EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 11. Raising Energy Efficiency: Restructuring the Transport System

Aside from the overriding need to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels, there are several other compelling reasons for countries everywhere to restructure their transport systems, including the need to prepare for falling oil production, to alleviate traffic congestion, and to reduce air pollution. The U.S. car-centered transportation model, with three cars for every four people, that much of the world aspires to will not likely be viable over the long term even for the United States, much less for everywhere else. 48

The shape of future transportation systems centers around the changing role of the automobile. This in turn is being influenced by the transition from a predominantly rural global society to a largely urban one. By 2020 close to 55 percent of us will be living in cities, where the role of cars is diminishing. In Europe, where this process is well along, car sales in almost every country have peaked and are falling. 49

With world oil output close to peaking, there will not be enough economically recoverable oil to support a world fleet expansion along U.S. lines or, indeed, to sustain the U.S. fleet. Oil shocks are now a major security risk. The United States, where 88 percent of the 133 million working people travels to work by car, is dangerously vulnerable. 50

Mounting concern about climate change and the desire to restrict carbon emissions is beginning to permeate transportation policymaking at the urban, provincial, and national level. In addition to a daily $16 toll on cars entering central London, Mayor Ken Livingston proposed in 2007 a $50-per-day charge on sport utility vehicles entering the city because of their high CO2 emissions. This staggering proposed tax enjoys the support of Londoners by a three to one margin. New York is also considering a tax on cars entering the city. 51

The mayors of both New York and San Francisco have announced that all taxis in their cities will be hybrids by 2012, a move designed to reduce CO2 emissions, fuel use, and local air pollution. The New York goal is to replace the 13,000 existing taxis that get roughly 14 miles per gallon with cars that will get 30–50 miles per gallon. 52

Beyond the desire to stabilize climate, drivers almost everywhere are facing gridlock and worsening congestion that are raising both frustration and the cost of doing business. In the United States, the average commuting time for workers has increased steadily since the early 1980s. The automobile promised mobility, but after a point its growing numbers in an increasingly urbanized world offer only the opposite: immobility. 53

While the future of transportation in cities lies with a mix of light rail, buses, bicycles, cars, and walking, the future of intercity travel over distances of 500 miles or less belongs to high-speed trains. Japan, with its high-speed bullet trains, has pioneered this mode of travel. Operating at speeds up to 190 miles per hour, Japan’s bullet trains carry almost a million passengers a day. On some of the heavily used intercity high-speed rail lines, trains depart every three minutes. 54

Beginning in 1964 with the 322-mile line from Tokyo to Osaka, Japan’s high-speed rail network now stretches for 1,360 miles, linking nearly all its major cities.

One of the most heavily traveled links is the original line between Tokyo and Osaka, where the bullet trains carry 117,000 passengers a day. The transit time of two hours and 30 minutes between the two cities compares with a driving time of eight hours. High-speed trains save time as well as energy. 55

Although Japan’s bullet trains have carried billions of passengers over 40 years at high speeds, there has not been a single casualty. Late arrivals average 6 seconds. If we were selecting seven wonders of the modern world, Japan’s high-speed rail system surely would be among them. 56

While the first European high-speed line, from Paris to Lyon, did not begin operation until 1981, Europe has made enormous strides since then. As of early 2007 there were 3,034 miles (4,883 kilometers) of high-speed rail operating in Europe, with 1,711 more miles to be added by 2010. The goal is to have a Europe-wide high-speed rail system integrating the new eastern countries, including Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, into a continental network by 2020. 57

Once high-speed links between cities begin operating, they dramatically raise the number of people traveling by train between cities. For example, when the Paris-to-Brussels link, a distance of 194 miles that is covered by train in 85 minutes, opened, the share of those traveling between the two cities by train rose from 24 percent to 50 percent. The car share dropped from 61 percent to 43 percent, and CO2-intensive plane travel virtually disappeared. 58

Carbon dioxide emissions per passenger mile on Europe’s high-speed trains are one third those of its cars and only one fourth those of its planes. In the Plan B economy, CO2 emissions from trains will essentially be zero, since they will be powered by green electricity. In addition to being comfortable and convenient, these rail links reduce air pollution, congestion, noise, and accidents. They also free travelers from the frustrations of traffic congestion and long airport security check lines.

