Discussions on transportation during COP26 last November predominantly revolved around the anticipated shift toward electrification. While the idea of smoothly cruising in electric vehicles sounds appealing, it alone cannot offer a comprehensive solution to the challenges we face.
It is important to recognise that it will take considerable time before the majority of vehicles in developed cities, let alone emerging markets, transition to electric. Achieving a meaningful reduction in carbon emissions requires a thorough understanding of urban mobility patterns. For example, the strategies to reduce emissions in a city like Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, where private vehicle ownership is low and public transport usage is high, would differ significantly from those in a city like London.
Consequently, data become equally, if not more, crucial in shaping an environmentally sustainable future.
Undoubtedly, transportation significantly contributes to carbon emissions, accounting for approximately one-fifth to one-quarter of global emissions. Within this sector, road travel constitutes about three-quarters, mainly attributed to passenger vehicles such as cars and buses.
IPCC data reveals that transportation emissions have more than doubled since 1970. Despite the legislative measures in developed countries against fossil fuel-based vehicles and the increasing adoption of electric vehicles, this number is likely to continue rising. This is primarily due to the rapid growth of cities in emerging markets. In fact, research conducted by the World Economic Forum (WEF) indicates that the 15 fastest-growing cities, all located in Africa, are projected to double their populations by 2035. Realistically, none of these cities will have a fully developed electric transport network by then.
In many of these cities, the issue lies not so much in the number of people driving vehicles that burn fossil fuels but rather in the extensive time they spend on the road. For example, in Dar es Salaam, less than 10% of the population owns a car, and 43% rely on public transport for their daily commute. Despite this, most commuters spend an average of two hours per day on public transport, which can significantly increase during the rainy season when traffic often comes to a standstill. In Bangkok, commuters can spend up to 179 hours stuck in traffic each year. Throughout these traffic jams, the vehicles—largely idling—release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Many of these inefficiencies arise from the lack of relevant data available to commuters, operators, and authorities to make informed and efficient decisions. However, once equipped with such data, it becomes possible to develop new solutions and adapt existing ones by identifying opportunities based on people's movement patterns and locations.
Even though developed cities possess more established infrastructure, they are not immune to these challenges. It is also worth noting that even electric vehicles generate secondary emissions, particularly if their charging stations are not powered by renewable energy sources. Hence, it is crucial to maximize their efficiency as well.
Creating a more efficient transportation network not only benefits the overall health of the planet but also makes economic sense. When commuters can travel more efficiently, they gain additional time to invest in activities they value. For operators, this means transporting more people in less time and at a lower cost. Cities, in turn, can utilise the data to ensure infrastructure projects are implemented where they will have the greatest impact. However, the accuracy, reliability, and currency of the data are critical for this to materialise.
If our aim is to effectively reduce emissions and maintain global levels within acceptable limits, solely transitioning to electric vehicles or enforcing strict regulations will not be sufficient. We require a more nuanced and comprehensive approach that convinces everyone of the benefits, including those accountable to investors and shareholders. Data-driven insights into city infrastructure must be at the core of this response. Most importantly, adopting this approach can make an immediate difference rather than waiting for ten years or more.