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)

Credit: CNBC International TV. "Unit Hydrograph and Proportionality." YouTube. September 14, 2018.
Click here for a transcript of the Sustainable Energy: The big ideas changing transport video.

Transcript coming soon


Supplemental Reading on Mass Transit Strategies