What Would Sustainable Transportation Look Like? 

What Would Sustainable Transportation Look Like? 

The increase in greenhouse gasses caused by transport is becoming a major cause for concern in cities where atmospheric pollution is already posing a risk to public health. Sustainable transport is considered crucial for the future of transportation mainly due to its role in reducing the damaging effects of CO2 emissions along with being a driving force in the development of Smart Cities. It also plays a fundamental role in overcoming the social exclusion of vulnerable groups as well as filling in gaps in existing services by addressing the first-last mile challenge. It’s expected that the widespread adoption of sustainable travel will lead to improvements in air quality, better citizen health, and a noticeable acceleration in the transition to greener, more eco-friendly mobility in cities that aligns with current and future sustainability goals. Let’s take a closer look at what sustainable transportation is, some key trends, developments, and what we can expect to see in the future. 

Decarbonizing Transportation

Major decarbonization efforts are already in motion in various parts of the world and it’s expected that this will continue in the future. Current strategies revolve around switching to lower-carbon fuels, improving the efficiency of vehicles, and enhancing the overall performance of systems and operations within the transport sector. Other trends involve increased adoption and sharing of electric vehicles including Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), better land use planning that encourages compact development, and congestion pricing, something that is becoming more prominent in urban areas with heavy traffic as a method of encouraging more sustainable travel options such as car-sharing, biking, walking and mass transit.  

In the future, AVs could further make traveling efficient and sustainable by achieving faster speeds, with fewer stops and wastage of fuel as well as alleviating congestion through the use of AI and other advanced technologies. AVs are also expected to revolutionize deliveries in cities alongside drones by applying artificial intelligence to further reduce congestion and save fuel and resources. Other emerging modes of transport such as high-speed rail, and new technologies like magnetic levitation could provide new records of speed for the ground transportation of goods and people along with having the capacity to use non-emitting sources of electricity.  

Since most transport-related emissions come from the combustion of petroleum, the widespread use of alternative fuels could theoretically bring emissions in the sector down to zero. Viable substitutes include ethanol, natural gas, biofuels, hydrogen, and electricity. Their benefits, however, will depend largely on whether they can be derived from non-carbon sources. Electricity could potentially be used to fuel most road vehicles. When combined with the decarbonization of the power sector used to generate this electricity, significant results could be achieved in the reduction of emissions. As for EVs, their contribution to the decarbonization of the power sector lies in their offering of mobile energy storage to help integrate intermittent electricity sources like wind and solar. Full electrification challenges involve upfront battery costs and a lack of charging infrastructure. Further issues in scaling up non-petroleum-based fuels such as natural gas, biofuels, hydrogen, and electricity have to do with ensuring that their production does not increase emissions, along with building the necessary infrastructure.

Advancing Sustainable Transportation

Increasing the use of electrified transport is a relatively straightforward way to make cities more sustainable. Doing so will lead to better air quality, reduced emissions, and lower noise levels. The technology is already available for rail, buses, and smaller vehicles such as cars and trucks. A major challenge for cities moving forward with this is ensuring that regional electrical grids can accommodate the new increase in power demand. Allocating the required financing for the deployment of recharging infrastructure and refueling points will be critical for bridging current gaps, particularly in the context of long-distance travel and in rural regions.

High-speed Rail

High-speed rail is often described as the single largest climate solution that can decarbonize most of the transport sector and do so rather fast. This includes replacing the majority of domestic flights, up to half the car trips, and replacing existing e-commerce shipment systems that rely on energy-intensive, cross-country trucks and airplanes. High-speed rail is also electrically powered and can run 100% on clean, safe renewable energy. It is estimated that a single high-speed train that is powered by wind can accommodate 9 times more passengers than a regular airplane

Hydrogen Vehicles

Hydrogen buses are essentially zero-emission, with better-proven efficiency that is superior to conventional internal combustion engines, meaning they require less fuel to travel the same distance. These eco-friendly buses are equipped with batteries that allow hydrogen to come into contact with oxygen and produce electricity. Since hydrogen vehicles emit only water vapor, they produce no harmful tailpipe emissions, making them an ideal zero-emission solution for public transportation. With an established range of up to 350 miles, their range and performance makes them suitable to be a one-to-one vehicle replacement to conventional fuels, and it doesn’t impact existing route planning and operations in any way. Lastly, fuel cell buses can be refueled incredibly quickly in just 7-10 minutes at practically any bus fueling depot designed for hydrogen delivery or onsite hydrogen production.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) refers to high-quality bus transit systems that are designed to deliver fast, convenient, and cost-effective services at metro-level capacities. This is done through the integration of dedicated bus lanes that are typically positioned in busy public spaces such as the middle of the road where people can easily hop on and off. These buses are usually battery-powered electric buses or hybrids and are already operating in some parts of the world, particularly in densely populated countries. BRT is often praised as one of the most efficient ways of improving public transportation services in urban areas and has done great in alleviating congestion and reducing air pollution.

