September 13, 2022
Op Ed – Laura Hendricks – Climate Week NYC, Sept. 19-25, 2022
Why improving urban mobility requires a new commitment to sustainable public transportation
By Laura Hendricks, CEO of Transdev U.S.
- The war in Ukraine has upended global energy markets, with dramatic direct changes on energy price and supply.
- All energy users now must make more careful choices of how they use energy—with lasting consequences on the climate.
- It’s time for all stakeholders in urban mobility to commit to a common effort to shift ridership from private cars to public transport to save energy and confront climate change.
It is rare to be able to identify one date as the turning point in our collective futures. However, on February 24 of this year, the future of urban transportation changed forever, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. The previously unthinkable fact of war in today’s Europe turned upside down our assumptions about our interdependent world.
The specific impact on energy supplies and how we think about them was also sudden; we were forced to realize that they are indeed limited, uncertain, more expensive, and that shortages could occur at any minute and last for a long time. There is also a direct impact on each of us each day, as we must make careful and difficult choices on how we live and work in a new era of limited and more costly energy. Indeed, our individual choices take on more importance because we know that they will have an increasing impact on our environment and so, on our future.
That is why, when it comes to the energy, that is at the heart of our economies, there is most definitely a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ February 24, 2022.
As the CEO of a multi-modal public transportation company operating in 200 cities and communities in the U.S., I see evidence of that each day. Simply put, our challenge is to make public transportation a better alternative than the car.
That is the meaning of our proposal for a new commitment to sustainable public transportation involving all stakeholders. Its objective is ambitious, but necessary. We aim to decrease the average number of trips taken by car globally from 85% to 60%. This ambitious target is possible if we all do our part to encourage and facilitate ridership on public transportation.
Why accept such a challenge? The bare facts speak for themselves.
The transportation sector accounts for one third of the world’s C02 emissions. Yet public transportation within that sector emits much less C02 than do cars. Globally, the numbers make that clear: 120 grams of C02 per kilometer on average for a car, compared to 15 grams of C02 per passenger per kilometer for a bus. At the same time, public transportation consumes less energy than do cars. Sustainability is not the only reason why there should be a paradigm shift in the proportion of passenger miles accounted for by public versus private transportation.
Another major reason is that public transportation is the only choice when it comes to providing people, in all walks of life and in all economic environments, freedom to move in all aspects of their lives.
That includes access needed daily for work, markets for food, education, medical care, commercial and social services, and for the important human social interaction that is at the heart of our democratic societies.
To achieve these ambitious goals in public transportation ridership, we will need not only to assure an offer that is more and more attractive so that drivers either leave their cars at home or use them only for the ‘first and last mile’ to reach public transportation.
And to invent this required mobility of tomorrow, we also need to change the scale of our thinking to expand public transportation to an area of 50 kilometers (or 30 miles) or more outside of the cities themselves.
So how we do go about doing this?
That is where the need for a new commitment to sustainable public transportation comes in. It would ask key stakeholders to commit to contribute in different ways to achieve these objectives, and, through their engagement, succeed where none could alone. So, it is really a win-win for all—as well as for our environment.
The participants should include:
—Transportation and mobility providers
We should commit to achieving specific objectives of making our offers increasingly attractive, more energy-efficient, and increasingly environmentally compatible. And there would be a fixed schedule to accomplish this important goal.
As the CEO of one such company, I am sure that we can do just that, as our current best practices in developing cleaner and more energy-efficient means of transportation demonstrate.
For example, our fleet of clean, electric vehicles has increased in number from 25 to 1,800 worldwide over five years. In the Netherlands, 500 electric buses save 13,500 tons of C02 each year, or the equivalent of taking 7,000 cars off the roads! And we are not stopping there. We are moving to a fleet of more than 5,000 electric vehicles in three years as electric will become the norm in urban transportation, with biogas and hydrogen coming online progressively as alternative sources.
—Transportation authorities (or Public Transit Authorities, ‘PTAs’)
They would partner with transportation providers in developing new ridership offers, including expanded and new routes, and over longer periods.
—Drivers and passengers
They would be key participants in the new collective effort, pledging to take public transportation a certain percentage of time, and be rewarded by fare reductions in proportion to their commitment.
—Associations for the environment and urban transportation, both local and national, and other local organizations
As we need all the good ideas we can get, organizations encouraging improved urban transportation and environmental protection should also be welcomed as participants in this effort. Local organizations can provide fresh ideas for multi-modal transportation such as offers for public transportation of people and their bicycles. Other local organizations, such as those focusing on the needs of those handicapped and offering paratransit services, can also provide valuable insights and suggestions.
Public authorities would play an important role by continuing to finance the new investments of the parties to the contract. In the U.S., the recent transportation infrastructure fund will help authorities fund low and zero emissions vehicles for public transportation in the coming years.
These investments include new bus and train fleets, and infrastructure along with a call for additional transit service for passengers living further outside city centers. This is important to incite drivers whose commutes to work are long and not served adequately, if at all, by current public transportation.
Why should government make such investments in the public transportation? The immediate answer is simply that sustainable public transportation depends on such government investments and would not be achieved without such ‘pump priming’. The overall answer, of course, is that these are, in fact, direct investments in energy savings and in the environment.
Could something this good really come out of the geopolitical, economic and, indeed, environmental catastrophe that is the war in Ukraine?
Yes, as the 18th century German philosopher Johann Hölderlin put it, “Where danger grows, there is also that which saves”. It is up to each of us now to engage in actions that directly and regularly help to save our way of life by saving our planet.
Our individual choices on the way we commit to supporting public urban transportation by favoring its use are at the heart of those actions.