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Essay: Why we need to move away from Private Motorized Vehicles (PMVs)

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The transport sector accounts for 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC, 2014). A study in The Behaviour Analyst called climate change a “clear a present danger to civilization.” In order to slow the effects of climate change, we as humans will need to change the way that we get around. Alternative transport is a means of transport that is environmentally sustainable, whilst at the same time still being affordable and efficient enough for the majority of people. It is thought that in many countries across the world, as much as 60% of the transport sectors’ greenhouse gas emissions sources come from Private Motorized Vehicles (PMVs) which include light duty vehicles such as cars and motorbikes (EPA, 2016). PMVs contribute heavily towards global greenhouse gas emissions as they function by the combustion of petrol, a fossil fuel, and provides a direct pollutant into the earth’s atmosphere. The burning of petrol produces Carbon Dioxide (CO2) which provides a layer within the atmosphere which makes it harder for the earth to release ultraviolet radiation gained from the sun. This in turn heats up the earth which results in melting ice caps, a raised sea level, and more extreme weather. It has long been thought that walking and cycling have been the soundest method of transport, however with advancing technology, we should now be able to develop new methods of transport that are both sustainable, convenient, and viable. The aim of this paper is to establish why we need to move away from PMVs, recognize viable alternative forms of transportation, analyze cities that rely on alternative methods of transportation, and make recommendations on how cities can move away from PMVs, looking at global cities that have done just that.

Why do we need to move away from Private Motor Vehicles?

Statistics show that Private Motor Vehicles are the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector, clearly demonstrating a heavy dependence on their use. Vehicles such as cars are relied on across the world as they provide a convenient method of transport which takes people from A to B anywhere there is road infrastructure. This currently unparalleled convenience makes it difficult for people to move away from using them. Cars enable a sense of limitless freedom, with each driver able to choose when, where, and in what manner they want to get from one place to another. They are also faster and require less effort than traditional forms of transportation, such as animal or active transport. Vehicles have a wider range, enabling urban phenomenons such as urban sprawl, and more generally, larger cities. Many American cities, such as Los Angeles, could be described as an automobile city due to its urban design which encompasses vast distances of a grid design road system. It is thought that 80-95% of these cities are located in America and Australia, two countries heavily dependent on the use of private motor vehicles. These types of cities have been dominant since the 1940s due to outward expansion of cities and the development of Fordism which made it possible for cars to become affordable to the majority of people for the first time. This type of city also has a significant advantage over its predecessor, transit cities, which only provided a medium for transport within a fixed track system. This is one of the reasons that the convenience of cars took over and developed a culture for cars. Car culture was furthered by the creation of drive through restaurants, cinemas and again later on by the formation of out of town shopping centres in the 1990’s in the UK. Collectively, all these reasons make it seem extremely hard to move away from the luxury of owning a car.

With that said, there are many different environmental, social, economic, and health reasons why we need to move away from using PMVs. Most obviously, climate change is demanding a rapid and dramatic change in our transportation habits.

Another reason why we should move away from Private Motorized Vehicles is due to the price of petrol and its implications. The forces of supply and demand suggest that as if supply is reduced and demand remains the same, then price must increase. Fossil fuels are a nonrenewable resource, and petrol will inevitably run out in approximately 2050 (Ecotricity, N.D). Because of this, individuals that structure their life now in a way that doesn’t rely on petrol powered cars, will not be priced out by market forces later on. Cars and traffic also take up valuable man hours. According to a study from the Auto Insurance Center, the average American spends 42 hours a year stuck in traffic. If there were less cars on the road, people would save time, work productivity would increase, and air quality would be less affected by idling engines, all of which can be translated to the monetary tolls that traffic takes on society.

Finally, there are the human health effects that PMVs have. Air pollutants from cars have been directly linked to an uptick in serious respiratory health conditions, car fumes have been proven a major trigger of asthma, and health studies suggest that more people die from car pollution than car accidents (Mims, 2013). Replacing PMVs with active forms of transport would not only shed these negative effects, but would bring a slew of positive outcomes, such as increased fitness and the accompanying reduction on public healthcare costs.

With people starting to consider the effects of global warming more seriously, there are a growing amount of people who are now willing to adapt their lifestyle for the benefit of the climate. People have only recently become aware of the need to recycle in the past 15 years or so and therefore have adapted their behaviour. Similarly, PMVs could soon become a thing of the past. By looking at alternative options and case studies, this paper intends to show just how cars could be left behind.

