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The future of transportation

Examining alternatives to private cars
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MARGARET ATKINSON/THE VARSITY
MARGARET ATKINSON/THE VARSITY

Ever since people sought to get to a point ‘B’ from a point ‘A,’ humans have worked to make all our journeys as quick and convenient as possible. We moved from a simple wheel to carts and wagons, and finally arrived at cars. 

The mass operation of the vehicles powered by fossil fuels that we are familiar with today, however, has led to significant increases in pollution and traffic congestion. Every year, transportation is responsible for 15 to 20 per cent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally, which amounts to approximately five to seven billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted annually. In Canada, the transport sector was the second largest contributor of GHG emissions in 2019, accounting for 25 per cent of national emissions — meaning Canadian transportation released the equivalent of 186 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. 

Furthermore, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), road traffic crashes take the lives of 1.3 million people each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that car crashes are “the eighth leading cause of death globally for all age groups and the leading cause of death for children and young people five to 29 years of age.”

Taking into consideration the negative impacts of cars, especially on the environment, we might want to consider some solutions, such as the prospect of more sustainable cars, or even to consider moving away from privately owned vehicles and improving public transportation. But which is the best path?

Electric cars

As many car manufacturers continue to further develop and promote electric vehicles (EV), we should look at how ‘green’ and eco-friendly EVs really are and how their shortcomings compare to the benefits they present. EVs are also becoming ever more popular, with a surging number of electric cars taking to the roads worldwide just last year.

Research shows that electric cars leave a smaller overall carbon footprint than gasoline-powered cars. Although electricity generation around the world still involves the use of fossil fuels, and EVs require electricity for charging, a 2020 study concluded that “electric cars and heat pumps are less emission intensive than fossil-fuel-based alternatives.”

Furthermore, while the production of the lithium-ion batteries required by EVs results in considerably more emissions than it takes to manufacture regular cars, the effects of this initial investment are offset by the reduced lifetime emissions. 

EVs are also significantly more efficient with energy consumption, converting well over 77 per cent of the electrical energy they consume directly into power, whereas conventional cars convert a mere 12 to 30 per cent of the energy from gasoline. 

With that being said, however, there are still challenges with the widespread adoption of EVs.

One of the primary concerns regarding EVs is charging infrastructure. Currently, three different levels of chargers are available worldwide, and charging can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 40 hours at public outlets or at home. The most common and widely available type in North America are the ‘level two’ chargers, which are available at over 40,000 public stations in the United States and 5,000 in Canada. These chargers can fill a battery at a rate of 32 to 40 kilometres’ worth of driving per hour. Some public stations also include ‘level three’ chargers, which can provide around 200 kilometres’ worth of battery charge in 30 minutes. 

For many EV drivers, charging the car in their garage at home is more convenient and suffices for day-to-day use, since the average person drives no more than 47 kilometres per day and many EVs can travel a great distance on a single charge. However, for individuals who live in residential buildings, charging at home is not a possibility, as most residential parking garages lack the infrastructure to charge EVs. This means, for some people, EVs are much more inconvenient than conventional cars when considering accessibility, commuting, and charging times.

Moreover, on the topic of accessibility, both populated areas and roads generally require more charging stations. In the United States, researchers from the International Council for Clean Transportation have projected that the country will need to increase workplace and public charging stations in metro areas by 400 per cent to accommodate the EVs that they expect to be on the road by 2025. 

Additionally, besides day-to-day commuting, EV drivers may experience ‘range anxiety’ during long-distance trips — a fear that their battery will deplete before reaching an outlet. Recent reports show that the vast majority of respondents consider this anxiety the primary reason they don’t want to transition to an EV, followed by the low availability of charging stations. Increasing charging stations in an area was found to be the number one factor that increased the likelihood of residents purchasing an EV.

Evidently, EVs possess significant green potential, and as they continue to become more widespread, individuals will be able to lower their carbon footprints considerably. 

But are there options beyond that? Can we better address climate change while simultaneously tackling safe, reliable, and more affordable commuting — and maybe, move on from cars?

Public transportation

As urbanization grows to encompass the vast majority of people worldwide — a trend that researchers project will mean that up to 68 per cent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050 — we can look to public transportation as a promising solution to address traffic congestion, air pollution, and safer commuting. 

Interestingly, research shows the majority of commuters believe public transportation is less safe than driving their own cars. However, studies show that taking public transit in general is 10 times safer, and travelling by commuter or intercity rail is 18 times safer than travelling by car. 

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) examined the relationship between availability of public transit and road mortality in urban areas, noting the road mortality rate is significantly lower in areas with a higher volume of public transportation per capita.

Additionally, public transportation accounts for considerably fewer emissions than travelling by privately owned vehicles, as emissions decrease when more people choose public transit over individual cars. The Federal Transit Administration found that subways and metros produce 76 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions than the average car, while buses produce 33 per cent less emissions than cars.

Another important impact of transportation is air quality. According to the WHO, air pollution results in approximately 4.2 million deaths per year and is “one of the greatest environmental risks to health.” A study in 2015 found that when two similarly sized cities made changes to prioritize public transit, they reduced the concentration of black carbon — a harmful pollutant — in their air by 37 and 72 per cent, respectively. In their conclusion, the researchers wrote that “closing streets to private traffic, renewal of the bus fleet and re-organization of the public transportation significantly benefit air quality.”

Furthermore, research by two physicists in 2019 highlighted the importance of public transportation in directly reducing traffic congestion and carbon emissions. Their results showed that the number of people who drive to work decreases as the availability of mass transit increases. They concluded, using a predictive model, that mitigating the effects of traffic can be obtained “by improving either the public transport density or its access.”

Public transportation is currently not as accessible for many people around the world — including many Canadians. Investing in public transit infrastructure and green technology initiatives is an important step in the roadmap to safer, environmentally friendly, and cheaper commuting. 

The benefits of public transportation can be further solidified through ‘transit-oriented development,’ which involves investing in “compact, walkable, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use communities centered around high quality train systems.” 

According to an APTA report, “Every $1 invested in public transportation generates $5 in economic returns.” The APTA also notes that “household[s] can save nearly $10,000 by taking public transportation and living with one less car.”

For example, the Mass Transit Railway in Hong Kong — one of the most densely populated cities in the world — has been remarkably successful with its transit-oriented development. The city has established many communities of mixed-use buildings along the railway, throughout Hong Kong, that are fully serviced by public transportation. 

Another example of investing to improve public transit closer to home is the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). The TTC currently operates North America’s largest electric bus fleet and introduced 60 electric buses last year — a $568 million investment — with another 300 buses on the way, which it recently purchased for $300 million. 

The wheels of the future of transportation roll on, and the health of the world and its people are at stake. Even when we’re running late for class, our commute leaves us at a crossroads: do we call an Uber or take the bus?