It shouldn’t take a 60-mile long traffic jam, like the recent mega-snarl in China, to illustrate that the world’s present modes of transportation are unsustainable. While U.S. drivers haven’t been subjected to eight-day long backups yet, traffic congestion in America is a major source of wasted fuel, lost productivity, and greenhouse gas emissions. The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that traffic congestion costs the country $87.2 billion a year, and that the amount of time wasted in traffic annually totals 4.2 billion hours – nearly one full week for every traveler. No wonder you feel like you could use a weeks’ vacation – you already spend that much time every year stuck in traffic.
The environmental costs of inefficient transportation are even more sobering. In the U.S., the transportation sector accounts for approximately one-third of total CO2 emissions. Transportation is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly half of the net increase in total U.S. emissions since 1990.
The costs of maintaining the current transportation structure are simply not sustainable. We need to find innovative ways to make auto travel more efficient, and at the same time, find ways to encourage other means of getting around besides the car.
One of the best new ideas in transportation is a mode that’s been around for more than 150 years – rail. Railroads are enjoying a renaissance worldwide as countries look for more sustainable transportation solutions. Modern rail has come a long way from the smoke-belching iron horses of the 19th and early 20th centuries – today’s trains are faster, lighter, cleaner, and more efficient.
Even better, rail travel is a relatively green mode of transportation. Traveling by train produces three to 10 times less CO2 compared to road or air transport, according to the UIC, an international railroad organization. And trains can even generate electricity on their own. Many modern electric trains are equipped with regenerative braking that slows the train by using traction motors as generators, which produces electricity that’s returned to the grid.
Here in the U.S., Congress has authorized about $13 billion to kick-start 13 new high-speed rail corridors across the United States. Florida is on track to open America’s first high speed rail service as early as 2015, with a line that connects Tampa and Orlando. Trains are expected to reach speeds of about 170 mph, and Florida has plans to extend the service down to Miami.
Technology will play an increasing role in making rail transportation even more sustainable. New Zealand’s Kiwi Rail is currently installing an advanced software system designed to improve the management of its tracks, bridges and other assets to improve the speed, safety, and reliability of its rail service. The software will deliver information on the condition of nearly 2,500 miles of railway track and thousands of pieces of rail equipment, as well as the signals that control the movement of trains around New Zealand. Maintenance crews will have access to up-to-date information about job plans, work-order tracking, and service requests across the lines, speeding repairs before they impact operations.
While the growth of rail will help boost sustainability, trains will never dethrone the personal automobile as the world’s preferred mode of transportation. Our planet is currently home to more than one billion cars, and over the next two decades, that number is predicted to double, as car ownership in countries like China and India explodes. Anything we can do to reduce congestion and improve traffic flow will have immediate environmental benefits.
One idea that’s catching on is variable traffic pricing, in which road tolls would vary depending on the time of day in order to reduce peak-period traffic volumes to optimal levels. Tolls can vary based on a fixed schedule (like morning and evening rush hour), or they can be dynamic, with the rates changing depending on the level of congestion that exists at a particular time.
San Diego is already planning a system in which sections of Interstate 15, a major regional thoroughfare, will feature variable pricing along 21 miles of managed lanes. San Diego is one of eight “pioneer sites” that the U.S. Department of Transportation has designated to test new traffic management strategies like variable pricing, express busses, changeable message signs, and traffic signal priority for mass transit. (The other pioneer sites are Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Oakland, San Antonio, Seattle, and Montgomery County, Maryland, just north of Washington D.C.)
Our ultimate goal should be to construct a truly intelligent transportation system that ties together traffic information across the entire network, and lets traffic managers anticipate jams so they can take corrective action. Encouraging alternatives to the automobile and squeezing more out of the transit resources we already have are crucial if we hope to build a truly sustainable transportation system, one that serves not only us, but also future generations.
Gerry Mooney is general manager of global government and education for IBM.