The Road to Decarbonizing Transportation & Mobility: 5 Major Strategies
We have moved from discussing strategies to avert the climate crisis to a growing consensus that we are already in it, and the time to act was yesterday. We need to embrace this moment in time as an opportunity to catalyze industry, government and concerned citizens to accelerate the adoption of low-carbon solutions across all sectors of the economy.
As our population has soared, and the means to travel increased, transportation has proven to be a challenging sector to align to the net zero agenda. Despite having many of the solutions to get to net zero, the transportation emissions has been going the wrong direction. Since 1990, annual emissions from the sector have grown 1.7% per year. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), we need to find a way to actually reduce emissions from the sector by 3% per year if we want any chance to get to a net zero future by 2050.
In this post I’d like to highlight several key strategies and technologies that can get us there and fast, if we act now. I will do so through a series of five statements which are explained along with examples or supporting evidence of solutions that already exist or hopefully will soon. Finally, each of the five statements also contains a “climate crossover strategy” which recognizes the reality that climate action is interconnected and many of the best solutions can benefit from thinking holistically beyond the sector itself.
1) The best transport policy is a great land use policy
I first heard this phrase in 2012 from Daniel Chain, the former Urban Development Minister for Buenos Aires and all of Argentina. We were discussing a smart cities event I was helping design for Buenos Aires and the speakers we wanted to bring in to discuss smart and sustainable mobility. He is right of course. When you think of the best things we can do to decarbonize the world, the first step in any sector is looking for ways to eliminate the need for the emitting activity altogether.
Since 2012, we have seen growing interest world-wide in topics such as transit-oriented development (TOD) and the surprisingly controversial 15-minute city framing which has been championed by my friend Carlos Moreno in Paris.
Tying into the theme of climate capitalism, this may surprise some people. Brightline Trains, (full disclosure, they are a client of my company, Iomob), have been disrupting the US transportation industry by introducing a best in class high speed rail service between Miami and Orlando, Florida. The most valuable housing and commercial property in South Florida is now adjacent to the Brightline rail stations. This demonstrates that even in more car-dependent, less dense regions, if residents have access to high quality transit services, people want to live and work with easy access to it. Brightline Trains adopted the famed TOD strategies from Hong Kong’s MTR system, whereby the combine a real estate strategy with rail infrastructure to increase the value of the land through new rail access.
This first statement is tied to the highly cited “Reverse Traffic Pyramid” which illustrates that transport policy should be focused first on eliminating the need for transit at all.
While the pyramid, and this section so far, is primarily focused on people mobility, the concept of reducing the need for transportation at all is highly relevant to corporates and industry as well.
The post-COVID shift towards more remote work and video calls and conferences has permanently changed commuting patterns and emissions from commuting. In London alone, a study found that COVID-influenced commuting reductions would result in eliminating 11 billion commuting miles and 3 million tons of GHGs, if the commuting pattern changes were permanent.
Reducing the need for transport also applied to the production and distribution of goods as well. Many cities and industries are embracing 3D printing and urban logistics hubs to reduce transportation demands.
Speaking of London, the City has been a leader in embracing urban logistics hubs as a means to reduce congestion, pollution and emissions from last mile goods logistics. In May, British Land announced plans for a net zero logistics hub at 5 Kingdom Street which is projected to remove 100 large vans from Westminister’s roads on a daily basis.
Climate crossover strategy: Barcelona (where I am based), has been a pioneer in experimenting with 3D printing technologies and the maker community. In fact, the Barcelona Fab Lab launched the ambitions Fab Cities initiative which challenge cities to aspire to producing 90% of everything consumed in the city within the region. One major strategy to achieve this involves leveraging decentralized 3D printing facilities throughout the region to allow for localized production and distribution of goods to local neighborhoods.
2. Rail is king in a net zero transportation world
I know I already highlighted some of the merits of rail above but that was in the context of TOD designed to minimize the need for passenger travel. But here I want to focus on rail, in all its forms, as a critical piece of the net zero transportation future. The US has been behind in making rail a priority, but Europe and Asia and even some parts of the developing world embraced rail as a primary transportation option decades ago. Rail has many forms from light rail to suburban rail to high-speed rail and perhaps in the near future, we will have commercialized hyperloop systems too.
All forms of rail are superior to private car and vehicle use (see the role of electrified transport below). The London North Eastern Railway-LNER (full disclosure, they are also a client of Iomob) has published a UK comparison of emission per mile travelled by mode. Their data suggests that domestic flights generate .43 kgCO2 emissions per passenger mile, internal combustion engine (ICE) cars produce .359 kgCO2 emissions per passenger mile, while trains in the country generate only .0715 kgCO2 emissions per passenger mile.
Of course, rail is not just an efficient transportation mode for passengers but also for shipping products as well. Using trains for freight results in the reduction of 75% of the emissions caused by trucks in the U.S.
While I am not going to dedicate a separate section to ocean freight shipping, this of course is an area under pressure to address its climate impacts. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has introduced the Energy Efficiency Existing Ship Index (EEXI) with a Carbon intensity Indicator (CII) which took effect earlier this year.
Climate crossover strategy: While this is slightly beyond the scope of this post, it is worth mentioning that there are some experiments ongoing to turn freight trains into vehicles not just for efficiently moving goods but also as a tool for direct air capture (DAC) to also remove CO2 from the atmosphere as the trains transport goods to their destination.
