EME 807
Technologies for Sustainability Systems

10.3. Sustainable Community and Mass Transit Technologies


10.3. Sustainable Community and Mass Transit Technologies

picture of a pedestrian zone with people walking
Credit: Keromi Keroyama via Flickr

Sustainable community is a term usually applied to a certain inhabited entity, a neighborhood, a town, or a city that is economically, socially, and environmentally healthy and resilient. The typical feature of a sustainably developing community is a holistic approach to meeting the local society needs, as opposed to fragmented efforts, which focus on one specific need and ignore others. Ideally, a sustainable community should have a better quality of life, which is built upon responsible and organized citizenship of its members (not on businesses compromising well-being of other communities. A sustainable community also provides economic security through reinvestments in the local economy, diverse and financially viable economic base, sustainable business (PCSD, 1997). The National Partnership for Sustainable Communities defined six principles of livability that make a community sustainable (PSC, 2014):

  1. Provide more transportation choices.
  2. Promote equitable, affordable housing.
  3. Enhance economic competitiveness.
  4. Support existing communities.
  5. Coordinate policies and leverage investment.
  6. Value communities and neighborhoods.

Availability of transportation choices is the number one factor mentioned on this list. It is interesting that transportation is one thing that becomes worse with economic growth. Other important parts of society development, like information, sanitation, manufacturing, and energy efficiency typically improve with economic development, but not transport. And now, especially, development of new mass transit options become a significant part of plans of orienting communities towards sustainable development.

Urban communities are essentially shaped by their transportation systems. Mainstream city planning in the U.S. has been based on the networks of motor roadways and personal car use, with public transit as second priority. In the second half of the 20th century, the car use and automotive fuel consumption steeply increased, as did greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector (~20-25% of world energy consumption). The sustainability of the current communities that are heavily reliant on car transportation becomes questionable for at least two reasons:

  1. environmental impact - greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, depletion of petroleum resource, increased land and water use demands; and
  2. social impact - overdependence on cars for basic needs and commuting, limited infrastructure to support growing car culture, decreased quality and aesthetics of urban life.

Development trends were slightly different in Asia and Europe, where planning was influenced by lower availability of resources or land required for automotive culture. Traditionally, European culture is more reliant on mass transit and has invested more into it. Thus, the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) based in Brussels, Belgium, supports a holistic approach to urban transportation and advocates public transportation development in 92 countries worldwide [Source: Wikipedia / International Association of Public Transport]. On the average, transport emissions of a U.S. city are about 4 times higher than that in Europe and about 24 times higher than that in Asia (UITP, 2014).

Recent trends, however, show that public transit may be re-establishing its role in American metropolitan areas, as several factors suggest that transit may be a more sustainable transportation option (Rutsch, 2008). Incentives that may affect people's choice of public transit versus private cars may include economic benefits, convenience, and speed. Strategies to enhance these factors via new technologies, policies, and business models raise competitiveness of the mass transit.

Please refer to the following reading to learn about possible measures and strategies to make the public transportation more attractive in urban settings.

Reading Assignment:

  • Penalosa, E., Role of Transport in Urban Development Policy, Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2005.

    This paper examines a range of social impacts of urban development, and especially addresses alternatives to transportation models. It also features a number of real-world examples of how transformation of mobility systems in cities contributed to the well-being of their inhabitants.

    Based on this reading, try to formulate your vision of the sustainable urban community and share it on this lesson discussion forum. What are your most favorite and least favorite measures to undertake? If you had a power of policy making, what transportation model would you choose?

According to experts, modification of public transit systems through introducing new technologies would be a critical step in meeting the world's future mobility needs. The future urban transportation networks should help cities lower their per capita carbon footprint, make cities more livable by easing commute, and increase accessibility and safety. The Sustainable Cities Institute names “holistic transportation” one of the key principles for urban sustainability. Holistic transportation planning with environment in mind means that besides vehicles themselves, planning should include such elements as streets, sidewalks, pedestrian spaces, bicycle routes, and enabling technologies for private and public fleets.

