Driving Towards Sustainability Urban Transport Strategies for a Greener Future

Driving Towards Sustainability: Urban Transport Strategies for a Greener Future

Despite a temporary downturn due to Covid-19, demand for urban passenger transport will more than double between 2015 and 2050. If cities fail to reduce transport emissions, growth in urban mobility could jeopardize the achievement of the Paris Agreement’s climate targets. To respond to these problems sustainably, public authorities need to support new mobility solutions and integrate them into the urban landscape in an environmentally responsible manner, to facilitate their adoption and use by city dwellers. 

We focus our analysis on three types of complementary strategies that could help reduce emissions from urban transport: taxation of polluting vehicles, investment in public transport, and incentives to use less fossil fuel-efficient. Although many other strategies exist, such as urban planning policies that limit urban sprawl. The impacts of a given policy are not the same depending on the city in which it is implemented. The most effective public policies to implement vary according to the characteristics of each city: population density, existing transport infrastructure, population growth rate, etc.

1. The Power of Taxation to Drive Sustainability

Taxing high-emission vehicles is a powerful tool to promote sustainable development by encouraging the adoption of cleaner technologies, reducing air pollution, and generating revenue for sustainable initiatives

In the EU, for example, all the member states implemented at least one type of tax or incentive to encourage the uptake of passenger cars with lower CO2 emissions. 

In France, there has been an upfront fee on cars with high carbon emissions since 2008 that costs vehicle purchasers up to €40,000, or up to 50% of a car’s purchase price. The rates increase exponentially with emissions above 128 grams of carbon dioxide emissions per kilometer, and the government has substantially increased rates over the past few years. If the baseline Ford F-150, the most popular vehicle sold in the US, were sold in France, it would cost buyers up to €35,000 in extra fees (depending on the F-150 model purchased) because of its high carbon emissions. This French carbon fee is layered on top of a weight charge on heavy vehicles that has been in place since 2020. And it also includes a rebate of up to €5,000 for those who instead buy non polluting electric vehicles.

2. Transformative Impact of Public Transport Investment

While several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals relate to transport, Goal 11 is the only one with an indicator specific to public transport. Target two of Goal 11 says “by 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible, and sustainable transport systems for all, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations”. 

The lowest-performing region is sub-Saharan Africa where only 23% of urban areas are served by public transport. This clearly indicates that access to quality, reliable public transport remains a significant challenge. But we can see from South American cities’ surveys that it is in the area where public transport is poorly developed that its development seems to be particularly beneficial. 

Some simulations show that new public transport lines could potentially reduce emissions by up to 21% and 26% in the Brazilian cities of Goiânia and Belém. In addition, public transport benefits progress by boosting the economy. It connects people to jobs, training, and leisure, supports tourism, increases land and property value, and helps regenerate poorer areas through public transport connections.

3. The Energy Advantage of Electric Vehicles in Urban Transport

Electric vehicles (EVs) represent a significant leap in efficiency compared to gasoline-burning vehicles. In fact, an EV requires only about half the energy needed for a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine. Gasoline-fueled cars and trucks currently waste around 80% of the energy pumped into their tanks. 

This inefficiency arises from the heat generated as fuel burns to move pistons and propel wheels. While this may seem like a design flaw, it’s an inevitable aspect of thermodynamics. However, electric vehicles operate with only around 11% energy loss, meaning most of the energy that goes into them ends up turning the wheels. Additionally, EVs can recapture energy during braking, further boosting overall efficiency.

However, it’s crucial to consider where the energy-powering EVs come from. Generators fueled by coal, oil, or methane gas follow a complex process that results in significant energy losses. Despite this, power plants remain more efficient than car engines. For instance, a coal-burning power plant loses around 68% of its energy, making an EV powered by coal still more energy-efficient than a gasoline-powered car. Methane gas power plants are even more efficient, halving the energy consumption of EVs compared to gasoline-powered vehicles.

Yet, the picture changes dramatically with renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydropower. These sources not only reduce pollution but also minimize energy demand. Unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy generation doesn’t involve burning fuel to create motion, eliminating significant energy losses. This results in a substantial increase in overall efficiency, making EVs powered by renewables an even more sustainable choice for urban transport.

In conclusion, the future of urban transport hinges on sustainable strategies that mitigate emissions and promote efficiency. Taxation of high-emission vehicles, investment in public transport infrastructure, and the adoption of electric vehicles are crucial steps towards achieving a greener future for our cities. These strategies not only reduce air pollution and combat climate change but also contribute to economic growth and social equity by providing accessible, affordable, and environmentally friendly transportation options for all residents. However, it’s imperative to recognize the diverse needs and characteristics of each city when implementing these policies. By embracing innovation and collaboration, we can pave the way towards a more sustainable and inclusive urban transport system, ensuring a healthier planet and brighter future for generations to come.

By Lucie Windels and Bianca Catricalà.






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