Of all the greener lifestyle adjustments subliminally suggested to us by pious eco-advocates, patronising governmental campaigns and the people around us, nothing is more strongly encouraged than cleaner travel. Transport accounts for up to a quarter of the world’s energy consumption and emissions, the overwhelming majority of which comes from the direct burning of fossil fuels. Though Tesla and Nissan like to suggest that electric vehicles are steadily overtaking combustion engines, greenhouse gases emissions from transport are increasing faster than any other sector. With health problems rising in cities, undoubtedly connected to the smoggy haze pumped out by exhausts, the impact of dirty travel is creeping closer to home.
But for commuters, travellers and simply roamers, the need for green shouldn’t mean that you have to replace your car with an all in one desk with a yoga ball or swap travel miles for a vision board of the places you wish you could go. Public transport is believed to assuage much of our carbon woes. With many people getting from A to B with one engine rather than many, municipal travel at full capacity emits up to a third less of carbon emissions.
But this may just be an idealistic environmentalists fantasy. In reality in the UK outside of peak time, it often seems that the buses are running at a fraction of their full capacity. If a standard combustion engine car emits about 150g of carbon dioxide, at full capacity of 5 people, that’s 30g per person. With buses far less strict emissions standards this could skyrocket when they’re not running at full capacity. And trains aren’t much better; aside from rush hours, off-peak carriages often hold just 20% of their total capacity, making the average greenhouse gas emissions 75g per person.
Across the world, these statistics and the green revolution making the choice a necessity, governments and companies are rapidly transforming their fleets to electric. Currently, just under 400’000 electric buses are in service. This is predicted to increase rapidly to over 1 million within the next decade, with over half of the global municipal fleet running on electricity. It’s believed that China’s push for a greener nation will account for 99% of the worlds electric buses.
Contrastingly, the UK’s track record of greener transport met an abrupt halt when the money ran out on their grand goal of electrifying the nations railway service. What would have meant quicker, cleaner train transport for the country, is now on hold. The abandoned metal structures that snake through the landscape across Brunel’s original railway now signify a derailed green future that has yet to be completed.
But electricity is only as green as the fuel that produces it, and with 60% global energy usage still being met by the burning of fossil fuels, electric is not yet a fully green option. In Sweden, up to 20% of their transport systems use biofuel from waste and virgin oil that is carbon neutral. The risk, however, is that food crops like vegetable and palm oils are used to make biodiesel, that is incredibly unsustainable due to deforestation and land that should be used to prop up dwindling food security is instead diverted for transport use.
Even without these innovations in the fuelling of transport, public transport is simply the most efficient way of travelling. If municipal travel operates at full capacity the majority of the time, up to a third of greenhouse gas emissions can be prevented from entering the atmosphere. But to get the public on public transport, it needs to be more desirable than using personal forms of transportation. By just good common sense, people choose to take the most accessible, most convenient and cheapest mode of transport.
Cities in Northern Europe understand the necessity for public transport to be appealing to get people on it. The accurate timetables ensure that people arrive on time, with connections that are linked within a comfortable amount of time. They have payment systems like the London-centric Oyster card that works with a contactless tap across every form of transport, from underground trains, overground trains, buses, to trams, nationwide. While not luxury in any sense, they are reliant, efficient, and interconnected. This is in stark contrast to the ramshackle transport systems that plague the UK. From intermittent connecting routes that either leave you stranded on the platform for up to and over an hour, even if they turn up on time, to outdated payment systems specific to each transport company that many have yet to even upgrade to contactless.
In the UK, a part public funded organisation have been tasked with reducing the air pollution and congestion in big cities. Their solution is to encourage park and rides, reducing the number of cars that drive into smog filled cities. Instead of promoting the public transport, they discourage car driving, by taking away as make car parks as possible and manipulating the road system to make roads so complicated and congested that it becomes easier to use public transport or city provided bikes. This has been shown to work in Bristol and Oxford, contributing to a 20% and 40% reduction in emissions since the last decade. But this is only effective as long as you have public systems in place to take the strain. It has to be efficient, on time, and easy to understand to make people want to choose it over the comfort and convenience of their own car.
With carbon emissions needing to be cut decades ago, our reliance on personal transport needs to be cut. But when public transport is slower, less reliable, more expensive and takes more time, why wouldn’t people choose to drive? To make the vast majority of people to adapt to cleaner lifestyles, the means need to be preferable and destigmatised. But when public transport is inefficient, more costly and takes more time, how can we expect moral conscience to overcome these basic luxuries?
Fledgling schemes are entering the public sphere to encourage us to use our own energy to travel. Despite the Netherlands world-round reputation for cycling networks and a population of cyclists far beyond most nations, Amsterdam’s authoritative bodies are working to encourage people to commute by bike by paying cyclists 19 cents for each kilometre. Regardless of the quarter of the population that already cycle to work, this scheme hopes to encourage 200,000 people switching to manual transportation instead of cars.
In countries that don’t have cycling infrastructure as extensive the Netherlands, simple adaptations like car sharing and switching to an electric car that is getting cheaper all the time are the only available options before transport catches up to the grave situation we are hurtling towards. Even with climate change on the horizon, people still have places to be.