The following video features a few innovations related to long-distance and short-distance transit, which are discussed in the context of sustainable city planning. Although some technologies and ideas sound and look somewhat futuristic, others started their way up the TRL scale and get much closer to commercialization.

A couple of points / questions to focus on while watching the video:

  • See how the new ideas for transport technologies are evaluated. What criteria and metrics make the top of the list?
  • Try to watch critically and recognize both GO and NO-GO factors for these technologies in the future.
  • What role is played by policy and city planning in the implementation of new transportation ideas?

Video: Sustainable Energy: The big ideas changing transport (24:42)

Click here for a transcript of the Sustainable Energy: The big ideas changing transport video.


AFUA ADOM: Hi, Ashley.

ASHLEY HOUSE: Have you ever wondered how we might get from A to B in the future? Maybe we'll trade in our bicycles and hail helicopters like cabs.

AFUA ADOM: Or even magnetically float through tunnels at close to the speed of sound.

ASHLEY HOUSE: In today's episode, we'll flash forward to look at mobility in the city of tomorrow.



Over the last 100 years or so, no one has invented a major new mode of transport. In fact, here in Oxford, people were riding on their bikes almost as much back then as they do today. But whether you travel on two wheels or four, commuting can be a real drag. It's no wonder we complain about it.

AFUA ADOM: Navigating blocked and congested roads, waiting for packed and delayed trains, again and again, on a loop. Luckily, that could be about to become a Hyperloop. Coming up.

ASHLEY HOUSE: We'll be zooming through tubes in floating pods and looking into the hype around Hyperloop. We'll also be jumping into state-of-the-art helicopters and pacing the streets of Gothenburg, where city planning is one step ahead.

AFUA ADOM: I was lucky enough to get the lowdown on future planning from Professor Malcolm McCulloch here at the University of Oxford.

ASHLEY HOUSE: But first of all, let's get our figures and our facts straight.

Today, 55% of the world's population live in urban areas. But by 2050, this is expected to increase to 68%. Robotaxis are expected to take off rapidly after 2025, with 80% of people using them where available. As a result, car ownership should drop dramatically.

By 2030, a quarter of passenger miles traveled on America's roads is expected to be in shared, self-driving electric vehicles, reducing the number of cars on city streets by 60%, emissions by 80%, and road accidents by 90%. How would you like to ditch your slow train and instead levitate straight to your destination in record time? In downtown, LA a revolution in mobility is making the seemingly impossible possible.


Virgin Hyperloop One is designed to be an energy-efficient pod that will travel from origin to destination at speeds of up to 1,100 kilometers an hour, over or underground, on demand. Its inventors see it as one of the most innovative new major modes of transport in 100 years. Once passengers board the Hyperloop, it accelerates via electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube. The vehicle floats above the track using magnetic levitation and glides at airline speeds for long distances due to ultra low aerodynamic drag.

It's fully autonomous and enclosed, so the hope is that this will eliminate operator error and avoid adverse weather conditions. It's also clean, insomuch that there are no direct carbon emissions.

ROB LLOYD: When we look at the technology we're developing, when we look at the progress we've made, when we look at the fact that we've built a proof of concept already, I think we're going to change people's lives. I think we're going to improve the lives of people around the world. It's not just going to be for people that have a lot of wealth or in wealthy areas. We're going to dramatically change how people live.

We're going to increase opportunities for jobs. We're going to change relationships. We're going to change their expectations of how commerce is conducted. So when we really think about it at Virgin Hyperloop One, we have a unique opportunity to change the world.

ASHLEY HOUSE: People have been dreaming about new forms of high-speed travel, including in a vacuum, for more than a century. Now, thanks to Hyperloop technology, that dream is about to become a reality. The Virgin Hyperloop One team started by combining existing technologies-- linear electric motors, maglev, vacuum pumps-- and built on a basic design to create a revolutionary mode of transport.

JOSH GIEGEL: So we started this company in a garage in Los Angeles in November of 2014, and the goal was to create the fifth mode of transportation. What we wanted to do was completely revolutionize how you thought about getting somewhere till you got there. So from the app experience, integrating with the last mile, to something that doesn't have turbulence. It goes where you want to, when you want to, for a price that you can afford.

