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The Future of Sustainable Urban Mobility: Refuel Cars
The ability of electric vehicles to curb our appetite for fossil fuel depends largely on the electric grid and mobility patterns. Photo by Coconinoco.

The ability of electric vehicles to curb our appetite for fossil fuel depends largely on the electric grid and mobility patterns. Photo by Coconinoco.

This post is part of a series analyzing the solutions highlighted in the report and toolkit, “Megacities on the Move.” The report, written by Forum for the Future in partnership with FIA FoundationVodafone, and EMBARQ, offers six sustainable mobility solutions for massive cities that include examples of solutions currently in practice and those in development. For a summary of the report and more information on the project, check out a previous post on TheCityFix.

Although we would like to reduce driving as much as possible, there’s no denying that cars are here to stay. In order to reduce fossil fuel use, increase fuel efficiency and de-motorize cities, people need to drive smaller, lighter cars and they need to drive them less. As “Megacities on the Move” points out, efficiency improvements and alternative fuel technologies will reduce the environmental impact of personal automobiles.

According to EMBARQ Transport and Urban Planning Associate Aileen Carrigan, “We need to strike a balance between reducing Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT), shifting to more sustainable modes and improving technology so the remaining trips are less polluting,” pointing to the “Avoid, Shift, Improve” framework for sustainable transport. EMBARQ, the producer of this blog, focuses on improving quality of life in cities by improving mobility and reducing individual patterns of driving and VMT, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions and local air pollution. Better technologies, modest lifestyles and good governance are all also essential to reaping all the environmental co-benefits of sustainable transport. As Lee Schipper, founder of EMBARQ and Fellow Emeritus, explains, “And as long as the numbers of cars and the distances cars are driven keep creeping up, technology alone will have a difficult time offsetting all of these trends to lower fuel use and CO2 emissions from this important sector.”

Schipper also says that clean, alternative fuels are linked to social justice and public health. “The worst burden of unsustainable transport falls on the poor and lower middle class” because of the larger costs on health, society and time. Air pollution causes health concerns in the world’s poorest cities and climate change’s impacts will disproportionately impact poorer people because they have less resilience.

Good Policy and Standards

One of the fastest and cheapest ways to reduce GHG emissions and pollution (and to promote energy independence) is to increase automobile fuel economy standards. Such policies would drive innovation in the automobile sector. China’s fuel economy standards are more stringent than those in the U.S. In April 2010, the Obama administration increased fuel efficiency standards and set GHG emissions limits on light cars and trucks for cars produced starting in 2016. Such policies have been slow to take effect and gain support globally. Their effectiveness is also very long-term, given that a complete turnover of the fleet takes between 10 and 20 years.

Other good policy practices for reducing fossil fuel use and improving efficiency include levying road use fees, elevating gas prices to limit the number of cars on the road, and encouraging the use of mass transit. Schipper, for example, says that without substantially higher gas prices, people’s preference for heavy big vehicles in the U.S. will be difficult to change. Singapore offers a good example of discouraging unnecessary car travel: the city instituted electronic road pricing in 1995 to combat pollution and wasteful driving as commuters idled in traffic. People pre-paid to access the city’s roads. The result was a 73 percent in the number of cars entering the restricted zone during peak pricing periods; a slower increase in volume of traffic than the increase in the number of cars in Singapore; and usage of public transportation levels that are around 63 percent .

Singapore's Electronic road pricing. Photo by Paul Barter.

Singapore's electronic road pricing. Photo by Paul Barter.

Biofuels: Take It With a Grain of Salt

The use of biofuels, from algae to ethanol, is a technology that holds promise as a low-impact alternative to fossil fuels, however, there are a number of social, political and environmental caveats to consider. Biofuel production has an impact on water supply, climate change, agricultural land and rural livelihood. Economist Liz Marshall from the World Resources Institute notes, “As increasing amounts of land are used for biofuel crops such as corn and soybeans, however, concern is growing over whether the total net effect is to produce more, not fewer, greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.”