Overview and Case Study: Active Transport Systems

The first part of this essay will identify and analyze the role of Active Transport Systems (ATS) in the world in a general sense, discuss why ATS are the best form of alternative transportation, then mention several reasons why it hasn’t been widely and completely adopted. Then, Copenhagen’s transport system will be analyzed as a model of a city that was built on active transport.

Overview of ATS

ATS are defined as transport that relies on physical activity. This can be as simple as walking, running, or swimming, but ranges to include biking, rowboats, pedalos, skateboards, and even hydrofoils. At their rawest form, these methods have existed since the evolution of Man. In Sustainable Transportation: Problems and Solutions, Black mentions the development of walking paths such as the “Nemacolin Trace” (Black 13) as a method of getting around. The authors of An Introduction to Sustainable Transportation state that “In Europe, the walking city was dominant up until around 1850” (Schiller et al. 25) and describe “The Chinese city” as “still today largely a walking and cycling environment” (26). Because walking and cycling make up the vast majority of human powered transport, this discussion will focus on their role in transport systems.

From an energy efficiency standpoint, cycling comes in first, at 0.06 megajoules per passenger kilometre travelled (see Figure 1). Second is walking, at 0.16 MJ/passenger kilometre travelled. At a distant third comes Tram light rail, at 0.91 MJ/passenger kilometre travelled. This demonstrates that ATS are more energy efficient by a vast margin. The European Commission released a report that states that for short distances (5 km or less), cycling can be faster than driving, making them also more time efficient than driving. Furthermore, ATS are the most accessible transport systems. At their most basic, they require nothing more than working human muscles. More advanced systems utilize equipment primarily without electrical parts (not counting appendages such as lights), which minimizes maintenance and makes upkeep more straightforward, and provide lower upfront and continuing costs. Because ATS require less maintenance, they do not need to be replaced as frequently, which cuts down on resource consumption. As an example, although the average lifespan of a bike varies widely, the oldest functional bike is almost 200 years old (Marshall). In comparison, the average car lasts around 8 years (Weisbaum), not to mention costs of insurance and fuel. ATS requiring external equipment are generally more lightweight than traditional PMVs, and therefore can be transported to groups such as outlying or isolated communities more easily and at a lower cost. So, ATS are time and energy efficient, environmentally sustainable, and easy to disseminate. Why don’t more cities and communities rely on them to get around?

Downsides of Active Transport Systems

Although most cities do supplement transport plans with ATS to some extent, the vast majority of them do not rely on ATS to get people around. Even looking forward, most plans focused on building sustainable transport systems focus much more heavily on public transport, rather than pedestrian access. Black writes about Lewis Mumford’s 1957 solution to the sustainability issue, which included “the vigorous restoration and improvement of public transportation,” the “designing of small electric cars,” and the “relocation of industry…to outlying subcenters” (Black 63). More modern responses include ride sharing, telecommuting, and intelligent transport systems (67). There are some intuitive reasons for this- biking and walking can be relatively slow, require effort from individuals, and are more uncomfortable in inclement weather, which necessitate dense city centers (approximating Schiller et al.’s “Traditional Walking City”). They also can be dangerous when occurring in tandem with driving. In areas that experience extreme hot or cold, or have rough terrain, ATS can seem even more impractical. With all that said, there are some cities and countries (with varying elevation and climate) that have enacted policies and created cultures that do rely on ATS. As the aforementioned European Commission states, bikes “find their place [in towns rezoned for pedestrians] quite naturally” (39), which is to say that biking and walking often come hand in hand. This makes Copenhagen a prime example of a city focused on active transport.

Copenhagen, Denmark

In 2008-1010, an average of 36% of Copenhagen workers and students commuted on their bikes. According to Denmark’s government website, Copenhagen has reached that impressive level through a variety of historical events and public policy, coupled with the facts that Copenhagen is fairly flat and dense and bikers are willing to cycle in inclement weather. Specialized bikes and bike attachments enable the transport of children and cargo, and biking is also done as a leisure activity. To get these results, Copenhagen’s government utilizes a multipronged approach, including early childhood education, infrastructure, and policy.

