The contrast couldn’t have been greater. Having pedaled from Toronto to Vancouver, fighting ancient hills in Ontario, headwinds in the Prairies and mountains in British Columbia, I was headed home. In a jet. Peering down on the wheat fields of Saskatchewan, I absorbed in minutes a landscape that had taken days to cross by bicycle. Never before had I so appreciated the power of the modern engine and the fossil fuels that fired it. The bicycle is probably the most efficient form of human transport and the modern jet, the least. The bike is slow enough that you can see every rock along the way, and the jet so fast I could miss entire provinces while eating dinner.
Transportation, like communication, ties us together. Our world depends on a vast, constant flow of people and the stuff we buy. Boats, planes and trucks move more frequently over ever-longer distances. Our TVs are made with components from at least a dozen countries. Cars made anywhere use parts from almost everywhere. We commute, go on vacation and business trips, and visit friends. All that movement takes liquid fuel mostly gasoline, diesel and kerosene.
If we could make enough biofuel to power all these vehicles, the story would end here. But we can’t – at least not sustainably.1 Some modes of transport, like planes and boats,2 will probably always require liquid fuel. Unfortunately, even producing that much biofuel would put a strain on the food supply (see Biofuels page), and switching to electric cars and fuel-cell-powered trucks means more than doubling our electrical production.
So, what’s the most important thing we can do? Whatever new forms of transport appear, we need to slow the flow.
There are new inventions on the horizon: Life-like holographs will one day nullify the need for business trips, and floating airships will carry us across oceans. But clean transport is already here.
Electric cars cruise our streets. Floating trains that reach 300 miles per hour (500 kilometres per hour) hustle tourists into Shanghai. Only slightly slower versions tie Europe together. First-rate public transit lures people out of cars, and smart metering can charge those cars for every mile they drive. And as for the bicycle – that most humble of vehicles that took me across Canada – it already gives commuters the freedom car owners seek, but rarely find.
I’ve always loved Amsterdam, with its quiet streets and canals lined with narrow buildings – not to mention the city’s deep sense of history and famously tolerant culture. But there was something else about Amsterdam that I could never put my finger on. Then one day, as I sat in a cafe watching a steady stream of bicycles whiz by, I finally figured it out: There were very few cars. The streets were quiet and clean, and everyone was part of the scene. Here in North America, cars so dominate our cities that we forget what a downtown core could be like without them. It’s magical.
Worldwide, bicycles outnumber cars two to one. In China and India, they’re especially common – but that’s changing fast. The burgeoning middle class demands cars, and that’s a problem. If all those cyclists ditch their bikes and climb into cars instead – even electric ones – we’re sunk.3 Instead of the poor aspiring to the car, the rich should be getting in the saddle. The humble bicycle is one of our best bets for clean, livable cities.
In Copenhagen, more than one-third of people bike to work. In Amsterdam, more than half of commuters who travel five miles (7.5 kilometres) or less travel by bike. The city’s Central Station is surrounded by a sea of bicycles. In fact, roads all over the Netherlands include bike lanes, and everyone, from kids to grandmothers, enjoys a ride. Specially designed bikes with luggage compartments are even used to deliver goods.
In the US and Canada, bicycles are an afterthought, although that’s beginning to change. It’s part culture – North Americans have an unmatched love affair with the car and part urban planning. Our cities are made for cars, and our sprawling suburbs mean that long commutes are the norm, not the exception.4
But bikes can be a pleasure to ride, even from the suburbs. What do we need to make it happen? More bike lanes on our roads. Showers at work. More bicycle parking at train stations and room for two-wheelers on commuter transit would help, too. Perhaps more importantly, drivers need to learn to respect cyclists on the road. Without bike lanes, you often put your life on the line – just try cycling in London, UK.
US federal funding now support cycling to the tune of almost $1 billion a year, and plans are afoot in the country’s 50 largest cities to double the number of bike routes. By 2030, New York City plans to quadruple its bike lanes, to 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometres). In France, Paris’s Velib scheme lets you rent a bike, ride it, and drop it off at one of 1,500 spots around town. As for London, it’s making amends5 with $1 billion for cycling over 10 years. It’s a start.
But cycling isn’t just clean and green. I whiz by cars sitting in traffic on my way to work in downtown Toronto. Not only do the drivers I pass look stressed and impatient, but they’re also completely cut off from the city and the people around them. They face a daily search for parking and the fees that go with it. Me? I’m getting fit, saving my money for an after-work drink, and grinning from ear to ear.
