Cities grow, and the planet’s population grows too – but the resources we have at our disposal are diminishing. Growth is a mindset we desperately need to revisit if we want to continue thriving as a species. While we organize environmental summits and fill the ether with promises about green transformation, we are yet to deliver on them. Grim as the situation may seem, the light at the end of the tunnel exists and it is called technology. With the help of science and technology, we have come closer to delivering on our environmental promises. Sustainable public transportation is part of the puzzle and one we will be discussing today.
What is sustainability?
“Sustainability means meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In addition to natural resources, we also need social and economic resources. Sustainability is not just environmentalism. Embedded in most definitions of sustainability we also find concerns for social equity and economic development.”
As this definition by the University of Alberta points out, sustainability is a complex and rather an elusive notion. Sustainability might take on a new meaning when it refers to specific industries that have an overwhelming footprint on the environment, and it might also be simplified to describe broader efforts to lead a more thoughtful life when it comes to individuals. Generally speaking, most resources define it as a three-pillar system.
Sustainable public transportation
When it comes to public transportation, sustainability becomes a rather hot topic. Many cities chose transit to represent their earliest and biggest efforts to prove their commitment to greener policies. These efforts, however noble the intentions behind them, have in most cases proven somewhat ineffective.
For example, instead of reducing the number of cars in the streets, some sustainability measures on the transportation level have only succeeded in reducing the number of pedestrians and cyclists – groups whose carbon footprint is already low. So how do we determine what measures need to be taken to achieve the goal of turning public transportation into a force for sustainable development rather than a marketing ploy?
Addressing natural resource scarcity
When we talk about sustainable public transit, the first things that come to mind are electric buses, light rail, and other modes that do not rely directly on fossil fuels. While this is a step in the right direction, these modes still use resources – albeit not as toxic to the general public as internal combustion engines. The demand for batteries on a global scale may prove to be detrimental to some societies. It may push prices of electric vehicles far beyond the budgets of transit agencies unless scientists do not make a breakthrough invention in the near future. On the other hand, using electricity has a carbon footprint and even though its production may be taken outside of cities, it may still be damaging to the environment.
To address these issues, transit agencies and citizens need to demand proof of the origin of the electricity they consume which may push governments to further invest in renewable sources. The same goes for batteries whose components may come from manufacturers that cannot prove they are not exploiting land and labor for their production processes.
These considerations, coupled with strong policies facilitating and incentivizing drivers to shift to sustainable public transit are essential if we want to see greenhouse gas emissions reduced in a sustainable way.
Addressing economic development
Public transportation has long been a driver of economic growth. It has connected people to their jobs, families, entertainment, shopping, and travel. It has proven a staple in every functioning city and sometimes – even a facilitator in its development as a good public transit system attracts more people and more jobs.
This aspect of sustainability calls for a discussion of the ways society has encouraged or discouraged the use of public transit. Europeans seem to have been quicker to understand the role of public transportation in the 21st century, while the US lags, still embracing personal vehicles and building around personal vehicle ownership.
To boost public transit usage, cities need to address the whole infrastructure. Fleet optimizations might be needed to create a safer, more welcoming experience for riders. Digital solutions that facilitate payments and validations may be helpful in inviting younger generations on board. Real-time information, paired with dedicated bus lanes ensuring on-time performance, is a staple of modern transit services. Micromobility is another thing cities need to consider. Facilitating its use by creating dedicated infrastructure is needed in most cities so that the safety of everyone on the streets is respected. By adjusting the city infrastructure in meaningful ways, city management can invite growth without compromising the environment and the transit service.
Addressing social equity
Public transportation is a powerful tool for battling inequality. We have seen countless times how underprivileged groups benefit the most from adequate transportation services. Therefore, developing public transit is a vital tool to lift them out of poverty and struggle. Unfortunately, dependency on cars has long been at the heart of urbanization efforts across the globe, and even more so in the US.
It is challenging to shift attitudes overnight – even in forward-thinking countries like Denmark the current state of affairs is the result of decades-long policies that prioritized people over cars. But we must start and now is a perfect time, amidst global fuel insecurity, a looming climate crisis, and a recession. Supporting public transport may turn out to be one of the most powerful tools in the fight against social inequality.
Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is only one part of the complex equation that sustainable public transportation demands. And if we do not focus on all aspects of the problem at hand, our efforts might prove inadequate to tackle the impending climate crisis. It is up to transit agencies, city managers, and citizens to demand more of each other so that the result is more livable cities for everyone.