Existing international links, such as the Paris-Brussels link, are being joined by links between Paris and Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Paris, and a new link from the Channel Tunnel to London that cuts the London-Paris travel time to scarcely two hours and 20 minutes. On the newer lines, trains are operating at up to 200 miles per hour. As The Economist notes, “ Europe is in the grip of a high speed rail revolution.” 59

There is a huge gap in high-speed rail between Japan and Europe on one hand and the rest of the world on the other. The United States has a “high-speed” Acela Express that links Washington, New York, and Boston, but unfortunately neither its speed nor its reliability come close to the trains in Japan and Europe. 60

China is beginning to develop high-speed trains linking some of its major cities. The one introduced in 2007 from Beijing to Shanghai reduced travel time from 12 to 10 hours. China now has 3,750 miles of track that can handle train speeds up to 125 miles per hour. The plan is to double the mileage of high-speed track by 2020. 61

In the United States, the need both to cut carbon emissions and to prepare for shrinking oil supplies calls for a shift in investment from roads and highways to railways. In 1956 U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower launched the interstate highway system, justifying it on national security grounds. Today the threat of climate change and the insecurity of oil supplies both argue for the construction of a high-speed electrified rail system, for both passenger and freight traffic. The relatively small amount of additional electricity needed could come from renewable sources, mainly wind farms. 62

The passenger rail system would be modeled after those of Japan and Europe. A high-speed transcontinental line that averaged 170 miles per hour would mean traveling coast-to-coast in 15 hours, even with stops in major cities along the way. There is a parallel need to develop an electrified national rail freight network that would greatly reduce the need for long-haul trucks.

Any meaningful global effort to cut transport CO2 emissions begins with the United States, which consumes more gasoline than the next 20 countries combined, including Japan, China, Russia, Germany, and Brazil. The United States—with 238 million vehicles out of the global 860 million, or roughly 28 percent of the world total—not only has the largest automobile fleet but is near the top in miles driven per car and near the bottom in fuel efficiency. 63

Three initiatives are needed in the United States. One is a meaningful gasoline tax. Phasing in a gasoline tax of 40¢ per gallon per year for the next 12 years (for a total rise of $4.80 a gallon) and offsetting it with a reduction in income taxes would raise the U.S. gasoline tax to the $4–5 per gallon prevailing today in Europe and Japan. Combined with the rising price of gas itself, such a tax should be more than enough to encourage a shift to more fuel-efficient cars.

The second measure is raising the fuel-efficiency standard from the 22 miles per gallon of cars sold in 2006 to 45 miles per gallon by 2020. This would help move the U.S. automobile industry in a fuel-efficient direction. Third, reaching our CO2 reduction goal depends on a heavy shift of transportation funds from highway construction to urban transit and intercity rail construction. 64

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48. U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 24; Ward’s Automotive Group, World Motor Vehicle Data 2006 (Southfield, MI: 2006), p. 202.

49. U.N. Population Division, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision Population Database, at esa.un.org/unup, updated 2006; Ward’s Automotive Group, op. cit. note 48.

50. U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Most of Us Still Drive to Work Alone—Public Transportation Commuters Concentrated in a Handful of Large Cities,” press release (Washington, DC: 13 June 2007).

51. Ken Livingstone, “Clear Up the Congestion-Pricing Gridlock,” New York Times, 2 July 2007; pounds to dollars conversion on 16 October 2007.

52. Sara Kugler, “NYC’s Taxi Fleet Going Green by 2012,” Associated Press, 22 May 2007; City and County of San Francisco, Office of the Mayor, “Mayor Newsom Urges Taxi Commission to Approve Resolution Requiring Taxi Emissions to be Reduced by 50% Over Next Four Years,” press release (San Francisco: 12 June 2007).

53. David Schrank et al., The 2007 Urban Mobility Report (College Station, TX: Texas Transportation Institute, September 2007).

54. Hiroki Matsumoto, “The Shinkansen: Japan’s High Speed Railway,” testimony before the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Materials (Washington, DC: Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, 19 April 2007).

55. Ibid.

56. Ibid.

57. Inaki Barron, “High Speed Rail: The Big Picture,” testimony before the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Materials (Washington, DC: Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, 19 April 2007).

58. Ibid.

59. “A High-Speed Revolution,” The Economist, 5 July 2007.

60. John L. Mica, “Opening Statement of Rep. Shuster from Today’s Hearing on High Speed Rail,” press release (Washington, DC: Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, 19 April 2007.

61. “Bullet Time,” The Economist, 17 May 2007.

62. “The People’s Vote: 100 Documents that Shaped America,” U.S. News and World Report, 22 September 2003.

63. Gerhard Metschies, “Pain at the Pump,” Foreign Policy, July/August 2007; Ward’s Automotive Group, op. cit. note 48, pp. 202, 244.

64. Fleet average from U.S. Department of Transportation, Summary of Fuel Economy Performance (Washington, DC: October 2006), updated to new MPG estimates using EPA, Office of Transportation and Air Quality, “EPA Issues New Test Method for Fuel Economy Window Stickers,” regulatory announcement (Washington, DC: December 2006).


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