What’s the best way to sustainably power our vehicles? Natural gas is undoubtedly cleaner than petroleum or diesel, but many argue that any move towards more fossil fuels is a step in the wrong direction. Electric vehicles are gaining in popularity. This spring SEPTA announced that they would add 25 electric buses in the new year. But these electric vehicles plug into the grid with no guarantee that they are being fueled by clean energy sources.
At an event last week titled, A Public Roundtable on Transportation Emissions in Philadelphia, panelists Erik Johanson, SEPTA Director of Innovation; Christine Knapp, Mayor’s Office of Sustainability Director; Tony Bandiero, Eastern Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Transportation Executive Director, and Jessica Caum, Department of Public Health, Division of Disease Control Assistant Program Manager, grappled with this question and highlighted some of the new initiatives Philadelphia is taking to think smart about transit. For example, SEPTA continues to commit to electric buses and is now exploring building a 8.8 mega-watt natural gas plant to power the regional rail lines.
Although environmentalist would love to power everything with the wind and sun, it is not a realistic option for vehicles and transit. Natural gas on average will emit 13–21 percent fewer GHG emissions than comparable gasoline and diesel vehicles. Electric and hybrid vehicles are also clean, especially in Philadelphia where the grid is largely fueled by carbon free nuclear power. While we wait for an affordable fully powered solar vehicle, a mix of natural gas and electric can help to lower emissions while still providing the capacity we need.
But beyond just fueling our transit, it is important to think critically about how we use vehicles. Denser compact cities with more resources in closer proximity, eliminate the need for transit all together. By bringing necessities like grocery stores closer to where people live and work, cars and private transit becomes less necessary. Harvard’s Edward Glasser and former Kleinman Center Visiting Scholar Matthew Kahn found in their research that “holding family income and size constant, petrol consumption per family per year declines by 106 gallons as the number of residents per square mile doubles.” Many of the panelists agreed that density is a key piece to consider moving forward.
Philadelphia and other major cities are already making progress moving away from private vehicles towards more sustainable forms of transit. Even if you aren’t someone who is concerned about your carbon footprint, forgoing the car in favor of public transit or ride share just makes financial sense. Uber has been steadily increasing ridership since its launch and boast well over 1 million rides a day worldwide. Zipcar and other short-term car rental companies continue to be a reliable resource for Philadelphians. By having these services readily available, it limits the amount of drivers on the road and pollution in the air.
Through a mix of alternative energy vehicles and public transit, denser urban landscapes, and ride share services, Philadelphia can cut emissions while still providing reliable and affordable transit services. Looking at our transit future, we don’t need to sacrifice convenience in order to be sustainable.