Public Transportation’s Role in Advancing a Low-Carbon Economy

11/04/2021 | Back to News

We are in a time of change and global energy transformation away from a fossil fuel-based economy to one focused on accelerating renewable energy production. Innovations are being made in support of energy efficiency and smart technologies, alternative fuels within the transportation sector, and policies to support a low carbon regenerative economy. Public transit agencies play a key role in this transformation in several ways including transitioning from diesel buses to cleaner sources such as electric and hydrogen, accelerating mode shift from single-occupancy vehicles (SOV) to equitable transport systems, and serving as a catalyst for economic development lending to more efficient land use and support of high-density urban revitalization.

Advancements in clean energy technology are accelerating at a faster pace than policy. Planning for a sustainable future requires the international community, our government, local communities, and the private sector to change the way we address our energy needs. On a global scale, the Paris Agreement and United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) illustrate the importance of this paradigm shift, and interconnectedness of energy, equity, food security, access to clean water, and much more.

Public transportation plays a vital role in transitioning to a clean energy, resilient, and equitable economy, far beyond just GHG emission reduction. When we reduce dependence on fossil fuels, we reduce particulate matter and emissions that negatively impact the health of communities, especially our vulnerable communities. As transit agencies look to reduce carbon intensity of fleets, they play an essential role in advancing the health and equity of our communities in distinct ways including maintaining a level of service to ensure access to jobs, essential services, and amenities. They will also reduce exposure to ground level pollutants and particulates, and reduce emissions from both the fleet and SOVs.

As agencies are making the transition to electric fleets, the general preconception that the grid is comprised of ‘dirty’ energy comes into play, and the question arises of why push for electrification. In a study produced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and funded by the Department of energy (DOE), an analysis of various scenarios determined “electrification of end users in the transportation, buildings, and industrial sectors coupled with the decarbonization of the electricity generation will be a key pathway to achieving a low-carbon future in the US. If we electrify our end-uses, the demand for electricity will rise. However, if we are making our ‘grids and power plants clean’, generation power from renewable resources and increasing the energy efficiency of our end uses, then we will be moving in the right direction to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”. Simply put, when we reduce carbon on the grid and make the grid greener, environmental performance improves as the grid improves.

Advances in technology will continue to push the conversation forward, and while battery technology currently has a limiting factor of a 130-220 mile range, moves toward solid-state batteries may increase this by twofold. Charger technology is also changing and evolving, and our systems ae becoming smarter. With vehicle to grid (V2G) charging, whole fleets of sitting buses may be utilized to send energy back into the grid. Even as battery tech improves, we are seeing transit agencies look towards hydrogen fuel cell tech, as these buses may have ranges exceeding 300 miles. Hydrogen fuel cell buses fueled by ‘Green Hydrogen’ advance us even further towards a low carbon economy by leveraging distributed generation, such as solar, for power production.

For transit agencies who have already started down this path and for those just starting the journey, there are many resources to help support the planning across policy, governance, and operations. These tools help transit agencies to develop, implement, or improve their climate change goals and have been developed to overlay and align with existing efforts- such as Transit Asset Management Plans. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has recently developed the Climate Action Guidelines for public transit and the Federal Transit Administration’s Sustainable Transit for a Healthy Planet Challenge is underway. Both resources provide guidance on developing and implementing climate action and resilience plans. The guidelines provide a methodology for an iterative process to ensure continuous improvement within the framework of equity as well as building the business case for sustainability.

As we look to the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, and global leadership to strengthen commitments to meet the Paris Agreement and the SDGs, locally and regionally leadership in public transit are not waiting on policy to implement change. This leadership alongside the ever-increasing collaboration between stakeholders, communities, the private sector, and our cities, will be the driving force in the transition to a clean energy and climate resilient future.


Written by: Aliesa Adelman, CSDP, CAP, LEED AP BD+C, Fitwel Ambassador, Associate Principal – Director of Sustainability