Transportation accounts for around one-seventh of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And globally, greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster in transportation than in any other sector, with rapid motorization — more cars and trucks — being the principal cause.
Enhanced mobility has many positive effects on economic development and social welfare, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, including more efficient movement of goods and improved access to jobs, health services and education. But if this is achieved primarily through increased reliance on conventional private cars, it can mean diverting substantial financial resources to roads and suffering worse air pollution and traffic congestion. The benefits are huge, but the costs also can be significant. And this is accentuated in the developing nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Most are experiencing rapid population growth and urbanization, and many have fast-growing economies.
But while the United States and some other wealthy countries struggle with crumbling transportation infrastructure riddled with underfunded bus, subway and light rail systems, many developing countries in the global South are facing an interesting challenge: developing low-carbon transportation systems where no formal transportation infrastructure previously existed. This provides both an opportunity and a challenge: because many cities in the global South lack substantial public transportation infrastructure, they can start with a relatively clean slate — but starting from scratch also can be difficult.
Some developing countries also face issues of changing the historical transportation industry structure, said Rachel Kyte, VP of sustainable development at the World Bank, in a 2011 interview. Many countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia have bus systems that are owned and operated by a large number of small operators. Having a large number of small operators allows for low-cost services, but often leads to poor quality due to severe competition. Other problems include dangerous driving practices, pollution and a tendency to have too much service on profitable routes and virtually no service on non-profitable routes.
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Despite these challenges, some current and forthcoming innovations in public transportation are already or soon could help countries in the global South achieve low-carbon transportation systems. Here are some of the promising:
1. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)
BRT is a bus-based mass transit system that generally has specialized design, services and infrastructure to improve system quality and remove the typical causes of delay. Sometimes described as a “surface subway,” BRT aims to combine the capacity and speed of light rail or metro with the flexibility, lower cost and simplicity of a bus system.
One of the best examples of BRT in the global South is the TransMilenio in Bogotá, Colombia. Opened to the public in 2000, TransMilenio consists of several interconnecting BRT lines, each composed of many elevated stations in the center of a main avenue. Users pay at the station entrance using a smart card, pass through a turnstile and wait for buses inside the station. The bus and station doors open simultaneously, and passengers board by walking across the threshold. TransMilenio buses enjoy their own dedicated lanes on the city’s sprawling and congested roads. For a city of 9 million people, TransMilenio was a godsend.
During my year living in Bogotá, I experienced TransMilenio firsthand, as it was my primary means of transportation across the sprawling city. While the system works well during non-peak hours, trying to use it during rush hour is a lesson into what it’s like to be a sardine. Granted, my Colombian friends told me of the horrors of trying to get across town before TransMilenio — people were forced to take so-called colectivos, or small private buses that run random routes throughout the city. Colectivos still play an integral role in getting people around, but for long-distance travel within the city, TransMilenio drastically cuts commute times — while it could take hours on a colectivo to get from one side of the city to the other, TransMilenio can cut this down to less than an hour.
2. Traffic-Straddling Buses
As crazy as it sounds, China has built a massive bus that straddles multiple lanes of cars to move commuters without creating additional traffic. Recently unveiled in Qinhuangdao, China, the prototype bus is limited to a 300 meter long track, with limited turns and traffic challenges.
If the bus proves capable of handling a wide variety of streets and traffic conditions, it could one day carry upwards of 1,200 passengers at speeds of close to 40 miles per hour. Adding a fleet of these buses to a crowded city center would be hundreds of millions of dollars cheaper than introducing new subways or elevated trains to help ease congestion.
First proposed in 2013 by Tesla and SpaceX visionary Elon Musk, the ‘Hyperloop’ Transport System, has been promised to be capable of rapidly transporting people from Los Angeles to San Francisco via a tube in under 30 minutes. Earlier this year, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), the startup aspiring to bring the Hyperloop to life, began construction on a full-scale, passenger-ready Hyperloop. The prototype will run 5 miles through Quay Valley, a planned community rising from nothing along Interstate 5, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
But the first commercial application of the Hyperloop technology would make more sense in the developing world, according to Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of HTT, during an appearance late last year. Cities such as Beijing and Bombay have serious transportation problems, and the Hyperloop could help address them. If powered by renewable energy, the Hyperloop could provide a form of fast, efficient and sustainable travel. Musk claimed that the Hyperloop is going to do for the 21st century what the railroad did for the 19th.