For the past several years, we’ve witnessed the debate on climate change, control of toxic emissions, and the management of environmental pollution only become more urgent as cities and governments around the world are desperately looking for long-lasting solutions to some of those problems. It is currently estimated that passenger and freight activity will likely double by 2050 and although such growth is considered a token of social and economic progress, it only seems to come with greater energy demand and increased CO2 emissions and atmospheric pollutants.
A greater reliance on rail, as well as increased use of public transport, has the potential to alleviate these problems, as stated by many experts in the field. In a world that is becoming ever more urbanized, rail travel is well-suited to match urban needs and help reduce pressing issues such as congestion and pollution. High-speed rail can also serve as an alternative to short-distance air travel, and conventional and freight rail can complement other transport modes to provide further efficiency in the mobility sector.
How does the Sustainability Movement correspond with the world of transport?
In the United States, the transportation sector is reported to be the biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2020 they published their latest report which stated that transportation accounted for 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, followed by electricity at 25 percent, and industry at 24 percent.
While the increased need for better and more efficient transport in cities has sparked a wave of new initiatives, programs, and alternative methods of transportation, experts are still asking the question of whether or not this is nearly enough in the face of pressing issues such as climate change, overpopulation, and increasing congestion. Urban mobility is becoming faster, smarter, and more accessible but at what cost? This has led governments around the globe to take a step back and think about improving sustainability in the transportation sector, starting with mass transit. And while it’s no surprise that some modes of transport are significantly better for the environment than others, are the ‘eco-friendly’ ones as good as we think they are?
Is ride-hailing or renting a bike eco-friendly?
Many people have grown accustomed to the comfort of reaching for their phone and hailing a ride whenever they want but how good is this really for the environment? On-demand taxis through ride-hailing apps have made getting a ride so convenient, easy, and cheap, that people have begun to choose them over public transport. The increasing demand for these services has only increased congestion in urban areas by putting more cars on the street, even if they are fully electric.
What about bike sharing? While riding a bike emits 0g of CO2, people hardly consider the environmental impact caused by the production of the bike or transporting a given fleet to the location where it will be used. The least eco-friendly thing about them however comes down to the vandalism and lack of personal accountability which has unfortunately resulted in a massive number of bike graveyards.
What is the most sustainable type of transportation?
Traveling by rail within cities or across long distances releases the least amount of greenhouse gasses into the air out of all forms of transportation. According to a study commissioned by the EEA regarding low-carbon motorized transport, rail, and waterborne prove to have the lowest emissions per kilometer and unit transported, while aviation and road transport emit significantly more.
Besides walking and biking, traveling by train remains one of the greenest and most environment-friendly options when getting around. Regardless if electric or diesel-powered, trains emit between 66 and 75 percent fewer carbon emissions when compared to cars and airplanes. It is estimated that by diversifying energy sources and providing more efficient mobility, rail can significantly lower transport energy use as well as reduce carbon dioxide and local gas emissions.
The regions with the current highest share of electric train activity are Europe, followed by Japan and Russia, with North and South America, still being heavily reliant on diesel. Passenger rail is significantly more electrified than freight in almost all regions, and those with higher reliance on urban rail and high-speed rail are also those exhibiting the largest share of passenger kilometers served by electricity.
Fast & Efficient
Rail travel is one of the fastest and most efficient types of transportation when it comes to transporting large groups of people. А single heavy-rail commuter train can effectively transport around nine times as many people per hour as one traffic lane of cars and that is at an average occupancy at best. The U.S. Department of Energy rates intercity rail (services that run from one city to another) and transit rail (subways and commuter rails) as the two most efficient forms of transportation.
When it comes to sustainable types of transport, trains are also amongst the most environmentally-friendly modes of transportation. They have shown excellent results in successfully reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s estimated that depending on the type of train, a rail system can emit anywhere from 30 percent to 70 percent fewer emissions than conventional cars and even less than electric cars.
According to the IEA’s report on the ‘’Future of Rail”, trains are one of the most energy-efficient types of transport since the rail sector carries 8% of the world’s passengers and 7% of global freight transport, yet it accounts for merely just 2% of the total transport energy demand.
Electrification in the sector is one of the contributing factors that make the rail sector amongst the best energy-diverse forms of transport. It is reported that over three-quarters of rail transport activity takes place onboard electric trains, which is a substantial increase from 60% in the last 23 years, with this sector being the only one to be so widely reliant on the use of electricity.
Cycling and Walking
Cycling is thought to be one of the most simultaneously efficient and earth-friendly modes of transportation, due to the synergy of body power and engineering. It’s eco-friendly and cost-effective and it gets you where you need to go in a decent amount of time. Other than the materials required to produce a bicycle (plus a new set of tires now and then), bicycles require very little maintenance, you don’t have the regular expenses that come with owning a car, and you don’t need insurance or expensive parking at all. Biking is also much more energy-efficient than traveling by foot.
