Public Transit & Sustainability: Reducing Carbon Emissions

Public Transit & Sustainability: Reducing Carbon Emissions

Decarbonization, sustainability, carbon emissions, net zero… All these buzzwords are flooding the headlines across almost every industry’s press materials. But what do they mean in the context of the current materialization of the threat of global warming? For many, they are just marketing, but for many more they are part of an overarching mission. Public transportation is one of the vital components of every city’s decarbonization efforts, and holistic digital transit solutions like Modeshift’s are at the heart of the necessary change. What exactly can we do and how do we know we are doing it?  

Achieving sustainable growth – is it possible at all?  

Many people have adopted an extremely negative attitude towards our efforts to achieve sustainability, bordering even desperation. And it is easy to see why – the current state of the global economy is growth through every means possible (or at least it seems so). Humanity is consuming its resources at a pace that far outweighs the planet’s capacity. But it also develops at an unprecedented rate, creating new and better technology to tackle scarcity. 

In the words of Jordan Peterson, the world is doing much better than we’re being told

Science has already improved our lives drastically – even in the poorest countries. And it is not taking a pause, it is moving forward to deliver solutions to the most pressing matter which happens to be sustainability. We already have the technology to reduce our carbon footprint. Maybe not to pre-industrial levels, but certainly to the levels scientists are advising we should aim at to reverse the rise in temperatures. What we need now are political will and forward-thinking industry leaders.  

Focusing on carbon emissions 

To continue providing opportunities for growth and to lift out of poverty more and more communities, we need constant economic growth. Currently, this is inextricably connected to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). More than 23% of GHG emissions come from transportation (29% in the US), making it one of the biggest contributors to the climate disaster we are facing along with agriculture and consumerism. Private vehicles make up more than 50% of this figure globally (58% in the US). 

Public Transit & Sustainability

To transform the transportation segment, we need to implement low-carbon transportation strategies. Such strategies can not only help us reduce our carbon footprint, but also provide social and economic benefits for low-income people. Substituting personal vehicles for public transportation reduces energy consumption and GHG emissions, as well as our dependence on oil. As a result, heavy traffic and congestion are minimized, people breathe cleaner air and spend more time moving which is beneficial for their health. So, making use of existing (and creating new) low-carbon transportation strategies must be high on the agenda of each city, as well as ways to adequately calculate transit’s impact

How can we quantify carbon emissions reduction from public transit? 

There have been many talks about how cities can cut their carbon footprint, but so far it seems that there are very few soft measures that work and whose effects can be quantified. After decades of prioritizing personal cars, US transit authorities are having a tough time luring new riders. The proverbial freedom that a personal vehicle gives us is not easy to let go! Fortunately, we now have technology that can address many of the issues underlying the lack of flexibility that comes with public transit, and we need to implement this technology as quickly as possible to welcome more riders on board.  

Data & Analytics: it all starts here 

Public transit & Sustainability: Data-driven Measures

The first strategy we will address stems from the importance of having a reliable data stream that can help agencies optimize their fleet and operations in real time. Implementing account-based fare collection with a robust data collection infrastructure is the first step. As data rolls in, agency personnel will have a clearer view of what is working as expected, what can be improved and how it can be improved.  

  • Bigger buses can be allocated to specific lines during peak times 
  • The number of buses operating a specific line during off-peak hours can be reduced 
  • Routes can be optimized to create a more convenient system for riders 
  • On-time performance can be monitored and improved with timely actions 
  • Better fare systems can be introduced to welcome underprivileged groups on board 

What used to be done with pen and paper in the past can now be effectively automated. Agencies across the globe are reaping the benefits of having detailed usage and sales analytics to improve service. With this strategy, it is also possible to precisely measure the carbon emissions saved. 

Gauging public transit adoption and welcoming new riders onboard 

Personal vehicles are the biggest contributor to every household’s carbon footprint. In an average, two-person household with two cars, eliminating one of them can lead to a staggering 30% reduction in the GHG emissions produced by that household. This is the biggest change it can make in terms of reducing its footprint.  

To achieve that, cities can incorporate a series of soft measures aimed at improving the usability of their public transport system: more timely service, better routes, adequate first mile/last mile solutions, and a multimodal system that allows people to make a seamless mode shift whenever they need to. 

Having the ability to integrate all types of transit in a city, both public and private alternatives, means cities can calculate their carbon emissions reduction more precisely. This is why MaaS (Mobility as a Service) pilots are a major step towards our sustainable future. 

A robust recharging scheme for electric buses 

Many cities have already adopted electric buses as a substitute to heavily polluting gas and diesel engines. This is a great step, but we can go further by ensuring the optimal efficiency in recharging these vehicles. In countries that use a flexible metering system for electricity, special algorithms can be used in conjunction with transit analytics to predict when the best time is for each vehicle to be recharged. In this way, agencies can both have the best performance and reduce their spending which can then be allocated to further improving the service by other means. 

Why is it important to gauge carbon emissions? 

To communicate the benefits of public transit, we need to have hard data on why it is more sustainable. Addressing climate change begins with acknowledging there is an issue and there is room for improvement – both on the state and federal level. The data that informs new legislation related to climate objectives needs to be adequate and timely.  

Another important aspect is funding eligibility – in the future, it might become almost impossible to receive funding without having the necessary data to back up a city’s transit sustainability agenda. 

Finally, the need to purchase (or the ability to sell) carbon offsets needs to be substantiated. Every city can redesign its transportation network by setting up objectives aimed at generating revenue from offsets.