I attended a conference recently at Stanford University, in California, Instead of staying in Palo Alto, I got a hotel in downtown San Francisco. Each morning, I hopped on the Caltrain, which runs between San Francisco and the Silicon Valley corridor. My days began with 40 relaxing minutes spent reading the paper, sipping coffee and watching the city roll by. Each time I got off the train, I was surrounded by a horde of cyclists – Caltrain has a separate car to accommodate those who choose to use two wheels to cover the last mile or two. Why anyone would choose to make that journey by car every day was beyond me.
What Caltrain does for Silicon Valley, high-speed trains do for much of Europe: downtown London to Paris in a couple of hours, Paris to Amsterdam or the south of France in a few more. France was one of the first countries to tie its cities together with high-speed rail.
The TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) averages 120 miles an hour (200 kilometres per hour) and has reached top speeds of almost three times that. And the tracks cost as little as $20 million per mile ($12 million per kilometre) – that’s one-tenth of what more exotic tracks, like the maglev, cost.
The TGV experience is one of fast, convenient luxury: Have a drink in the bar, get some work done on your laptop and arrive downtown, on time. These trains are serious competitors to short-haul flights and make driving seem primitive. A network of high-speed trains linking North American cities would be expensive, but it would do wonders. We’d lower our fuel use by getting cars off the road and planes out of the sky, and, even better, we’d finally have the kind of civilized, relaxing travel most Europeans take for granted.
President Obama gets it, and he has urged Americans to imagine “whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination.”6
In Shanghai, there’s a faster, more exotic kind of travel. The maglev (magnetic levitation) train travels at breathtaking speeds, and it’s so smooth, it’s eerie. Floating just above the rails that guide it, the maglev zips passengers from the Shanghai airport into the city at speeds of up to 430 miles per hour (almost 700 kilometres per hour). What a dream: maglev trains almost as fast as airplanes connecting our cities and running on clean electricity. Sadly, the tracks are so expensive that it might just stay a dream. The proposed 300-mile (500- kilometre) maglev track between Osaka and Tokyo, in Japan, is expected to cost almost $100 billion, or $300 million a mile ($200 million a kilometre) – although part of that cost is due to the 60 miles (100 kilometres) of tunnels that need to be built along the way.
There’s another problem with high-speed rail: The faster trains go, the more fuel they use. Increasing speed from 140 miles an hour (225 kilometres per hour) to 220 miles an hour (350 kilometres) doubles7 energy consumption for the same trip. If that train ran on diesel, or on electricity produced from coal, it would emit more8 carbon per passenger than a jet over the same distance. So these trains must be powered by clean electricity.
Our love affair with the car just won’t end, even though they never deliver what the ads promise. We don’t take our SUVs cross-country. The top is not down, and the wind is not in our hair. Instead, we spend most of our time stuck in traffic and fuming mad, moving along at about the same speed as a horse and carriage. And cars cost US owners more than $9,0009 a year to operate. What are we doing? It’s a bad habit.
But love them we do. So here’s some good news for car lovers everywhere: Electric vehicles aren’t the glorified golf carts they once were.
The Testa Roadster, backed by big money in Silicon Valley, is everything American cars were meant to be: sleek, powerful and fast – zero to 60 in less than four seconds. That’s as fast as it gets. It’s also electric. The Testa’s motor produces torque a gas-powered engine can’t match, and it’s powered by batteries10 that sit in the trunk.
If you don’t have a hundred grand to shell out for a Testa, there are other options. Canada’s ZENN Cars (Zero-Emission, No Noise) has an electric car that’s perfect for commuters, and now builds electric drive trains. General Motors will launch the Chevy Volt in 2010. The Obama Administration has made it clear that the electric car – or a hybrid mix – is a top priority. Even the Oracle of Omaha, famed investor Warren Buffett, is getting in on the action, backing Chinese carmaker BYD.
Electric cars don’t solve the energy problem. But by pushing consumption away from fossil fuels and onto the grid, they give us a clean option. Great – as long as the grid can handle it and is powered by clean electrons. Burning coal to make electricity to power a car is worse11 than running a car on today’s fuels.
People and goods12 will always flow traveling and trading with our economic partners is part of what makes us human. But it can be absurd. People in downtown Manhattan sip bottled water from Fiji. In my hometown, near Niagara Falls, Canada, they ship peaches to California, even as California ships peaches right back to us. We travel thousands of miles just to make a sales call, and commute vast distances every year, by ourselves, in vehicles that weigh several tons.
Thinking about why we travel or ship goods is just as important as how we do it. Whatever else we do, one thing is for sure: We need to slow the flow – of the stuff we buy, the incessant overnight business trips and the cars that clog our streets. Less is more.