3. Electrification is a necessary but insufficient step towards net zero transportation
Those of us in the innovation community are often accused of being technocentric in believing that everything, including climate change, can just be solved with technology. I believe this post already illustrates that I embrace no to low-tech solutions too (e.g. TOD, urban logistics hubs).
Many have been singing the praise of electrification in transport for decades and of course Hunter and I emphasized this in Climate Capitalism back in 2011 as well. This is for good reason. In the EU, estimates suggest that at the current mix of renewables in the energy grid, EVs reduce between 17 and 30% of emissions over ICEs and diesel cars over the life cycle, while that number could reach as high as 73% by 2050 if the renewable energy mix targets are met by then.
While most consumers only think about EVs as passenger vehicles, there has been growing interest in the electrification of fleets, of all kinds. That includes in the public transit space (buses and trains), but also commercial and industrial fleets. Not only can the electrification of commercial and industrial fleets help businesses meet their own scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions reductions targets, but it is often already a smart business decision when reviewing total cost of ownership (TCO). A recent study found that light commercial vehicles for urban deliveries are already lower in lifetime cost than ICE vehicles, while medium duty EV trucks will reach parity by 2025 and long-haul heavy-duty EV trucks will reach parity in 2030.
Climate crossover strategy: It is worth mentioning that significant growth in the adoption of EV fleets (for consumers and business) can also contribute to synergistic strategies with electrified building energy systems via vehicle-to-grid (V2G) strategies.
4. Embrace multimodal shared, electric and public transit
The ground mobility ecosystem worldwide is increasingly fragmented and lacks coordination. This is where Mobility as a Service (MaaS), or in some parts of the world Mobility on Demand (MOD) is supposed to come in. Iomob has been an early player in building an enterprise MaaS solution that allows transport operators to seamlessly connect public, private and shared mobility into a single user interface for discover, routing, booking/unlocking and payment of multimodal mobility services.
The idea behind such systems is that by making it simpler for the travelers to travel from A to B with one app, they are more likely to leave their private passenger car behind (or eventually not own one) and instead seamlessly access the range of existing, greener mobility options to get to their destination.
MaaS solutions are not only for the general public but can also be beneficial for companies seeking to reduce the scope 3 emissions from employee commuting. Companies are increasingly providing employees with access to discounts or even mobility budgets and dedicated MaaS apps so they can move without their own car at home or while on business trips.
At Iomob we also believe there is a role for gamification and nudging which is why we launched WheelCoin as a tool to reward users for making greener mobility choices. Think of WheelCoin as an “air miles for green mobility” allowing users to earn tokens for their emissions savings which can be burned for discounts on green mobility or for digital collectibles or even sold on an exchange.
Climate crossover strategy: Many of the themes in this post have the potential to be blended to accelerate decarbonization of travel and adjacent industries. The use of multimodal solutions is not just for passenger mobility in urban areas but can also be used for domestic and international logistics. Adding in more sustainable first and last mile logistics including the aforementioned urban logistics hubs to goods distribution can be valuable. I also believe in the future we will see more hybrid models that involve better optimization of the entire mobility ecosystem for combining passenger and goods mobility.
This already happens on planes and trains for example where cargo space on passenger vehicles is used for goods movement. I believe in the future we will see even more unique blending. For example, why not have an open, permissionless (on the blockchain) mobility network whereby people or last mile logistics services can access the best vehicle for their needs. In some cases a person who wants to access a carshare vehicle could simultaneously get a discount on the carshare by agreeing to deliver a package on her way?
5. Air travel should be minimized
While video conferencing has reduced the need for some local and international travel, tourists and professionals will still travel internationally for work or pleasure. Whenever possible, rail should be the preferred option for the reasons already discussed. Similarly, a growing number of countries are banning short haul domestic flights when there are available high speed rail options between two destinations.
Directly related to the last section, there will be growing demand for multimodal solutions that allow passengers to seamlessly connect between long distance flights and domestic rail and last mile services. Imagine in the near future, a family traveling from Portland, Oregon to Lyon, France for holiday. They may fly into Paris but not be offered a short haul connecting flight to Lyon. Instead, they will be offered a connecting rail journey to Lyon and offers to solve their last mile to their hotel (ridehailing, shuttle, etc) all in a single interface.
Climate crossover strategy: Regardless of the efforts to reduce air travel, we will continue to fly. Efforts are painfully slow, but under way to make flying less carbon intensive. Outside of efforts to make planes and engines more efficient, efforts are under way to embrace biofuels. Virgin Atlantic recently completed the first test of biofuels on a commercial flight between London and Amsterdam.
It is impossible to “not look up” and to ignore the reality that climate change, and the climate crisis has arrived. Yet solutions exist in every sector of the economy to accelerate climate action, and in many cases, at a profit as well, while improving quality of life in our cities.
This is definitely the case for the transportation sector. While decarbonization seems a long way off given the current trajectory of emissions, we have a clear roadmap to accelerate climate action in transportation, embracing better land use, shifting more passenger and freight to rail, accelerating electrification, adopting multimodal mobility and goods logistics and avoiding air travel when possible while seeking ways to decarbonize it along the way.
About the Author
Boyd Cohen is CEO and co-founder of Iomob, which is building the Internet of Mobility network and WheelCoin Move2Earn to gamify green mobility and is a contributor on ReFi to CoinDesk. Since obtaining his Ph.D. in strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado in 2001, he has spent the past two decades focused on accelerating the path to a low-carbon sustainable economy. He has published three books, multiple peer-reviewed articles and started a handful of ventures in the smart cities and sustainability arena.