Boosting Multimodality and Shared Mobility 

Transitioning to more sustainable transportation will mean putting users first and providing them with cleaner transport alternatives that are affordable, accessible, and healthier. Promoting multimodal transport through the combining of different transit modes could be a game changer in increasing the use of sustainable transportation in cities. Incorporating shared mobility options into existing networks and mass transit can also address the first and last-mile challenge, filling in existing gaps in services as well as expanding the areas for servicing, a problem all too familiar to rural regions. Digital technologies capable of enabling automated mobility and smart traffic management systems, for instance, will also help with increasing efficiency for transit authorities while also making transport greener. Smart applications and Mobility as a Service solutions will further play a crucial role in providing more options to residents, improving customer experience, and attracting more people to mass transit and other eco-friendly modes as opposed to their cars. In the future, a combination of measures will be needed to address air quality, emissions, urban congestion, and noise. This will center around improving public transit and promoting more active modes of transport such as walking and cycling.  

For the past several years, we’ve also seen an increase in the use of shared mobility. Together with traditional bikes, skates, and skateboards, new and emerging modes have become available such as electric scooters, hoverboards, segways, and electric bikes. These new modes of transport are considered to be environmentally friendly in the majority of cases and have shown great potential in getting more people to use public transit. Electric bikes in particular are rapidly growing in popularity among citizens of cities as a viable substitute for cars when it comes to short to medium-distance journeys, effectively reducing CO2 emissions. It has been reported that a 5% increase in trips made by an electric bicycle or another micromobility option as opposed to cars could reduce CO2 emissions by a total of 7% which is the equivalent of taking more than 134 million cars off the road by 2030. Electric scooters on their end produce less CO2 than cars but also more than public transport. In some instances, they can substitute short car trips, however, their usage remains individual and comes with a rather short lifespan of between a year and a half to three years in total. Further issues with maintenance and vandalism when renting make them a questionable source for sustainable travel in the future.  

Other Types of Sustainable Vehicles

Fuel-efficient vehicles will be instrumental in facilitating a sustainable future for mobility in cities by replacing conventional vehicles and improving the air quality in urban areas. Fuel-efficient vehicles require less fuel to operate as opposed to older types of vehicles. Residents will be able to save money on fuel and will not have to depend on continuously fluctuating fuel prices. Additionally, there will be fewer greenhouse gasses being emitted into the atmosphere.

All-Electric Vehicles 

EVs are classed as all-electric vehicles that run solely on electricity. They are propelled by a single or multiple electric motors that are powered through rechargeable battery packs. EVs provide several advantages over conventional vehicles, one of them being their incredible energy efficiency. EVs can convert over 77% of the electrical energy derived from the grid and use it to power the wheels. Regular gasoline vehicles are only able to convert about 12%–30% of the energy stored in gasoline, making them far more inefficient. When it comes to performance, EVs are much quieter than conventional vehicles as their motors provide a smoother driver experience and stronger acceleration, requiring less maintenance than internal combustion engines (ICEs). In the future, EVs are expected to reduce noise and air pollution in cities along with decreasing our reliance on foreign fuels since electricity can be produced domestically.  

Hybrid Electric Vehicles

Conventional Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs) are powered by an internal combustion engine in combination with one or more electric motors that rely on energy stored in batteries. They incorporate the benefits of gasoline engines along with those of electric motors and can be designed to meet specific goals, based on the desired outcome such as better fuel economy or more power. The energy-saving capabilities of Hybrids come down to their ability to recapture energy normally lost during coasting or braking. The electric motor drive/assist function provides further power to assist the engine in accelerating, passing, or climbing a hill, allowing for a smaller and more efficient engine to be used in these vehicles.  

The stop/start function automatically shuts off the engine when the vehicle comes to a stop and restarts it as soon as the accelerator is pressed, something that has been shown to reduce wasted energy from idling. Together, these features can result in better fuel economy without actually sacrificing performance. There is a wide range of HEV models currently available on the market and although they can be more expensive than similar conventional vehicles, costs can be recovered through fuel savings or state incentives.

Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles

Plug-in hybrids, also referred to as Plug-in Hybrid-Electric Vehicles (PHEVs), are classed as hybrids with high-capacity batteries. These types of vehicles can be charged by connecting them to an electrical outlet or at a charging station. They are also capable of storing enough electricity to effectively reduce their use of petroleum under normal driving conditions. Plug-in hybrids such as the Extended Range Electric Vehicles (EREVs) can run solely on electricity until the battery runs out in which case the gasoline engine can generate electricity to power the engine. For short trips, these vehicles might not use gasoline at all. Plug-in hybrids are reported to use around 30% to 60% less petroleum than most conventional vehicles.  

Furthermore, since the electricity needed to power them is produced mostly from domestic resources, plug-in hybrids can reduce oil dependence. So far plug-in hybrids cost approximately $4 to $8 thousand more when compared to a non-plug-in hybrid although future cost-savings are predicted to be more based on the notion that electricity is cheaper than gasoline. There are Federal tax incentives currently available amounting to up to $7,500 for any qualifying plug-ins.