As early as two or three, children are given their first pedal-free bike (see photo to the right), and public education includes lessons on bike safety and rules of the road. Denmark has also created a network of over 12,000 km of cycle paths and cycle superhighways (with 400 km in Copenhagen), which are roadways catered to the specific needs of cyclists and intended to connect residential areas with work and study centers. The passageways have traffic lights that are timed to the speed of the average cycler (called “Green Waves”), smooth roads, tire pumps along the way, and are prioritized for snow clearance (Good, Better, Best). The super highways are well labeled and connect regions of the country together. Trains in Copenhagen also have special racks for bikes, making multimodal transport a more attractive option (Gram). Moving forward, other intended infrastructure includes a greater number of bicycle parking spaces for personal and cargo bikes (especially near public transport hubs), wider bike lanes, and pedestrian/cycling bridges over canals and roads, as outlined in the City of Copenhagen’s Bicycle Strategy “Good, Better, Best.” These benefits have been numerous, and with far reaching implications. In the simplest sense, active transport is good for human health. More abstractly, it provides economic benefit to societies and enhances quality of life in a way that outpaces the usually associated danger that comes with cycling (European Commission).

Benefits of Public Transportation Systems

Many cities have developed complex systems of public transportation in order to satisfy the mobility needs of their citizens. These systems involve the creation of stations, spread throughout a city, which people can traverse between to get closer to their destination, either by bus or train. There are many benefits of public transit systems within a city for their riders. According to the National Express Transit Corporation, “Taking public transportation instead of owning a vehicle can save (on average) more than $9,823 a year” (9 Benefits of Public Transportation). This figure doesn’t include the amount a rider would save by not paying for gas, maintenance, taxes and parking each month. In addition to saving the riders money, it also saves them a lot of time. “One study [claims] that Americans living in areas with public transportation save some 850 million hours of travel time each year” (9 Benefits of Public Transportation). Riders are also given a lot more free time when they take public transport. When riding, they can read, work, study, or consume entertainment, instead of having to focus on driving. Taking public transportation is also much safer for riders than driving themselves.

There are other social benefits to taking public transportation. Public transportation provides a platform for increased social interactions between people. Riders are surrounded by other members of their community, as opposed to being isolated in their own PMV, which gives them opportunities to connect with others in potentially meaningful ways. Scheduled transport also allows for a more consistent travel experience. They know that they can use this method every day, instead of driving a car and facing unexpected congestion and delays. This allows them to more accurately schedule their events with others.

The implementation of public transportation systems also offers numerous benefits to the city itself.

For every dollar invested in public transportation, approximately $4 in economic returns are generated, and for every $1 billion in investments in the sector, 50,000 jobs are created and supported. According to APTA, an investment of $10 million in public transportation generates about $32 million in increased business sales.” (9 Benefits of Public Transportation)

Residential property has also been recorded to be 42% higher if it is located near “high-frequency transit services, which means cities reap greater tax revenues” (The Top 10 Benefits). Public transportation also helps to control congestion. More people can be transported in less space than it would take for them all to drive their own vehicles. This means that cities don’t have to expand existing infrastructure to accommodate for growing populations, if people stopped driving and started to use public transportation. Public transportation can also be an asset to attract workers to live in a certain city. Those who wish to reduce their own carbon footprint would prefer to live in a city that has a good system of public transportation. Workers are also more productive when they use public transport because they can use the travel time to work remotely.

Types of Public Transportation Systems

There are three main types of public transportation systems, and each has their own benefits and drawbacks that a city must examine when trying to improve their transportation systems. The main factors determining which method to implement are capacity (how many passengers can ride at a time), infrastructure costs, velocity/range (how fast and how far can each method travel), and environmental impacts.

Public Bus

Public buses (image below) are the most common form of public transportation. They are large vehicles that can carry many more passengers than a traditional PMV. The buses use existing infrastructure (roads) to follow routes between established bus stops. Since there is no need to build new infrastructure, public bus systems are the cheapest for of public transportation to implement. Riders pay a fee in order to board or exit the bus but may take it to whichever stop they please. The use of public buses cuts down on congestion because the space one bus takes up when it is full of passengers is only a fraction of the size that it would take for each of those passengers to have their own vehicle. Public buses are also more energy efficient than the use of PMVs. According to Figure 1, it only takes .92 megajoules per passenger kilometer traveled, compared to 2.1 if that passenger used their own car. Riding a bus is also 60 times safer than driving your own car (Shahan, Cynthia).

