The Climate Report: The road to safer, greener & more accessible transport

By Yun Xuan Poon

How AI and cable cars make transport more sustainable, and how to design better streets.

All roads lead to Rome, but not many lead to Paris. In 2015, world leaders set a target to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius under the Paris agreement. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be key to reaching this goal.

Transport is a particularly important sector. It makes up about a quarter of all energy related greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Reducing the sector’s carbon footprint was one of the big focuses at last November’s COP26 held in Glasgow.

City planners, policymakers and innovators came together at the climate change conference to share new ways of reducing transport emissions. They also shared new ways of designing cities to reduce citizens’ dependence on fuel-guzzling vehicles.

AI to clear the way

The US Department of Energy estimates that idling engines waste more than 6 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel combined each year. Cities are turning to AI to help.

AI can relieve traffic congestion by rerouting traffic and redirecting public transport to where there is more demand, pointed out Malcolm Johnson, Deputy Secretary-General of International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN’s dedicated ICT agency. He was speaking at a COP26 net zero for cities panel.

Melbourne, for instance, has launched a system that uses AI to optimise traffic light timings. It learns from complex traffic patterns to predict them, and could help to unclog choked streets in the city, the University of Melbourne wrote.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US is using AI imaging to identify vehicles which consume more fuel, GCN reported. It is also training traffic lights to change their timings, so they send these vehicles through traffic faster.

Clean transport innovations

Other clean transport innovations are beginning to take off. The University of Warwick in England worked with the Coventry City Council to build a new type of light rail transport.

Not only is it zero-emission, its tracks only sit 30 centimeters into the ground. Cities may have a lot of utilities underground, so this saves significant costs in having to move them, explained Margot James, Executive Chair of Warwick Manufacturing Group, at the net zero for cities panel.

Cities with limited space on the ground are reaching for the skies instead. Electric cable cars have become a common form of public transport in Latin America. They provide transport to the poorest populations, many of whom live in dense settlements without much room for trains or buses.

These cable cars are electric and so reduce air pollution, and they don’t add to further congestion on the streets, shared Olga Lucia Sarmiento Dueñas, Professor at the Department of Public Health at Universidad de los Andes, Bogota, Colombia. She was speaking at a transport and health panel held by the World Health Organisation.

Cable cars often come with the added benefit of making transport safer, especially for women. “We also have seen that violence in those areas where these programmes are implemented decreases,” she said.

More accessible transport

Sustainable transport isn’t just about introducing cleaner fuels and vehicles. It’s also about redesigning entire transport systems so cities become more accessible.

“People don’t need transport, they need access,” said Mark Major, Senior Advisor to the SLOCAT Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport.

Africa for one is focusing on making walking and cycling a more viable option. This would increase mobility for citizens without increasing emissions, shared Carly Gilbert-Patrick, Team Leader, Active Mobility, Digitalisation and Mode Integration at UNEP.

Walking and cycling are the most common ways to get around in Africa, as only 35 per cent of African city-dwellers are within 500m of public transport – the lowest in the world. Yet, roads bear no clear signs and are poorly maintained, she said. This makes walking uncomfortable and unsafe.

Gilbert-Patrick’s team at UNEP is working with African cities to change this. Nairobi has committed 20 per cent of its transport budget to pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and all publicly funded roads in Ethiopia will need to have proper non-motorised transport facilities, UNEP wrote.

In the UK, Glasgow’s Strathclyde region has designed a hospital to be more accessible, while discouraging private car use. The Queen Elizabeth University Hospital – one of Europe’s largest healthcare facilities – has limited parking spaces. But it is conveniently connected to the city centre through a dedicated bus rapid transit system, said Valerie Davidson, CEO, Strathclyde Partnership for Transport.

How to design better streets

Cities around the world are also thinking about redesigning urban spaces to serve citizens better. Barcelona has started a Protegim les escoles (Let’s protect schools) initiative, which aims to pedestrianise the surroundings of 200 schools by 2023.

“Schools are the place where kids spend most of their time,” Janet Sanz, Deputy Mayor for Ecology, Urbanism and Mobility told GovInsider. “So we need to make these spaces as safe, non-polluted and playful as possible.”

On top of this, the city’s Superilla project will convert one million square meters of car space to pedestrian zones, she said. She was part of a COP26 panel on women leaders transforming street design.

Barcelona is involving vulnerable groups in the redesigning of these urban spaces, Sanz shared. These include women, young children, the elderly and the disabled. “The city needs to be rethought again from a perspective of daily life uses that it has,” she highlighted.

Such design principles have been helpful across vulnerable groups. Leslie Kern, Director of Women's and Gender Studies at Canada’s Mount Allison University, pointed to Singapore as an example.

The city has made public transport as accessible as possible for its ageing population. Seniors get priority queues at bus interchanges, and authorities spoke with elderly citizens to create more intuitive signs, its Land Transport Authority wrote.

The ancient Romans’ extensive road network made their city one of the most interconnected places of their time. Cities may have to take a similar approach to reduce their carbon footprint and unchoke their streets.

The Climate Report is a series of stories on COP26, the UN’s climate change conference held in Glasgow in November 2021.

Image of cable car by Sebástian Freire - CC BY-SA 2.0.
Image of Barcelona school children by Marco Verch - CC BY 2.0.