How to free the Earth of automobiles

How to free the Earth of automobiles

Megacities face a crucial choice between private and public transportation systems. The right decisions could transform cityscapes and slash transport emissions. In the first part of SALT’s investigation, Giles Crosse examines the challenges.

Duration : 2 min to read

Transport in the urban centres of emerging economies is becoming the major battleground for climate change. The fast-growing cities of China, India and Latin America will double their share of world passenger transport emissions by 2050. By that stage, 38% of all growth in emissions will come from these few countries.

The influential International Transport Forum (ITF), which has 54 member nations, says that almost all of the world’s three billion new urban citizens by 2050 will live in developing cities. The infrastructure of roads, hospitals, houses and schools required to meet their needs has to have low carbon emissions.

ITF argues that the right public transport policies will translate into CO2 free cities. People will travel collectively and businesses will win lucrative contracts. The alternative is a nightmarish scenario in which billions of city dwellers clog the streets with individual cars, taking hours to get to work and miring the Earth’s atmosphere in CO2.

Public v private

ITF says thatin China, emissions will grow by 19% above 2010 levels if cities support individual transport, but fall by 26% if there is a shift to public systems. In India, policies favouring individual car use would increase emissions by 47%, but public transport strategies could reduce them by 37%. Meanwhile, in Latin America, policies that encourage private transport would add 35%, while public transport-driven urbanisation would reduce emissions growth by 31%. As well as reducing emissions, more efficient public transport systems demand less spending on the upkeep of roads.

The case for greater spending on public systems is strong, but public systems often lose out in the global transport mix. Vested corporate interests in the profitable motor car may be to blame. A recent study from the University of Denver’s College of Engineering and Applied Science concluded that US transport policy was dominated by a concern for the individual motorist. American streets are designed with an inherent bias towards car use.

“The most common way to measure transportation performance is with the level-of-service (LOS) standard, but it’s a very flawed method,” said the study’s author Wesley Marshall, an assistant professor of civil engineering. “The problem is that measure only tells us about the convenience of driving a car.”

LOS checks the movement of vehicles rather than people. It measures traffic congestion and the time spent at intersections. A car counts as much as a bus containing 50 people. Marshall’s study points out that LOS-based systems value the personal automobile. They fail to factor in total emissions. “Cities like Denver have policies promising to ‘move people, not cars’, but the typical traffic engineer continues to rely upon performance measures like LOS,” Marshall said.

Eliminating short-termist, profit-focused planning will be crucial if developing transport infrastructures are to make the most of the opportunities ITF highlights. The danger is that US legislators continue to bend the knee to the nation’s powerful automobile lobby. And that the world’s second largest car market, China, continues to replicates US planning mistakes.

In the second part of SALT’s examination on how public transport could influence the cities of tomorrow, we interview José Viegas, Secretary General of the International Transport Forum at the OECD.

PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Beckett on flickr

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Giles Crosse is a journalist with specialist interest in the developing world, corporate social responsibility, and technical solutions to environmental challenges. His career has taken him to exotic destinations, such as the Peruvian Amazon, and Shallow Waters in Cambodia. He is looking forward to an inclusive planet, where greener business, happier people and better managed resources co-exist.