She points to controversy over how to calculate the GHG emissions of biofuel and the net impact of “indirect” land use changes that convert valuable land into farmland. Intensive agriculture leads to ecosystem degradation, including watershed, air and GHG emissions and topsoil loss. For example, deforestation accounts for 15 to 20 percent of GHG emissions globally. Also, rising food prices are sometimes associated with the conversion of agricultural land to fuel production. Lastly, the World Resources Institute report “Plants at the Pump” points to concerns “over the distribution of the economic benefits over land rights.” A comprehensive methodology to measure these impacts should ensure that biofuels are grown sustainably and generate environmental and social benefits.

Alternative Energy Vehicles and Hybrids

Many countries are investing in the research of new vehicle technologies. For example, China, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, “has developed a draft plan to invest $17 billion in central government funds in fuel economy, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric and fuel cell vehicles, with the goal of producing 5 million new energy vehicles and 15 million fuel-efficient conventional vehicles by 2020.”

Elsewhere, technology is being developed for electric vehicle batteries in cars that can travel 500 miles on a single charge. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Energy is funding technology to convert sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into gasoline.

There’s also the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) that operates on electric power for short trips without a liquid-fuel combustion engine. Liquid-fuel savings can be significant, but the benefits of these vehicles in terms of emissions are dependent on the characteristics of the local electricity grid, i.e. whether it is powered by coal, gas, nuclear or renewables, as well as the driving and recharging profile. By 2012, Honda Motor Co. hopes to have a plug-in hybrid vehicle commercially available, as well as more fuel-efficient electric motorcycles, hybrid-electric bicycles, and microcars, which aren’t particularly fuel efficient.

Bottom line: Increased fuel economy is only part of the solution to high oil prices and climate change. “Measures that reduce or even eliminate the need for driving must be promoted,” as EMBARQ’s Schipper reiterates. “These include transit oriented development, mixed-use, high-density neighborhoods, parking and road fees, mass transportation systems and congestion pricing schemes, like the one Mayor Bloomberg has proposed for New York City. In the context of a sustainable transport package, such measures would improve the quality of transportation with significant fuel saving and CO2 restraint as a co-benefit.”

Write comments or tweet us @thecityfix with your ideas for future sustainability solutions in megacities.

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  • Jonathan

    Jonna, check out the Tom Vanderbilt piece here for a much better debunking of your approach in this piece. The era of refitting the city to the car should come to a close, because you can’t create a vibrant city while putting automobiles first. The Embarq report is bunk for suggesting that the air pollution from cars is the biggest problem that they pose and that if you fix that, everything is just polkadots and moonbeams.

  • Jonathan, thanks for your comment. First of all: this post is part of series of sixth posts addressing issues of sustainable mobility based on a report that was released by Forum for the Future (more info the intro to the post). This is the fifth post and the topic is specifically alternative fuels. I mention in the post twice that cars are a social justice issue – they disproportionately impact the poor – and impact people negatively in terms of public health and road safety. The last quote of the article says part of the solution is “transit oriented development, mixed-use, high-density neighborhoods, parking and road fees, mass transportation systems and congestion pricing schemes…” Such planning measures and disincentives to driving ARE about improving quality of life for as many individuals as possible.

    In fact, I wrote a post last Wednesday called “The Future of Sustainable Urban Mobility: Go Beyond the Car” in which we talk about the importance of cities centered on non-motorized and public transit. We advocate for road space going to surface transit like BRT, public space and biking and walking. Policies that limit cars or turn streets into bike corridors are also the types of measures we support.

    The whole post is premised on reducing vehicle miles traveled and car ownership.

  • Jonathan

    It doesn’t make any sense that you’re willing to call out the automobile for using lots of fossil fuels, but not for killing tens of thousands of people or for turning our cities into vehicle-storage centers. Cars—whether electric or gas fueled—diminish the quality of life of everyone around them, while increasing slightly the quality of life of those inside. Calling them “sustainable” makes your blog and your organization sound like greenwashing shills.