to be from renewable sources. Energy and transportation needs to be increasingly considered in an integrated way. One exciting idea is using parked, plugged-in EVs as energy sources as well, so energy flows both in and out of vehicles.
Planes: “The idea that adding 1 percent recycled cooking oil to plane fuels makes the fuel sustainable is ridiculous. We need to move to hydrogen fuels. Airbus is developing a green hydrogen-powered plane by 2035,” said Bertrand Piccard, an explorer and inventor.