At its most basic, “sustainable” refers to something the world’s population can do and keep doing indefinitely without damaging either the environment or the economy. Using gasoline for cars is not sustainable transportation for numerous and varied reasons. Not the least is the fact that, as more people in the world get access to automobiles, greater demand for a finite product will drive its price to ruinous levels.
What else can we use in place of gasoline? Biofuels, electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells, etc., as alternatives to fossil fuels all have proponents, and all have drawbacks. In some cases, there are difficulties supplying and distributing the fuel. Some technologies are not yet well enough developed to be practical yet. Some alternative fuels may simply trade one environmental problem for another. While I certainly don’t have any kind of magic bullet, I can at least outline the basic requirements for sustainable transportation.
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- Finding alternative fuels for cars is necessary, but not sufficient. Buses and trucks share the highways. And what about transportation by rail, water, and air? The entire system needs non-depletable alternatives to fossil fuels to be sustainable. Human-powered vehicles, such as bicycle sharing programs, can play a small part in a sustainable transportation system.
- Until suitable non-depletable fuels exist for the entire spectrum of transportation, we must stop wasting our finite resources. We cannot stop our quest for increasing efficiency in creating, transporting, and using existing fuels.
- Pollution is unsustainable. It costs too much in both money and lives. Drilling, pumping, refining, transporting, and burning petroleum unavoidably entail negative impacts on air, water, and soil. Alternative fuels are not any better simply by not being fossil fuels. Corn-based ethanol worsens water pollution and soil erosion; in the process, it uses so much petroleum based fertilizer (in addition to the fuel that farm equipment consumes) that it yields less energy than it takes to produce it. Electric vehicles are not as environmentally friendly as they could be if they run on electricity from coal or oil fired plants. Sustainable transportation by definition has minimal impact on the environment.
- Currently, transportation accounts for a quarter of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainable transportation has to be carbon-neutral.
- Some politicians and business leaders complain that alternative fuels, decreasing pollution, and dealing with carbon is too expensive. To the extent that they are correct, they raise a good point. Of course, the costs of environmental degradation ought to be included in determining the actual costs of our current system. Sustainable transportation can be no more expensive than our current unsustainable system, once that it priced honestly. After all, sustainability considers not only environmental impact, but economic impact as well. Creating economic hardships for poor people is not sustainable.
- Whatever new fuels and vehicles emerge in the coming years, they must be widely available to succeed. Electric cars seem to be a bit ahead of their time. The infrastructure for recharging them is inadequate even in a highly developed country like the United States. Try driving one in a country where electricity is only sporadically available at all. Sustainable fuels and vehicles will not constitute sustainable transportation if they remain unavailable to large population segments. Sustainable transportation will necessarily look different in American cities, Asian cities, African cities, etc. and in rural areas of the same countries.
- In the first point, I said that all modes of transportation must be considered in order to create sustainable transportation. Actually, transportation must be considered in the context of an entire society. Sustainable transportation cannot add to any existing social problems, and certainly cannot create new ones.
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Building a new transportation system that is sustainable globally will certainly not be easy. With good planning, getting as much right as possible from the start, at least it won’t have to be done over with even greater difficulty. The video below shows some ideas currently under development.
Photo credit: Some rights reserved by adrimcm
Source note: I emailed myself an article from the library, “Fueling U.S. Transportation: The Hydrogen Economy and Its Alternatives” / Michael K Heiman and Barry D. Solomon. Environment (October 2007). Somehow the full text of the article turned up in the email, as well as the attachment. The email had information just before the endnotes that did not appear in the printed article. I have no idea why or how, but that’s my source. I assume the authors of the article produced that information, too.