And you're not stopping in other destinations along the way. And, ultimately, you get your time back, which is what we're trying to give to everyone.

ASHLEY HOUSE: So how will it feel to step onto a Hyperloop system? Will we levitate from one end of the country in the blink of an eye? Not quite. It'll take 35 minutes from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. And its engineers say there'll be no turbulence, no wind in your hair. You'll accelerate and decelerate gently, just like riding a passenger plane or stepping into a lift. And from the outside, all you'll hear is a loud whoosh due to the fact that the travel pod isn't touching anything.

In May 2017, Hyperloop One was the first company in the world to test a full-scale Hyperloop.

ROB LLOYD: To describe my feelings, I only have to look at the faces of the engineers as that test proved successful, as the vehicle levitated and moved down the track. An immense sense of pride and accomplishment in doing something that the world had never seen before.

ASHLEY HOUSE: It's not just good news for passengers. It's also good news for freight. Virgin Hyperloop One will deliver high-priority, on-demand goods, such as fresh food, medical supplies, and electronics at the speed of flight, making same-day delivery and efficient supply chains for businesses entirely possible.

ROB LLOYD: It will truly transform commerce, decrease the inventories invested in supply chain, and be part of what is becoming a world based on demand economy.

So next time you're chugging along on a slow train, just think, in only a couple of decades, you may well be levitating through a tunnel at mind-blowing speed in a revolutionary new mode of transport.

AFUA ADOM: Malcolm McCulloch is associate professor in engineering science and group leader of the Energy and Power Group here at the University of Oxford. As well as researching the domestic energy sector, user-centric demand site management technologies, and behavioral change, he's at the forefront of developing powertrains for innovative electric vehicles. Malcolm, thank you so much for having us here at Oxford University. Now, firstly, tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do here.

MALCOLM MCCULLOCH: So I'm an engineer. And I've been looking, in the last 20 years or so, in sustainable energy. I've been looking at the role of transport and the way it's changing, and also the way energy systems are evolving.

AFUA ADOM: Malcolm, firstly, tell me, what are the key technologies that will revolutionize mobility in the city of tomorrow? Well, there are going to be three new technologies that we're going to need in the near term, the mid term, and the long term. In the near term, it's going to be cheaper and more compact batteries for electric vehicles. In the medium term, it's going to be autonomous driving and making sure that works to an acceptable level.

And then, the long term is going to be looking to say, what are the alternative fuel choices for long-distance traveling? And one of the interesting ones is going to be ammonia, which is basically a better form of carrying hydrogen.

AFUA ADOM: What are the key challenges behind these new kinds of technology?

MALCOLM MCCULLOCH: So in battery technology, it's more about saying, how do we make things compact and very cost effective. And that's mainly about how do we scale that up. And that's happening.

On autonomous vehicles, it's all about saying, how do we get those algorithms to be even better than they are now and to be a lot more safer? And again, that's on its route to being viable in the near future. I think the real interesting challenge comes through looking to say, what are the alternative fuels? And in ammonia particularly, it's saying, how do we produce ammonia from green energy sources?

And there's some really exciting work that's going on at the moment is saying, how I can we use renewable energy to actually produce ammonia? But the really nice thing about ammonia is it's actually used in a multi-billion-pound industry, which is for fertilizer. So there's a lot of work and effort in developing a green source of ammonia. And I think that's going to be the winner in the next decade in terms of long-distance transport fields.

AFUA ADOM: Tell me, how do you think innovation like the Hyperloop can help climate change?

MALCOLM MCCULLOCH: So what that technology does is addresses the challenge and how do we do long distances and high speed. And as many from point-to-point travel. And the advantage is that the Hyperloop One allows us to do that high speed on ground, which means that we got access to renewable energy sources to actually undertake that mobility option, which we can't easily do by doing air travel.

But interestingly, about 15 years ago, I set a challenge to my students to say, how do you get to London to New York on zero carbon. And they looked at actually developing a concrete version of the Hyperloop over that distance. And they found it was actually feasible, and they found that the carbon payback period on that was about five or six years.