Developing Infrastructure to Charge Electric Vehicles

While current trends for charging infrastructure are centered around EV users’ demand for home charging, accessible public charging stations are becoming increasingly important so that the same level of convenience and accessibility can be provided for everyone. Consumers along with businesses whose fleets will rely on electric vehicles EVs (including all-electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) will need to have access to charging stations. This means having the option to charge vehicles at home or various charging facilities throughout cities. Installing charging stations at workplaces and public spaces will also be key in the future when it comes to increasing the adoption of EVs and it’s expected that this will help increase market acceptance, providing flexible charging options at convenient locations for users.  

Instruments such as the EVI-Pro Lite tool are available for the public and authorities to help them identify the quantity and type of charging infrastructure needed to support regional adoption of EVs by state, city, and urban areas. This will also aid in determining how the charging of EVs will impact electricity demand. Charging the increasing number of EVs will require a robust network of stations for both consumers and fleets. The Alternative Fueling Station Locator is another example that will allow users of EVs to search and locate different public and private charging stations. A common standard has been established to align with the charging infrastructure industry, referred to as the Open Charge Point Interface (OCPI) protocol, which clearly outlines what charging stations must provide.

The Future of Sustainable Fuels

The future of sustainable travel will be powered by a wide range of solutions, including electricity, hydrogen, and renewable fuels. The main driver for change is underlined by an urgent need to reduce transport-related emissions, and it’s widely estimated that this will be achieved by combining all available solutions. Renewable fuels are produced from renewable resources rather than standard fossil fuels. They have grown in popularity due to their ability to be more sustainable than traditional fuels, along with having the ability to reduce a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2020 alone, it was reported that around 239 million liters of biofuels replaced the use of over 209 million liters of fossil fuels, meaning 520 ktCO2eq of GHG emissions were saved from being released into the atmosphere. Most sustainable transportation options run on clean fuel, batteries, or a combination of both. Alternative fuels can be used in flexible-fuel and dual-fuel vehicles as well as vehicles with advanced technology, such as hybrid power systems and fuel cells. Alternative fuels aid in the conservation of fuel, leading to better air quality and additional cost-savings.  

Some examples include Biodiesel which is similar to petroleum diesel. This renewable fuel can be produced domestically which means that there will be less reliance on foreign fuels. Electricity can be used to power electric vehicles (EVs), including battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). The charging of batteries will be made possible through participation in the grid along with other off-board electrical power sources. Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) will be fueled through the use of liquid fuels such as gasoline, but still have small batteries that will conserve and save energy from braking. PHEVs can incorporate the use of off-board electricity for power, meaning they are still EVs, with the additional backup option of running on liquid fuels and functioning as HEVs if necessary.  

We can also expect an increased uptake of Ethanol – another renewable fuel made from plant materials that is already known, having been used in various combinations with gasoline in the past. Green hydrogen, on the other hand, will play a fundamental role in the coming phases of transitioning to greener energy sources for transport. It is expected that it will be used to help cover the energy requirements that will arise during periods of peak demand in power grids. As for natural gas, it is widely expected that in the future it will be made in an entirely renewable way turning it into a clean-burning alternative fuel. Propane is also set to play a role in the future of sustainable fuels although it does emit a low level of carbon dioxide.

Developments In Vehicle Batteries

The widespread adoption of Electric cars and battery recycling provides significant potential for creating a truly sustainable future. Residents of cities will have the option of installing charging stations at home as well as opting for renewable energy sources. Battery technology has played a crucial role in the development and popularization of electric cars, with advances in technology having drastically improved the performance, range, and reliability of electric cars, making them a far more stable and viable alternative when compared to traditional gasoline-powered vehicles.

Lithium-ion batteries

The most common type of battery used in electric cars today is Lithium-ion batteries. They provide several advantages over other types of batteries, including higher levels of energy density, longer cycle life, and lower self-discharge rates. The batteries are also relatively compact and lightweight, making them the best choice to use for electric cars. Lithium-ion batteries, however, are not without their weakness, coming with a rather high production cost, potential safety risks, along with limited options when it comes to recycling.

Solid-state batteries

Another promising new technology is the one seen in Solid-state batteries which provides significant improvements over existing lithium-ion batteries. These batteries use a solid electrolyte as opposed to a liquid electrolyte, which can enhance energy density, diminish the risk of fire, and prolong the life of the battery. Solid-state batteries are also predicted to be able to charge faster and be more environmentally friendly than conventional lithium-ion batteries. The only setback so far is that solid-state batteries are still in their developmental phase and are not readily available for use in electric cars just yet.  

As electric cars grow in popularity, the need for proper disposal and recycling of batteries will become of high importance. The recycling of batteries is a critical step in the reduction of the environmental impact caused by future transportation and in the conservation of valuable resources. Electric car batteries are made of a variety of materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, and other metals that can be reused and repurposed for something else. Battery recycling can aid in the recovery of these materials, effectively reducing the need for additional mining operations that will leave an impact on the environment.  

We’re still a long way from making transportation sustainable on a global scale, however, we’re certainly on our way to making transit much greener in cities than it once used to be. People are growing more aware of the impact transportation has on their health and the environment and are seeking other eco-friendly alternatives along with leaving their cars at home more often. As new modes of transit and opportunities arise, we’re sure to see many new developments in the sector along with the help of new and emerging technologies that will bring us closer to more sustainable living.