Review of the Book Sustainable Transportation: Problems and Solutions

Sustainable Transportation: Problems and Solutions

In the book "Sustainable Transportation: Problems and Solutions" (New York: the Guilford Press, 2010) author William R. Black comprehensively examines the topic of sustainable transportation, first going over what the problems are and then examining possible solutions. While the book provides a good overview of the challenges inherent in establishing sustainable transportation, its several grammatical an errors detracts from its message. In addition, Black not only does not consider public transit as a solution to sustainable transportation he dismisses it entirely.

The Problem of Sustainability

Black defines sustainable transportation as "one that provides transport and mobility with renewable fuels while minimizing emissions detrimental to the local and global environment and preventing needless fatalities, injuries, and congestion" (p. 264). There is no question that we are far from achieving this goal. We continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels, a finite resource, and even though our vehicles are 90 percent cleaner than they were in the 1960s, they still cause air pollution and contribute to global climate change. Plus, our roads and highways remain congested, and despite tremendous advances in safety, way too many people still die in car crashes each year.

Potential Solutions

While Black considers a wide range of potential solutions, he seems most interested in two: the adoption of alternative fuels, particularly hydrogen fuel cells, and the increased deployment of intelligent transportation systems, particularly signs that can help people drive more safely and efficiently on roadways by adjusting speed limits in response to events such as poor weather.

But although the book was published in 2010, there is no mention of the possibility that driverless cars could promote sustainable transportation. In recent years, California and Nevada have passed legislation allowing for driverless cars to operate on public roadways, and other jurisdictions are following suit. Although not foolproof, driverless cars would certainly reduce crashes (computers never drink and are never tired) and would likely reduce congestion by allowing cars to travel closer together at high rates of speed (computers have pretty good reaction times). Since Black predicts that certain trends, like hydrogen fueling stations, will be ubiquitous by the year 2030, it's puzzling why he overlooks entirely the potential impact of driverless cars.

How Public Transit Fits In

According to Black, it really does not. While a doubling of trips taken on transit in the United States from 3 to 6 percent would not by itself achieve the goal of sustainable transit as Black sees it, it would certainly have more of an impact than he seems to believe. Since every trip on transit (unless the trip starts at a park and ride lot) by definition involves a pedestrian trip before and after, increasing the number of transit trips also increases the number of pedestrian trips. Increasing transit trips also increases the number of bicycle trips, although the limited number of bicycle storage spaces on a transit vehicle limits the use of this mode as a way of accessing public transportation. In addition, the very young and the very old—the age groups that have the most car crashes—are also the age groups that use transit the most. Improving transit is likely to result in even more of these subpar drivers giving up their automobiles. 

Public transportation is already one of the most sustainable modes of transportation out there, even if you only consider methods of propulsion. All of Los Angeles Metro's 2,000-plus buses run on CNG (compressed natural gas) fuel. American transit providers were among the first adopters of hybrid vehicles and are to this point the only people who have operated fuel cell vehicles. Since the dawn of the streetcar era, transit vehicles have run on electricity. While some experts assert that electric transport is not necessarily cleaner given current electrical power generation methods, the more electric streetcars, subways, and light rail, the less direct emissions into the air.

Why Public Transport Should Be Part of the Solution

In addition to carrying more passengers more efficiently, public transport like light rail lines contribute in other key ways to sustainable urban living. They provide an "excuse" for higher-density, transit-oriented construction, with the potential for more infill investment, even in places like Phoenix, which is famous for its sprawl. And that doesn't mean Americans have to give up their preferences for single-family homes. So-called streetcar suburbs of the past were all comprised of single family houses—but single family houses at densities high enough to support transit. While Black is correct in saying there is no political will for stricter enforcement of lowered speed limits or significantly higher gas taxes in America, natural forces are slowly but surely pointing us to a more sustainable future. That Black ignores these factors entirely ultimatly makes his book part of the problem, not the solution.