So it is possible, but it's a-- the technology enabling us to do that is still going to be decades away. But who knows in 2030, 2040, what we might be doing?


ASHLEY HOUSE: When I'm stuck in traffic, I often wish I could just fly over it all direct to my destination. Wishful thinking? Maybe not anymore. In Germany, there's an inventive team looking to make it happen.


The Volocopter is a fully electric aerial mobility solution. The inventor's vision is that it will connect vital hubs, such as airports, with city centers, and flights can take off every minute and be available on demand.

FLORIAN REUTER: The Volocopter is intended to add a new mode of transport that will help us alleviate current congestion levels. Certainly, this is a transport in the air, and I don't expect 100% of the ground transport to vanish and go up into the third dimension. But certainly a large part of it on certain routes.

Since its inception, the Volocopter has been flying all electric. So we intend to make it as sustainable as possible.

ASHLEY HOUSE: The developers say the system will be similar to current ground-based ride sharing apps. Simply order a Volocopter via your smartphone, and one will be assigned within minutes. Then they say all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the bird's-eye view.

FLORIAN REUTER: The Volocopter is an entirely novel type of vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. By its DNA, it's a drone, so you can fly remotely controlled. It can fly all by itself. Or you can put a pilot in and have them operate it via the joystick. And all in all, it's an extremely safe, sustainable, and very quiet vehicle.

ASHLEY HOUSE: So the inventors hope that anyone and everyone can just jump in and fly whenever and wherever they fancy. But how are they ensuring it's safe?

FLORIAN REUTER: Any individual critical component can fail, and the Volocopter is prone to compensate for that. It goes so far that when we were walking onto the airfield with the certifier, we were able to show him failure scenarios. So for example, he could say, OK, now turn off propeller two and nine. Can I see battery six failing? Can I see flight control number two providing erroneous sensor data, for example? And we were able to demonstrate, in full flight, how the vehicle fully compensated for all of these scenarios.

ASHLEY HOUSE: It sets a new benchmark where carbon emissions are concerned, as fuel is replaced by electricity. In addition, maintenance, repair, and overhaul time should be reduced as the system avoids complex mechanical components.

FLORIAN REUTER: So when we talk about the operational costs of the Volocopter maintenance, repair, overhaul-- MRO, as we say-- our primary cost driver in today's helicopter operations. In the Volocopter we have a very different outset, which is none of our individual components is absolutely safety critical. So we can reduce the level of maintenance required significantly, one.

Secondly, all of our components are very well accessible and have extremely low wear and tear over time. So we expect, in general, the MRO costs to be dramatically lower than with traditional helicopters today.

ASHLEY HOUSE: In December 2017, Brian Krzanich, former CEO of Intel Corporation, test drove the Volocopter for the first time.

FLORIAN REUTER: So we are testing the Volocopter regularly on our test field here in Brussels. So it's pretty much every day flying. We expect to see a number of demonstrations in relevant environments in cities in 2019. Nevertheless, demonstrations. And we expect to see first commercial operations somewhere between three to five years, hopefully on the lower end of that timeline.

ASHLEY HOUSE: So it might be just a matter of years until we all have access to our very own private Volocopter with a simple swipe of our smartphone. It looks like the sky's the limit.

AFUA ADOM: Malcolm, how do we make all these new, revolutionary transport systems interoperable?

MALCOLM MCCULLOCH: Well, the key is to make it really easy for people to move from one mode to another mode. And the way we do that is make sure that it's co-located. So when we come off our planes, for instance, we can just go a few steps, and there's our Volocopter ready for us to be able to take us to the final distance. And if we're really smart, we have the same ticket to enable us to do the complete end-to-end journey.

AFUA ADOM: Tell me, how realistic is it that the air will become the new public transport highway?

MALCOLM MCCULLOCH: In one sense, we already use the air a lot for long-distance travel. If you're looking at intracity travel, then I think there is a possibility that it might become more viable, especially as the density of batteries increases and we have our high-powered motors. It allows these technologies to become more feasible. What the price point is going to be and whether we can get the regulatory environment in place, that's going to be the challenge.

