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The Real Way to Get Around: Alternative Transportation for a Sustainable Future


As we rapidly approach peak oil, we must begin to consider what our energy future will look like. It’s clear that renewables will be an essential part of it, but we won’t be able to completely replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. We must make significant changes to the way we live, including transforming our transportation system.

Embedded Energy

It’s important to consider and capture all the energy used in our transportation systems to get a clear picture of how much we’re actually using. Take the car, for example. There’s the energy used to simply move the car—the gas used to power the vehicle—but it also takes a significant amount of energy to build that car and build the infrastructure it uses (roads, parking lots, etc.). Only about one-third of the lifetime energy usage of a car can be attributed to moving it around from place to place—we tend to forget about all the other energy a car actually uses. When you look at it from this perspective, the footprint of our transportation system is much larger than many people might think. On a large scale, we’re using tremendous amounts of energy and resources to move things—both people and cargo. In the U.S., transportation accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. oil consumption.

Moving Goods

In a world with less available energy, we’re going to have to change our transportation to be less energy intensive and more energy efficient. The reality is that we will always need to move things from point A to point B, and just about every form of freight system uses oil to do this. However, the energy intensity of each method varies greatly, with water transportation (such as cargo ships) being the least intensive, and air transportation being the most. Moving something on water at approximately 20mph uses much less energy than flying something at 500mph—speed matters, and the faster you go, the more energy you use. It takes 100-150 times more energy to move something by airplane than by ship.

For most people, the process of getting an item to your door isn’t something you think too much about. You order something, UPS shows up at your door a couple of days later. We need to start slowing down our freight systems—Amazon one-day shipping just isn’t going to work in the long term, and customers need to get used to waiting a little longer to get their orders. As energy prices rise and fossil fuel availability decreases, we’ll need to relocalize to cut the transportation of goods as much as possible, build goods closer to where we live and not move it as far.

For the things that we do need to move greater distances, we need to transition away from airplanes and trucks and rely more on water and rail. This shift is already beginning to happen, with UPS using rail more often for their shipments, which is a lot cheaper and much more energy efficient. I think we’re also going to end up using our old canal systems, using them for water transportation of goods. Vermont is a great example of how this could work: we might have a port in Burlington, on Lake Champlain, where we can receive and ship goods through our canal system, which extends all the way down to the Hudson River and out to the ocean.

Moving People

When it comes to the transportation of people, the challenge is getting everyone out of their cars. Cars are central to our way of life: people consider the car the primary way of getting places, except when it comes to very long distances, in which case they rely on airplanes. Both of these modes of transportation are very energy-intensive and unsustainable in the long term—even higher-efficiency airplanes or electric cars (which require the same resources to build and use the same energy-intensive infrastructure as regular cars).

Soon, we’ll need to move back to a train system as our main method of moving people long distances. Planes will still be in use, but much less frequently—and at a much higher price to the traveler. The U.S. doesn’t have enough investment in a passenger transportation program. We need to give more funding to Amtrak and build better infrastructure to create a workable train system with nice facilities and stations and many more destinations across the country. We also have much of the infrastructure already in place with freight rails. In many places, there’s a lot of capacity, since freight trains often only run a few times a day, which presents a great opportunity to incorporate commuter rail into these existing railways.

Then there’s the bus system—some cities have great bus systems, but many places need much more investment in good, reliable buses with consistent schedules. Light rail, like subways or metros, is also an option in some locations, but is much more expensive to build out. Buses are the cheapest way to get mass transit up and running quickly. Work is being done in many metro areas to make buses the priority instead of cars. The problem is that in many cities where buses are mixed in with cars on roads, transit times are very slow and unpredictable. Dedicated bus lanes speed buses up over cars, and in places that have those systems in place, taking the bus is much faster than driving a car through the city because it isn’t caught in the congestion. To make mass transit a viable alternative, we need to make it better, faster, and cheaper than cars.

The most importance piece of this is that all of these forms of transportation need to be connected and integrated into one larger, reliable, multi-modal system. If you take the train, you need to know that there’s a bus waiting for you at the station, bicycles available to rent, or a safe walkway to get you where you need to go next. If it’s not all designed to work together, it won’t work—you can’t drop people off at a train station and have them sit around hoping a bus will eventually show up.

The best systems have discipline and reliability; if you can’t guarantee dependable, punctual service, no one will use it. To get people to use mass transit, you need to build a system with enough capacity that the passenger will always have backup options and a clear path from one mode of transportation to the next. You need to make sure that your buses and trains are always on time, and that the passenger has easy access to accurate, timely arrival and departure information.

The good news is that trains and buses are typically much more reliable than cars and airplanes. When there’s a storm, planes can’t fly and people don’t want to drive. Trains can run through a storm and don’t have to change their schedules based on snow. People look to mass transit during weather events; in many places they are, and should be, the last thing to shut down during a storm. Older methods of transportation, like trains, worked well and reliably 100 years ago. They’ll still work for us today.

Foot-Powered Transportation

On an individual level, two of our best forms of moving from place to place are walking and biking. These are both good from an environmental perspective and from a health perspective—if we walk and bike more, we’ll get healthier as a society.

There are also new technologies to make biking an easier option, and to help you go further. Electric assist bikes, which still are pedaled but use a small electric motor and battery to get you up hills and exert less energy, are a great way to help people get where they need to go in an efficient way, Electrifying a bike is so much less resource-intensive than electrifying a car, and requires far fewer batteries and systems to make it work. Options for this technology are becoming even more convenient, easy to use, and inexpensive.

Already, electric bikes are taking off around the world. 35 million electric bikes are going to be sold worldwide in 2016, but only 150,000 of those will be in North America. The vast majority were sold in China and India, where these bikes are already incredibly popular. In China, this is a result of the government banning motor scooters and motorcycles because of pollution. People still needed to get around quickly, and realized that electric bikes were a great alternative that could get them where they needed to go almost as fast and were both easier to operate and a lot cheaper to power.

We also need to work to make our roads more bike-friendly—in cities like Amsterdam, the roads have been structured to give bikes the right of the road, and now they outnumber cars. We need to move towards similar solutions in our metro areas to make biking a more accessible option for all.

If we create a system that’s comprehensive and convenient, using readily accessible, reliable, and on-time alternative transportation, we can begin to move people away from cars. The key to making this a sustainable, workable solution is being able to know your bus and train will arrive on time, every time, and get you where you need to go. Building up these robust transportation systems will take time, though, and require a head change—we’ll really have to get used to the idea that we’ll be using these other modes of transportation instead of resorting to cars because it’s the easy thing to do.


This post originally appeared on the AllEarth Solar Power blog.


Topics: peak oil, transportation

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