Public Trains

There are two different types of public trains (image below) that are often implemented in cities: heavy and light rail. The main distinctions between the two is based on speed and maximum passenger capacity. Light rail trains are slower and can hold fewer passengers, while heavy rail trains can move the largest number of passengers and travel at very high speeds. Light rail trains also tend to only serve passengers within a given city and rarely have stations that go outside of the city limits. Heavy rail trains however, can take passengers within a city and across an entire country and often offer greater amenities for their passengers since the travel times are often longer between stops. Heavy rail trains can also be used to carry cargo between cities, which can serve to facilitate economic development between two areas. Despite disproportionate news coverage of train crashes/derailments, both types of trains are safer than the use of PMVs for passengers. Light rail is found to be 30 times safer than cars, and heavy rail is 20 times safer (Shahan, Cynthia).

Recommendations of Alternative Transportation for PMV Oriented Cities

In most PMV-centric cities, the city’s roads and highways are dominated by the geography of the region, with the city’s development spawning off that infrastructure. Most North American and Australian cities were developed during the rise of the personal vehicle, causing most of the citizens to use cars for their everyday life. City planners only planned for highways and never saw a need to build public transportation systems. On the other hand, many European cities and several cities in the United States (Boston, New York City, Washington DC) preexisted cars, causing their city core development to be based around pedestrian transportation. This is why it is easier for certain cities to ban or heavily tax PMVs in its city center, which has become a trend among cities like Oslo, Berlin, and Brussels (Garfield, Leanna). Nowadays, planning and implementing a public transport system in a highway and avenue-dominated city would be time consuming and very expensive — and usually funded by public taxes. Another issue in North American and Australian cities are the strict zoning regulations, which do not allow for mixed use development and blocks residential and commercial zones in separate areas of the city. This causes citizens of a city to have to drive instead of walk to make daily trips like going to the park or grocery store. The following recommendations are targeted to the aforementioned cities, which are built around the convenience of the PMV. The recommendations include public transport that incorporates existing infrastructure, streetcars, recommendations that would enable cycling and walking as a method of transport, and adjusted zoning laws. This section will also include examples of cities that have incorporated the stated recommendations, which streamlines the process of imagining how they could be applied in novel environments.

Our first recommendation is to design and implement inexpensive public transportation that uses pre-existing infrastructure like highways and large, wide avenues. Because building a public rail system is resource and time intensive, the best possible solution for PMV-centric cities is to develop a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. Bus Rapid Transit systems is a form of bus public transportation that uses segregated lanes, and travel between stops similar to public train stations (Elledge, Jonn). In Lima, Peru, the city’s BRT system, “El Metropolitano” has had great success by converting the city’s highway median zone to a two-way bus lane with stations. The buses are long and can hold up to 120 passengers, similar to one car on a public metro train. Also, these BRT lanes are separated by the regular traffic of the highway by tall walls, making it a safe, quick, reliable and very inexpensive method of transportation across the city. Also, these buses are fueled by natural gas and not diesel gasoline like many public busses (Hanrahan, Barry). This type of alternative transportation is relatively simple to implement on many highways across North American cities because the highways are already built and run through densely populated areas. BRT systems are also better than public street busses because they are not prone to traffic jams and do not have simple routes that follow the highway. This makes BRT systems more suitable for both locals that have a regular commute, and tourists who may have trouble navigating a more intricate public transport system. An example of the layout of a BRT system is shown in Figure 2.

For more urban avenues in the city center, our second recommendation is to implement street cars with stations elevated shortly above sidewalks. Street cars have been developed or planned in several US and Australian cities that already have dominant road infrastructure. Since the roads are more urban, there is no real separation between bus lanes and the rest of the road, so streetcars are a great alternative because they follow set routes and are usually aligned with traffic lights to maximize efficiency. This has similar benefits to implementing an integrated BRT system as outlined above. Although, the initial investment of streetcars is more expensive than developing public busses in an urban setting, they are cheaper in the long run. Also, prices for streetcar fares are usually more affordable than public busses, which makes them a more attractive option for people who may otherwise choose other forms of transit (Kurtzleben, Danielle). They are also eco-friendlier because they do not require any gasoline, while busses use lots of gasoline and creates large pollution clouds everytime they accelerate. Finally, these busses only last an average of 12 years while streetcar trains last usually around 30 years (Kurtzleben, Danielle). Cities also want streetcars for their ability to boost tourism, because they usually have less confusing routes and tourists do not have to research the bus routing numbers which can be difficult to understand (Kurtzleben, Danielle). How would a newcomer know the difference between bus route A1 or A1X? Also, streetcars boost business development near the routes, because streetcars are more permanent than bus routes and more reliable to build infrastructure around.

