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Planning for climate change: Transportation

GCBL staff  |  08/06/08 @ 4:49pm

We know that one-third of the carbon emissions in the U.S. come from the end of a car, SUV or truck tailpipe. We know that any plan to reduce our carbon footprint must include a shift from using personal vehicles to alternatives like bus, train, biking and walking. One of the tasks of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute Climate Change project is figuring Northeast Ohio's carbon reduction goals and how much change in our transportation habits we need to make to contribute to that goal.

When we think of a healthier balance of transportation, we often look to Europe with its dense, walkable cities, web of rail lines and families biking everywhere together. But, a comparison of Europe vs. America's 'mode splits' between cars and cleaner forms of transportation may surprise and even serve to modify our expectations of how many car trips we need to reduce to be among the world's leaders.

From 1996 to 2006, passenger car trips grew at a much faster clip than trips by rail, bus or motorbike in 27 European Union nations, according to a report (418 KB pdf) from the European Commission. In Germany, 83.9% of trips are made by car, 6.4% by bus and 1.5% by urban rail (France is 83.9% car, 5.2% bus and 1.5% metro/urban rail).

In Europe, 4.602 billion passenger kilometer miles by car were logged in 2005 compared to 7.253 billion in the United States. More than half a billion passenger miles (or 9% of all trips) came by bus in Europe vs. a quarter of a billion miles by bus in the U.S.

Although better land use and policies that promote more transit are an important part of reducing the need for cars in everyday trips, we also need to recognize that just as effective in reducing GHG are strategies to improve the efficiency of our car fleet. If we're traveling the same amount of miles, greater fuel efficiency will serve to reduce our emissions. Is it conceivable that we improve our overall fleet efficiency by a significant margin (from around 22 mpg today to 44 mpg)? And how much do we need to invest in alternative forms of propulsion, such as plug-in hybrid vehicles, and new, cleaner fuels?

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