AFUA ADOM: So we could see a time where we're using Volocopters like a taxi service to get to work?

MALCOLM MCCULLOCH: That is a possibility. The question is, is it going to be at the right price point, and are we going to get the regulatory framework in place?

AFUA ADOM: How can we make sure that green transport solutions are accessed by everyone?

MALCOLM MCCULLOCH: Well, the issue is that we have to make the service affordable, fast, and equitable for everybody. And the interesting thing is that, as batteries are being produced more and more, we're getting much smarter in the way that we make them so that we're finding that the costs are really coming down. And that means that these technologies are now becoming much more accessible to a wider range of people.

AFUA ADOM: Malcolm, thank you so much for that. Stay with me, I've got some more questions for you. But first, I thought you knew everything there is to know about mobility in the city of tomorrow? Well, here's one common misconception.

ASHLEY HOUSE: You thought you knew? Think again. Myth-- vehicle sharing could provide environmentally friendly transport to everyone in the world. Fact-- in order to take off globally, vehicle sharing requires a critical population mass, and still has a series of challenges to overcome.

Car sharing needs to overcome serious competition from other modes of transport, such as affordable taxi services that are easily summoned on smartphones. Rates need to be irresistibly attractive. For electric and hydrogen car sharing to grow successfully, city councils have to step up and support it with adequate infrastructures like public chargers and dedicated parking, which make the cars straightforward to use.

If car sharing services can bring all these factors together, there's nothing to stop the 2 billion cars expected to hit the roads by 2040 being shared, cleaning up the cities of tomorrow.


The invention of automated vehicles is racing forward at the speed of Formula One. But we also need a magic formula to fit everything onto our city streets. City planners in Sweden are the first in the world to put firm plans in place for the future.


City planners plan for the future. So how do they see autonomous vehicles becoming part of the way you get around? And how do they make sure they take to the streets smoothly, especially in historic cities?

MONICA WINCENTSON: As city planners, we realize that, around the world, there is a huge focus on developing the new technology for autonomous vehicles. But as yet, there has not been significant collaboration between city planners and car manufacturers. In order for autonomous vehicles to work well, we absolutely have to work together.

ASHLEY HOUSE: In order to map out the future of the city's streets, the planners are using the same world-class rendering 3D models used by Hollywood film makers to experiment and try out different ideas.

ERIC JEANSSON: There's one project that was very successful using this virtual model. Is a project concerning a cable car over Gota alv, the river in Gothenburg. Then we use the virtual model as a background, and then we have the cable car, the new cable car, the planned cable car. And we can use this model to show the citizens how the cable car should look like from different angles, from the ground, from different apartments, from windows. And you can actually make a tour on the gondola over the river.

ASHLEY HOUSE: The vision is that automated vehicles will flow smoothly around the city center, reducing congestion and CO2 emissions, and that traffic lights, road signs, and car parks will all become retro relics of the past, freeing up valuable space.

MONICA WINCENTSON: We think the benefits for the city will be safer and more secure transportation the flow of traffic will be more even, smooth, and efficient. And it could also free up space for green areas, playgrounds, meeting spaces, wider sidewalks, and bike lanes. And large parking areas that require a lot of space can be used in a better way.

ASHLEY HOUSE: It sounds idyllic, but can pedestrians remain safe crossing roads dominated by robots?

MONICA WINCENTSON: The safety for both pedestrians and passengers is important, and comprehensive testing of the technology is required. We will continue to have traffic regulations for vehicles and pedestrians. And from an urban perspective, it is desirable that separation and restrictions of movements are no worse than today, with fences, main roads, and similar barriers.

ASHLEY HOUSE: City planners are already test driving their plans. And in 2017, 100 self-driving Volvo cars took to the streets of Gothenburg. This was the biggest experiment of its kind in the history of the automated vehicle.

MONICA WINCENTSON: It's still early days, and we are currently making studies and do workshops together with the industry, academia, and test the interaction between autonomous vehicles and city planning. So we're working on it.

