Getting There Carbon Free

What can we do about transportation :: Feet, bikes, buses, and an all-electric fleet.


The U.S. emits the equivalent of 7.26 gigatonnes of CO2 annually.
Our transportation contributes 2.01 gigatonnes of that.
Photo by Amanda Kovattana,
Inside an electric Sparrow car.
Photo by Amanda Kovattana,

Ten years ago, many people thought the transportation fuel of the future would be hydrogen. Then came the hopes of biofuels. Today, both dreams have gone, fallen to the reality of their full life-cycle energy equations and unsustainable sources.

There will still be a role for hydrogen, and for biofuel where it can be harvested sustainably from sewage, algae, seaweed and prairie grass. The emerging winner, however, is electricity. The electric vehicle, far from being dead, is being reborn as both pure electric (EV) by Tesla, G-Wiz, and Modec and as a Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV).

Our exploration of post-carbon travel should start with our legs, however. Our ancestors walked all around the -planet, so let us reclaim the right to walk in safety and -beauty on our Earth. Let us redesign our communities and suburbs with winding lanes that lead to woodlands and village stores. If 5 percent of our post-carbon travel is by foot, that’s a 5 percent reduction in our need for liquid fuel.

Next comes the bicycle. In Copenhagen, Denmark, 33 percent of commuters bike to work. In Davis, California, where they have been building bike routes since the 1960s, 17 percent of commuters do the same. In Paris, the government has placed 20,000 Vélib’ (“vélo liberté,” or “bicycle freedom”) bikes on the city’s streets for anyone to use for a small charge. If your muscles ache, a quick electric conversion will make your bike fly up the hills. In snow-clad winters, cyclists ride with studded tires. If 10 percent of our trips are by bike, that’s a cumulative 15 percent reduction.

Then there’s transit. Boulder, Colorado, has redesigned its service to make the buses smaller and more frequent—increasing ridership five-fold. Hasselt, Belgium, has made its buses free, paid for by city taxes—increasing ridership 10-fold. In transit-friendly cities, buses have GPS and electronic timetables, so you know exactly when they’ll come. We need to make a huge public investment in transit, bus rapid transit (like light rail transit, but on regular roads) and luxury commuter coaches with laptop plug-ins and frappuccinos. If 20 percent of our trips are thus, that’s a cumulative 35 percent reduction, but since hybrid buses still need liquid fuel, we’ll call it 30 percent.

Add teleworking and teleconferencing for 5 percent, trains and high speed trains for 5 percent, and ridesharing for 5 percent, and we’ve reduced our liquid fuel need by 45 percent. Now turn to cars. Since 80 percent of the car trips we take are within battery range of an EV or PHEV, this can further reduce our need for liquid fuel. If we use modern lightweight materials, trimming a vehicle’s weight by as much as 80 percent, demand falls to around 5 percent, which could be covered by biofuels from wastes or algae.

To reduce the need for long-distance trucking, we must rebuild our local economies to meet most of our needs, and use hydrogen-enhanced hybrid biofueled trucks for what’s left. For ocean shipping, the answer may be wind-powered SkySails and hydrogen harvested on mid-ocean platforms from the sun, wind and waves. For flying, maybe slow biofueled helium dirigibles, but otherwise, no easy answers.

A hundred years ago, most people were either walking, or riding a horse. The carbon age has provided us with a stepping stone between the past and the future. It is time to step off it, and into the future.

Guy Dauncey wrote this article as part of Stop Global Warming Cold, the Spring 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Guy is a speaker, organizer, consultant, and author with Patrick Mazza of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change, New Society Publishers.

Interested? Cool Transport: links and other resources.

Photo of Guy Dauncey
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