On a similar note, building infrastructure in city centers that enables more efficient active transport would have many beneficial outcomes, many of which can be observed in analysis done by Copenhagen. These benefits include What should be noted, however, is that Copenhagen is considered a city that has “always” cycled (Good, Better, Best). There are burgeoning cities around the world that are taking the initiative to build up a cycling culture where there hasn’t been one before, such as Portland, Oregon. In these traditionally PMV centered cities, it takes a concerted effort to build up infrastructure, public support, and a communal culture that is conducive to active transport. Perhaps surprisingly, this effort commonly mirrors the same steps taken by more traditionally active-transport focused cities such as Copenhagen. In Portland, the goal for 2030 is to bring in fresh ridership, enhance cyclist focused policy, and build more cyclist focused infrastructure in the form of roadways and parking spots (Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030). The City of Portland already has systems in place that open cycling up both to long term residents and newcomers, such as airport signage that clarifies cycling pathways and existing legislation. The existing measures have made Portland “North America’s best cycling city,”, and although a comparedly paltry 25% of Portland’s daily trips are made by bike (compared to Copenhagen’s 36% of commuter trips), the city has reaped comparable benefits in the form of cleaner air, enhanced community adhesion, human health benefits across social groups, increased tourism, and economic benefit (Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030, xvi). Portland’s plan also looks far to the future, showing a promising trend of growing ridership (Figure 4). Diverging from Copenhagen, Portland’s plan makes greater utilization of bike sharing programs, which make the biking culture more open to non-locals. It also makes a more explicit distinction between rider groups, including “enthused and confident” riders (about 10% of Portlanders) and “interested but concerned” (about 50% of Portlanders), which enables a more targeted approach (Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030, 11).

Our last recommendation is to adjust zoning laws and to implement regulations to ease traffic in city centers with block style streets. A huge part of why many North American and Australian cities require citizens to have cars is because of their rigid zoning laws – only allowing for residential development to be in one area and commercial development to be bunched in a more central location. This causes citizens to not have walking access to stores, pharmacies, or other utilities for daily trips. Instead, they must drive to the central area of their suburb/neighborhood to complete any daily trips necessary. The only things within walking distance are other homes. Although our recommendation is very broad, developers must urge city officials to be more flexible with zoning laws so that mixed use development spawns more pedestrian transportation because citizens are able to walk to nearby places instead of drive. Another smaller suggestion we have is related to zoning but deals directly with traffic laws in city centers. The city of Barcelona has implemented a traffic plan banning through cars to drive within each 9 block section of the city They can only access outside, giving them the name “superblocks,” and easing traffic and allowing citizens pedestrian space in the center of the larger blocks. An example of the “superblock” situation is shown in Figure 3.

In similar cities in Spain that implemented these “superblocks” since 2008, there was an increase of pedestrian space by almost 50% and a 42% nitrogen oxide emission reduction, with noise pollution heavily decreased (Roberts, David). This new idea also comes with pre-existing mixed development of residential and commercial, while in the United States and Australia, there is little mixture of the two zoning types. To further make North American and Australian cities more sustainable, we recommend that in the future, planners must developed mixed use spaces with lack of vehicular traffic and more pedestrian and streetcar transportation in the city center and BRT transportation to reach the city’s suburbs.

To conclude, PMV focused cities are unsustainable and need to be addressed immediately. One logical way to respond to this is through the implementation of alternative transport, which includes public transport and active transport. This can come in many forms, but this paper recommends public transport that incorporates existing infrastructure (BRT systems), new infrastructure that would enable streetcars, cycling, and walking as a method of transport, and adjusted zoning laws. The paper also includes case studies of cities that incorporate these recommendations, which makes envisioning the changes in new cities more realistic.


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