The business trip is standard fare for us suit-wearing folk. Cab to the airport. Fly across the country. Check into a crappy hotel. Wake up. Shake someone’s hand, chat for an hour, then fly home. For a bit of “face time,” we put up with a lot. And we use a lot of energy.
With Cisco’s TelePresence, you can avoid the whole miserable experience. TelePresence is to video-conferencing what Mark Phelps is to swimming – so life-like that people on the other side of the planet look like they’re sitting right in front of you. Life-sized high-definition video and three-dimensional sound bring them to life, but little details bring them even closer. The desks in one TelePresence room seem to be an extension of the desks in the other, and the rooms have identical decor. It’s so real that when I tried out the technology at Cisco’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, I couldn’t help but turn around to look when someone entered the other room.
If that’s not enough, just wait for the holographic version of TelePresence. It’ll allow you to replicate all the elements of face time – body language, a handshake – that make developing rapport so much easier. Why fly when you can send your holographic twin?
Smart cities build density, not sprawl. They’re designed so that residents don’t have to get in the car to buy a carton of milk, and they include public transit that people actually want to ride. Good transit is not demeaning and slow, and only on offer for people who can’t afford cars; it’s faster and cheaper than driving. Decent transit is the only way to slow the flow of cars in our cities.
But as long as drivers don’t have to pay for road access, our cities will continue to choke on cars. Electric cars alone aren’t the answer – they still bring most transit to a crawl, and they won’t stop traffic jams.
The most basic rule of the free market says: If something is scarce – like space on downtown roads – make people pay for it. When London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, installed cameras around the city to identify cars and charge them a fee for entering downtown, there were howls of protest. But it worked. Cars and buses moved faster, emissions13 went down, and London’s air cleared up. The same goes for similar programs in Singapore and Milan.
Canada’s Skymeter has a solution that makes London’s system look archaic. The company makes smart meters for cars – a GPS system that can track any car, anywhere. Governments could charge different amounts depending on the street and time of day. Cities can use the technology to change traffic flow, and insurance companies can use to change by the mile. It can even charge for parking. What Skymeter can do is make our roads just like any other commodity – subject to market forces.
Here’s something far out – or rather, high up. Imagine crossing the ocean or touring Africa from the air, floating along in the lap of luxury as you watch the ground pass by. An airship is a giant structure held aloft by a gas lighter than air – like helium or hydrogen – with a range of up to 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometres). Even using a traditional engine for power, airships cut the energy needed to travel by air by up to 90%. 14
It’s still hypothetical. Although airships have been in use for almost a century, for everything from military surveillance to skyhigh advertising during sporting events, no one’s offering commercial, long-distance tours – yet. There’s no reason to think we won’t soon be taking trips above the treetops.
The downside is that airship passengers have to be patient. Current speeds are about 80 miles an hour (130 kilometres per hour), which means Paris to Toronto in a couple of days. But really, is that so bad? Why are we always in such a hurry? Traveling by airship, we’d arrive home from our overseas vacations relaxed – and ready to hop on a bike.
Transportation is a hard nut to crack. Biofuels won’t do it. And while electricity could replace liquid fuels, we’d still need to produce huge amounts of clean electrons: Replacing gasoline engines alone (no diesel) with electric motors in the US would mean roughly doubling15 electrical production. It’s difficult enough to replace existing production.
The potential of cycling is clear – it’s carbon-neutral. But before bikes can go mainstream, many cities are going to need to spend big on cycling infrastructure: bike lanes, cargo space on trains and buses, plenty of parking, and showers to greet riders at work. We also need to persuade existing cycling cultures, like India and China, not to abandon their bikes for cars – increasingly difficult as the middle class in both countries continues to grow.
High-speed trains can replace some short-haul air travel and a whole lot of car trips. But building all those tracks takes time, money and political will (no high-speed train has ever been built without public support and money). The maglev train works like a charm, but it’s prohibitively expensive. Regular high-speed trains along the lines of the TGV are the way to go.
As for cars, electric ones are clearly better than gas-powered, since we have the option of powering them with clean energy. But they’re no cure-all – we still have to produce all that electricity in the first place, and that could be tricky. An added benefit to electric cars is the role they’ll play in building the Energy Internet (see Energy Internet page). So if we must drive, let’s drive electric cars. But it’s still better to leave them at home.
The real key here is the need for smart cities – the way they’re designed is the starting point for clean transportation. A smart city grows upward, not outward. It charges cars to drive downtown. It builds transit that people want to ride and makes room for bicycles. High-speed trains connect one city center to another. Smart cities make it easy to get around – making life richer and more dynamic in the process.
So, smart urban design is the bedrock of clean transportation. Yet, so many cities and suburbs are badly designed – and we don’t get another chance. We’re stuck with what we’ve got.