Many countries and cities are being very proactive in running campaigns and initiatives to encourage people to cycle more. The United States is hoping to create a cycle trail that spans from one coast to another. The Great American Rail Trail for example stretches 3,700 miles from the capital to the Pacific Ocean just west of Seattle, crossing over 12 states.
Walking, running, jogging, or strolling generally have one of the lowest ecological impacts by far. It’s a great way to keep people active and healthy and it’s not hurting the environment. Walking provides a great alternative for short-distance travel that requires no budget, or expenses and is generally enjoyable. Whether a person is living in a rural or urban area, walking is one of the fastest ways to go from one place to another such as grocery stores, workplaces, and walking between transit stops and various public facilities.
Considered to be slightly more fuel-intensive than trains, buses tend to be quite behind in terms of efficiency at current ridership rates (often below 25% of capacity) as stated by the US Department of Energy. Even though buses generally release higher levels of gas emissions into the atmosphere compared to trains, they are still a far better option than cars so consider using public transport while on holiday to keep your carbon footprint as low as possible or when traveling or commuting around town.
Buses are relatively cheap so they are also a cost-effective form of transportation. It’s worth mentioning that every time a person uses the bus they are increasing its efficiency since it will be transporting more people with the same amount of fuel.
When compared to other modes of transport, cars are generally not the most eco-friendly forms of getting around, however, they remain one of the most preferred methods of traveling for most people living in urban areas.
Ordinary cars are classed as one of the biggest urban polluters today, releasing nearly four times more emissions than motorcycles, according to the IEA’s report on transport and the environment. The study also highlights that a decrease in efficiency isn’t the only issue at hand. Time spent sitting in traffic congestion caused the wastage of over 2.3 billion gallons of fuel in the year 2005, which has only increased since then. Unfortunately, traveling by car remains one of the most popular modes of transport in the U.S., with the country’s infrastructure built to be widely reliant upon automobiles as means of getting around.
Diesel and Biodiesel Cars
While hybrids are considered more suitable for driving in cities, diesel cars may be more efficient when it comes to long-distance travel, according to The Telegraph. Hybrid cars were found to be far less efficient when compared to diesel cars in terms of acceleration at higher speeds or along motorways.
Biodiesel fuel is made from natural oils and fats and is a renewable and efficient energy source. The US Alternative Fuels Data Center claims that biodiesel is a far better substitute for petroleum diesel since it is a domestically produced, clean-burning, and renewable energy source.
While biodiesel may not be as popular as conventional diesel or petroleum, its popularity is slowly increasing although it’s worth mentioning that it’s not very efficient in cities or nearly as much as public transportation and it can be difficult to find.
Hybrid and Electric Cars
Hybrid and electric cars use electricity (in the case of hybrids, a combination of electricity and gas), which is used to replace conventional cars and regular fuel. The electricity they use is typically produced using non-renewable, greenhouse-gas-producing methods and they often come with energy-efficient technologies that help reduce fuel consumption further known as “regenerative breaking” and “power assist”.
Although Hybrid and electric cars have done well in reducing emissions they are still less efficient and earth-friendly than some public modes of transportation such as rail, with electric cars having less power than conventional vehicles and requiring charging stations.
It may come as no surprise to many that planes find themselves at the bottom of every list when it comes to sustainable modes of transportation. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), planes are amongst the most fuel-intensive modes of travel, however, there is a considerable difference that varies between airlines regarding energy efficiency.
The ICCT report states a 26% difference in the efficiency of US airlines, rating them from most to least efficient when it comes to fuel and energy usage. A detailed list of domestic US airlines and their fuel efficiency can be found in the ICCT’s report, so passengers wishing to travel more sustainably can check it before booking their tickets.
Another important thing to note regarding airplanes is that although they are often considered the most damaging ways of transport regarding the environment, they only make up for about 13.4% of the total transport emissions. Cars, on the other hand, amount to 72% of the same total which is the amount of carbon released per kilometer traveled, exceeding every other means of transportation. It’s estimated that a lot of the fuel consumed by an aircraft comes from the fuel that is used during take-offs and landings.
Snail travel is a movement based on the notion of slowing down and making conscious choices regarding traveling as means of reducing a person’s urban footprint. This can look in various ways, whether it would be walking more, cycling, or swapping a flight for a train (whenever possible). Using a climate calculator and actively looking for more eco-friendly transport methods are also on the agenda for many travelers choosing this method of travel.
What are the benefits of sustainable transportation?
Sustainable transit might seem like a huge investment in the beginning but in the long run, it’s often worth the reward in terms of environmental and economic benefits. In fact, maintaining public transportation systems has actually proven to be cheaper than maintaining roads. In 2017, the U.S. spent $177 billion on highways but only $70 billion on mass transit and $5 billion on rail.
The benefits of using sustainable transportation are many, and we would be wise to embrace this mode of transit to help lower pollution rates as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions further, saving money, resources, and fuel along the way. Eco-friendly commuting and public transit are the future of sustainable mobility and we are certainly excited about what the future will bring as many countries around the world have already showcased great progress in this field.