Transport discussions at COP26 last November largely centred around an expected shift towards electrification. And while the idea of humming along efficiently in electric vehicles is nice, this will not provide a complete solution to the challenges we face.
Aside from the fact that it will take some time before the majority of vehicles in developed world cities are electric (never mind in emerging markets), a meaningful reduction in carbon emissions is only possible with a proper understanding of how people move around cities. For instance, the roadmap to reducing emissions in a city like Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam, where private vehicle ownership is low and public transport use is high, may look a lot different to reducing emissions in a city like London, for instance.
As a result, data will be as important, if not more so, when creating an environmentally sustainable future.
There can be no doubt that transport plays a major role in carbon emissions. Globally, the sector accounts for anywhere between one fifth and a quarter of all emissions. Road travel accounts for around three-quarters of that, most of which comes from passenger-carrying vehicles such as cars and buses.
It’s also true that transportation emissions have more than doubled since 1970, according to data from the IPCC. That number will likely keep going up, even as developed world countries legislate against traditional fossil fuel-based vehicles and electric vehicles become the norm. That’s because emerging-market cities will keep growing. In fact, research from the World Economic Forum (WEF) shows that the 15 fastest-growing cities – all located in Africa – are set to double their populations by 2035. With all the good will in the world, none of these cities are likely to have a fully-fledged electric transport network by then.
In many of these cities, the problem isn’t so much the number of people driving fossil fuel burning vehicles, as the amount of time they spend on the road. Take Dar es Salaam again, for instance, less than one in 10 people own a car and 43% rely on public transport for their daily commute. Despite that, most commuters spend an average of two hours a day on public transport (a number which can increase exponentially during the rainy season when traffic often comes to a complete standstill). In Bangkok meanwhile, commuters spend up to 179 hours stuck in traffic every year. All of the time those commuters are stuck in traffic, the vehicles they’re in are (by and large) idling and emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses.
In many instances these inefficiencies are down to the fact that commuters, operators and authorities don’t have the relevant data needed to make smarter, more efficient decisions. Once they have that data, however, it becomes possible to develop new solutions and localise existing ones, identifying opportunities based on where and how people move.
Even though developed world cities have much more established infrastructure, they aren’t immune to these issues either. It’s also worth noting that even electric vehicles have secondary emissions (especially if the power sources for their charging stations aren’t renewable), meaning that it’s crucial that they’re as efficient as possible.
The opportunity in creating a more efficient transportation network benefits the overall health of the planet, but also makes a great deal of economic sense. When commuters are able to move more efficiently, they will have more time to invest in the things they value. For operators, this means they can move more people in less time for less money. And cities will have the information they need to ensure that infrastructure projects are built where they will have the greatest impact. In order for this to happen, however, it’s critical that the data is accurate, reliable, and up to date.
Ultimately, if we really are to reduce emissions to the point where global levels can be kept in check, simply going electric won’t crack it. Neither, it should be noted, will draconian regulations. We need a much more nuanced and well-rounded response, in which everyone has to be sold on the benefits, including those who have investors and shareholders to answer to. And data-led insights into city infrastructure need to be at the heart of that response. Even more importantly, taking this kind of approach can start making a difference almost immediately, rather than in 10 years’ time.
Devin de Vries is CEO of WhereIsMyTransport