By Alex Casbara, August 11th 2014
Automobiles propelled our civilization into the modern age by allowing unprecedented levels of convenience and efficiency. Unfortunately, a ballooning global population and sprawling suburban areas have brought negative aspects of car ownership such as traffic, smog, and (most worryingly) the looming specter of climate change.
As a major greenhouse gas (GHG) source, cars are large contributors to climate change. In 2011, the transportation sector accounted for 28% of America’s total GHG emissions, primarily released by passenger cars, trucks, and vans (as opposed to trains, planes, commercial trucks, and ships). To avert the runaway effects of GHG on our climate, we must begin to reduce our unsustainable driving tendencies without detracting from comfort and expediency.
Such an intervention will require comprehensive measures to simultaneously (i) increase the percentage of fuel-efficient vehicles on the road; (ii) promote the use of “low-emission” transport modes such as walking, cycling, and public transit; and (iii) reduce the total demand for vehicle use through improved urban design. As we will see, regional initiatives and business leaders are taking steps to curb the use of passenger vehicles. This effort, however, will require full cooperation from Bay Area residents.
The automobile will not vanish overnight, so regional transportation managers are using driver benefits to incentivize greener passenger vehicles. For example, certain hybrid and alternative-fuel automobiles are eligible to use HOV lanes in California’s highway system, even as single occupant vehicles. The Bay Area has expanded EV charging stations, offered rebates, and instituted free clean vehicle parking to incentivize electric car purchases. Other technological advances, such as biofuels, are also being integrated into the transportation infrastructure. For example, the Alameda County Altamont Landfill converts landfill gases to liquefied natural gas, powering garbage trucks with low-emission fuel harvested from discarded organic matter.
Civic leaders are taking steps to encourage sustainable travel alternatives. The BART Silicon Valley endeavor will soon offer public transit service in the South Bay, with new stations slated to open in South Fremont, Berryessa, and Downtown San Jose. Bay Area Bike Share is expanding into the East Bay, installing bike modules at crucial intersections of commercial zones, residential neighborhoods, shopping districts, and transit nodes. This plan will simultaneously develop another segment of the Bay Trail, dramatically improving cycling infrastructure for East Bay residents.
The commercial sector can also encourage alternative transit habits by offering on-site bike lockers, encouraging telecommuting, providing flexible work hours, or providing amenities for employees who commute via foot, pedal, or public transit.
Ultimately, the efficacy of alternative transit relies on metropolitan zones developing spatial footprints that are compatible biking infrastructure, walkable communities, and a convenient public transport network. As cities grow larger and more populated, civic planners can reimagine the distribution of commercial and residential activities to encourage fewer car trips, shorter commutes, and increased use of public transit. In the Bay Area, the Treasure Island Development Authority is employing such sustainable urban planning, and Plan Bay Area is clustering neighborhoods near accessible transit stations for a growing urban population (although several environmental advocacy groups have claimed that Plan Bay Area does not go far enough).
There is no single solution to reduce GHG emissions from the transportation sector; much like climate change, the complex spectrum of problems requires multifaceted solutions and multidisciplinary action. Bay Area civic leaders and citizens must continue to address passenger cars as a primary driver of climate change by incentivizing green commuters, utilizing clean technology, and reimagining the urban cityscape.