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The World of Transport Is Quietly Pivoting

By James Cortada

There has recently been a great deal of pushback and criticisms about how governments and corporations have performed in improving the planet’s environment. This has left the impression that nothing of substance is being done to address climate change. But such an impression is not accurate. That’s because in the world of transportation a great deal has quietly been going on.

Sometimes with the help of government mandates or incentives, industries and communities have been moving away from fossil fuels and towards alternative energy—and even human energy. The UN’s Climate Champions have designated “transport” as today’s theme during the COP26 climate conference. We applaud the progress that has been made—but also we urge government, businesses, communities, and individuals to accelerate their pivots to more sustainable ways of living.

There are plenty of signs of hope:

Increased bicycle riding over the past decade worldwide has motivated towns and cities to make their streets user friendly and to build bike trails. Europe leads the world and places like Amsterdam and London are showcases at work. Try and find any city today that does not have bike friendly programs being implemented.

Almost every major automotive manufacturer in the industrialized world has recently made the decision to switch their fleets of future cars from gas guzzlers to all electronic over the next decade. Tesla charged them up with practical applications of e-technologies, batteries are improving and all the majors have been experimenting with e-vehicles for a decade. Dramatically, Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen have committed and are already selling such vehicles. We have an automotive and e-truck race underway. Transportation manufacturers waiting for governments to force them to make the transition; instead, they are pressing national governments to build or mandate the construction of charging stations all over the world.

Look at any large city and one can begin to see mayors moving things around to improve environmentally friendly circumstances. Barcelona has blocked off streets west of downtown for bikes, children, and their mothers to walk and ride bikes—no cars allowed. Almost every city in Europe is doing the same. Even in Manhattan, Times Square is becoming less car friendly, more pedestrian accommodating.

Airlines are ordering new aircraft that are being made increasingly out of composite materials, which make them more fuel efficient, although they have further to go. The same is going on with trucks in addition to going electronic.

A new generation of container cargo ships are just beginning to be built that are far more fuel efficient. European and South Korean shipbuilders are some of the leaders in this space. For smaller ships, hydrogen may emerge as an important alternative fuel.

So the point is, a lot of good has already started to take place. Cities and towns have led the charge, so too individuals on bikes (including with e-bikes which make longer distance biking practical). Companies of all sizes have started to spend money on environmentally friendly transportation and energy systems. Their efforts are beginning to move from just platitudes—“blah-blah-blah”—to more measurable tactical steps office-by-office, factory-by-factory. It is not glamorous work, but necessary in moving from rhetoric to results.

But the critics are also right to call for more. The majority of vehicles are still reliant on gasoline, so too aircraft, ships, and trucks. We are just at the beginning of what appears to be an historic transformation similar to the move from horse and buggy to internal combustion engines in essentially just two decades early in the 1900s, from wooden to metal aircraft in a similar time frame in the 1920s-1930s, and from propeller driven aircraft to jet engines in essentially one decade in the 1960s. Coal mining is declining around the world and the greatest user, China, has at least announced that it wants to leave coal burning behind and to dominate the market for environmentally friendly uses of energy. If history teaches us anything about what is going on, by the late 2030s e-transportation will be almost ubiquitous, perhaps hydrogen driven vehicles well on their way, smaller aircraft too (early models already exist).

So what should everyone do? Keep the pressure on manufacturers of transportation vehicles to keep transforming and faster. Keep encouraging and motivating supply chain managers to only accept vehicles into their systems that use clean energy and that are made of materials that consume less dirty energy, especially coal. Individuals can keep pushing their local officials—often who are literally their neighbors down the street—to facilitate greater use of bikes, e-public vehicles such as buses and municipal trucks, build more safe bike lanes, reduce automotive traffic to shrink pollution due to idling, and personally to only buy more fuel efficient, clean energy vehicles themselves. That last individual action alone will drive down the costs of all transportation for everyone quickly since there is growing competition for business from environmentally conscious consumers. Stop riding buses that are not using clean energy, do the same with rental vehicles. Use your purchases to accelerate the quiet revolution underway in the world of transportation.

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