The Future of Transportation on a Planet with 7 Billion People
Photo: Flickr, CC
Take a Step Back and Look
As we near the moment when our planet officially hosts 7 billion people (of course this is just a statistical guess - nobody's sure precisely how many humans are on Earth), we need to take some time to think about some of the big issues that we'll have to face in the future. Transportation is a big one, and in this post I will try to take a bird's eye view of what we should focus on and how we should approach the problem. I certainly won't pretend to have all the answers, but I want to share my thinking with you...
Photo: Flickr, CC
Attack on Multiple Fronts
This problem is so big, and transportation is so important in people's lives, that we can't just attack it from one angle and hope that this will turn out to be the right one. For example, we can't just focus on convincing people to walk or bike or take mass transit. We can't just focus on electric vehicles or on high-speed rail.
We have to come at it from all angles, and aim for both incremental improvements and revolutions at the same time, so that if the big revolutionary changes prove elusive for a while, at least we'll have the compounded benefits of the evolutionary changes, and those should help put people in the right mindset to accept bigger changes.
Photo: Flickr, CC
Here's the short version: My idealistic side wishes that most of our environmental problems caused by transportation would be solved simply be a massive move away from the automobile. Walking, biking, bus rapid transit, light rail, high speed rail, telecommuting, etc. That should do it, right?
But my realist side tells me that even if there are positive trends, like urbanisation, which will lead to more than half of the 7 billion humans to live in cities where it is much easier to walk, bike, take the bus, etc... It still means that the other half will live in rural places where there's probably never going to be great mass transit, and where points of interest are probably too spread out to easily walk or bike (especially problematic in places that get very cold). So in the foreseeable future, there's going to remain a large fraction of the population that almost certainly won't give up their cars.
Photo: Flickr, CC
So what's the optimal, but realistic, solution?
I think it's a combination of two main things:
1) Get as many people who can do without a car to do so, or at least significantly reduce how much they drive (ie. not for commuting to work).
2) Those that do keep using cars should drive models that are orders of magnitude cleaner than what we have now. Rather than burn fossil fuels in inefficient internal combustion engines, they should be electric vehicles made with the greenest manufacturing processes, with the greenest materials, and charged with electricity from a grid that is as clean as possible (and which keeps getting cleaner over time, until it is 100% renewables).
Photo: Binary ApeFlickr, CC
While it might seem like a lesser goal than trying to get everybody to just walk and bike and take the bus, I believe that we'll actually accomplish more by taking this two-pronged approach than by just focusing on #1, because even with all our efforts focused on that, I think there are still going to be a lot of cars left. We might as well also make those greener.
This brings me to a short tangent: Just because there are sometimes more articles about hybrid cars and electric vehicles on TreeHugger than there are about walking and biking, does not mean that we believe that cars are more important. We write about things when there is something to write about, and it so happens that more is happening with car technology than with bikes and feet. Don't mistake volume with importance, though! I wish I had more interesting things to write about when it comes to bikes and such. Don't hesitate to send us tips using the contact link near the top right of the page. Now back to transportation in a world with 7 billion...
Electric car battery factory. Photo: GM
The Car: Keeping the Good, Ditching the Bad
Despite all of its faults, the car also provides a lot of utility. It is a horrible way to commute - mass transit will always make more sense when you have a lot of people all going to the same places at the same times - but it is not a bad tool to do very specific and impromptu trips (ie. many people going to different places at different times).
How do we keep the good and ditch the bad? The best way so far seems to transition to electric cars. If done right, the whole lifecycle can be made much cleaner than what we have now. I wrote about this in more details in or Minus Oil series: Part 1 and Part 2.
Photo: Wikipedia, CC
Getting People Out of Cars: All About Infrastructure and a Carbon Tax
Getting people to stop driving - which is mostly going to happen in urban areas, not rural ones - will take a combination of a carbon tax to make the price of fuel more realistically reflect its costs (this can be done in a revenue neutral way by cutting payroll or income taxes so that you now tax "bads" instead of "goods") and big infrastructure improvements. Cheap fuel prices over the past few decades have resulted in massive underinvestments in alternatives to cars, and that has to change.
All cities should have high-quality and high-convenience options to get around. Lots of safe bike lanes and sidewalks, well-planned development so that it's possible to live close to where you work, shop, and play, and access to modern mass transit (bus rapid transit, light rail, high speed rail, subway, etc). Parking spaces should also be priced using real-time market pricing mechanisms rather than be subsidized.
I believe that this approach of making cars more expensive and other ways to get around cheaper and more convenient would make a big difference in most cities and reduce our transportation eco-footprint significantly despite the growing world population.
Photo: Paul Joseph, CC.
The Good Ol' Bicycle: More Bike-Sharing and Electric Bikes Please
One last thing before we wrap this up. If we want to get more people biking, I believe that on top of the infrastructure improvements mentioned about, we'll need to use two tools: Bike-sharing programs, which have a proven track record of increasing biking, and electric bikes, which will make the idea of going out on a bike much more appealing to those who stay away because they believe they aren't in good enough physical shape, or because where they're going is a bit far, or because they live in a city that isn't flat, etc. Both of those can help give an extra push and make cycling a bigger part of the future of transportation.
Photo: Flickr, CC.
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More on Green(er) Transportation
Streets With Bike Lanes are a Kind of Economic Stimulus
How Can We Detox Our Cars From Their Oil Addiction? (Part 1)
Is the Electrification of Transportation a Good Thing? (Part 2)