ASHLEY HOUSE: 100 cars operating automatically around Gothenburg city center. It may seem like a scene straight out of a sci-fi film, but soon, this is set to become a reality.

ERIC JEANSSON: If these vehicles are used right, it will not just make the individual travel options more attractive, but also mass transit. And this is one way to make the sustainability goals a reality.

ASHLEY HOUSE: Word on the street is that other major cities are already hot on the heels of Gothenburg. So it might not be long before incorporating automated vehicles into city plans will be as automatic as the vehicles themselves.

AFUA ADOM: What does the future hold for electric cars?

MALCOLM MCCULLOCH: Well, I think we're at an interesting point where I think we're at a tipping point for electric vehicles where, in the next two or three years, you're going to see a large amount of battery production coming online, which is going to make them really much cheaper.

AFUA ADOM: How can new technologies, such as automated vehicles, fit into old cities?

MALCOLM MCCULLOCH: Well, I think they actually can fit in quite well. Automated vehicles are really good at perceiving their surroundings. And actually, there are a lot of clues for them to pick up in older cities, so looking at buildings and the like. The real challenge is going to be to say, how do they interact with motorcycles, with bicycles, and with pedestrians, because quite often we use human cues when we interact with it. And that's where the challenge at the moment is, how do they pick up on those small micro cues, and then make their challenges. But in terms of old cities, it's absolutely fine.

AFUA ADOM: Say I'm the mayor of a city. How would you advise me to prioritize over the next 10 years to meet Paris Climate Change Agreement goals and to achieve zero-emission cities?

MALCOLM MCCULLOCH: So the first point that I would start with is to say, make your public transport really high quality and green it up. So one of the interesting things we found in Oxford is, soon as they put in hybrid electric vehicles for their buses, actually, we found that the passengers really preferred them because they were much smoother and actually provided a much more enjoyable ride. Secondly, I would start to look at considering zero-emission zones, but make them really small to start off with so people get used to the idea that one day they might have to go to a zero-emissions vehicle.

AFUA ADOM: So bikes, pedestrians, and electric vehicles only?

MALCOLM MCCULLOCH: Correct. And so, for instance, in Oxford, we're starting with a small section on the high street which is turning to a zero-emissions zone in the next year or two. And that then enables people to get ready to say, actually, what we now need to do-- when I make a decision for my next vehicle, I actually want to consider either a hybrid or an electric vehicle. And that gentle nudge transforms the way we think about what mobility should look like.

And actually, it's much more pleasant because we don't have the noxious fumes anymore. It's much quieter. And actually, often a lot more fun.

AFUA ADOM: What's your ideal vision for a transport in the city of tomorrow?

MALCOLM MCCULLOCH: Well, for the city of tomorrow, I would love to see a city that's redesigned, that's much more greener, where actually my preferred mode of transport is walking, and actually enjoying moving from one place to the other. And potentially, if I need to move longer distances, is to go in a quiet, clean transport, such as either electric bus or electric vehicles. But to me, it's about saying how do we improve our overall quality of life, and not just be stuck to the old ways of doing things, but to envisage something that's fun, healthy, and a lot more exciting.

AFUA ADOM: Malcolm, thank you so much for having us today.

MALCOLM MCCULLOCH: It's been a pleasure.

ASHLEY HOUSE: So after a century waiting for a major new mode of transport to arrive, inventors now are making up for lost time. And pretty soon, we'll be cutting emissions and journey times, traveling in automated vehicles gliding around perfectly planned streets. The future of mobility in the city of tomorrow looks bright.

AFUA ADOM: Next time, we'll look at mobility of energy. How important is it for our energy to be mobile? Can we source what we need locally? We check out developments in everything from batteries to tanks and outer space, keeping us all powered up.

ASHLEY HOUSE: And if you have any questions for our expert on the next episode of "Sustainable Energy," you can get them to us in all the usual ways at @CNBCEnergy using the hashtags #AskSE and #SustainableEnergy. But until next time, keep thinking green.

BOTH: Goodbye.