Sustainable Urban Transportation: Smart City Driving

by Jul 24, 2013Smart Cities

Seth Rosenberg

Seth is a current dual MBA/MPA in Sustainable Management student at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He also works as Sourcing Manager for Tomato Sherpa, a new ready-to-cook recipe kit company in the Bay Area.

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When we think about the cities of the future, we likely try to imagine some sort of revolutionary transformation of the way people get around. Whether it is in self-driving vehicles, ultra-efficient public transportation networks—or simply bicycles—may depend on who you ask.

Currently, however, transportation is often the cause of many urban problems such as poor air quality, high greenhouse gas emissions, and traffic congestion. Mega-trends such as climate change and the scarcity of fossil fuel resources add pressure to the need to implement clean and efficient transportation solutions in our cities.

What would sustainable urban mobility look like? This question is so intriguing because transportation is so vital to cities. There are many approaches, and it will undoubtedly take a multifaceted strategy to achieve this goal. For this piece I chose to focus on current trends and news surrounding the most popular form of transportation—for better or for worse—the automobile.

Causes for concern:

  • According to the UNEP, more than 1 billion people are exposed to outdoor air pollution annually, which is linked to more than 1 million premature deaths each year. Over 90% of air pollution in major cities is caused by vehicle emissions.
  • The hundreds of millions of cars, trucks, and buses on the road around the world are responsible for about 13% of global man-made greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States, this figure is about 28%. A typical vehicle produces roughly 5 tons of carbon dioxide each year.
  • Traffic congestion and parking difficulties are prevalent in large urban areas as a result of automobile transport demand outgrowing the supply of infrastructure. In the United States, about 88% of commuting trips are done using the automobile, signifying automobile dependency.

Potential solutions


Electric vehicles (EVs), propelled by an electric motor powered by rechargeable battery packs, have several advantages over vehicles with internal combustion engines. They include:

  • Energy efficiency—EVs convert about 60% of energy from the grid to power at the wheels; conventional vehicles convert only about 20% of the energy stored in gasoline.
  • Environmental impact—EVs do not produce tailpipe pollutants or greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Performance—EV engines are quieter, smoother, and require less maintenance.

The future of EVs, however, seems to hinge on the ability to overcome several critical challenges:

  • Driving range: Most EVs can only go about 100-200 miles before recharging. (Less important for day-to-day city driving but critical for driving between cities.)
  • Recharge time: Fully recharging a battery can take 4-8 hours.
  • Battery cost—Large battery packs are expensive.
  • Bulk and weight—Battery packs take up considerable space and are heavy.

Premium electric vehicle company Tesla has recently made efforts to address some of these challenges. It has introduced charging stations in California and on the East Coast that are about 10 times faster than most public charging stations, able to recharge a Model S Tesla battery to 50% in 20 or 30 minutes. The company recently announced a doubling of the pace of construction of its supercharger network—planning to grow from 8 to nearly 100 in the coming year and to have stations within reach of 98% of the population of the U.S. and Canada by 2015. Tesla also recently demonstrated an impressive new battery-swapping system that can replace a Model S’s battery in just 90 seconds.

Earlier this month, Toyota Motor Corporation announced that worldwide cumulative sales of the Prius gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle passed the 3 million mark. Launched in 1997, the first generation Prius was the world’s first mass-produced hybrid passenger car. The second generation Prius was introduced in 2003, and the third generation in 2009. Between the first and third generations, Toyota worked to simultaneously reduce the cost of the hybrid system while improving EPA-estimated ratings.

The sharing economy

Ridesharing takes personally-owned vehicles off the road, and those who use ridesharing services also drive less. This not only saves oil and reduces emissions, but also saves people a significant amount of money compared to car ownership. According to an annual report on carsharing impact by City CarShare, the largest non-profit car sharing organization in North America, its members saved an estimated $100 million (about $8,400 on average) and 64 million pounds of carbon dioxide in 2012.

Ridesharing smartphone apps such as Lyft, Sidecar, and Uber are quickly growing alternative transportation services. Uber is now in 20 cities, Lyft and Sidecar each in 6. Uber got its start in 2010, offering premium rides in town cars. Lyft and Sidecar started in 2012, offering rides in less fancy cars such as Toyotas and Hyundais. Uber now offers lower-scale cars in addition to their premium service. Investors have taken notice of the genius and growing popularity of ridesharing apps. Lyft recently secured $60 million in venture capital funding. Uber has received more than $50 million, Sidecar $11.5 million.

Solutions combined

At the meeting of these two solutions are electric car sharing systems. Major U.S. carsharing companies are steadily adding hybrid and plug-in vehicles to their fleets. A couple notable examples of success at this convergence of these two areas are:

  • Autolib’: Paris-based electric car sharing program. Autolib’ auto provider Bollore group also recently announced an innovative strategy of selling electric vehicles and leasing the battery separately.
  • Daimler’s Car2Go carshare service: Founded in Amsterdam and San Diego, Car2Go now operates in more than 25 cities across the U.S. and Europe.

The City of Grenoble, the Grenoble-Alpes Metropole, car-sharing service operator Cite lib, Electricite de France and Toyota Motor Corporation recently agreed to collaborate on a zero-emission ultra-compact urban electric vehicle car-sharing project slated to launch by the end of next year. Designed to meet demand for last-mile transportation needs where there is minimal public transportation, the project is also part of a strategy to meet greenhouse gas and other air pollutant reduction targets. This type of multi-stakeholder collaboration and win-win scenario is exemplifies how we can work together to bring our imaginations of sustainable urban transportation to life.


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  1. I often discuss with urban graduate students, teachers, and experts and it seems to me that one thing is missing in the sustainable transportation discourse: tackling the problem at its roots.

    In cities of 500,000 people or more, the main bottleneck to sustainability is cars, plain and simple. These cities are built around cars instead of around people.

    Concentrating on cities with 500,000 people or more (I think that smaller cities start to have a very different dynamic):
    – First, people need to relearn how to walk. Walking 500m or less to get to a transport system is normal and easy and healthy (unless of course you have mobility issues but that is an aspect that can also be tackled by public transport services to a certain degree).
    – Second, when constructing new residential buildings in downtown areas, adding parking spaces/lots is an aberration. People who will buy a condo downtown actually wants to live (and work) downtown. Associating parking spaces to these buildings is perverting the “local & centralized” aspect of these residential areas.
    – Third, there is an urgent need for cleaning up municipal governments from industrial/commercial interests where most often than not, decisions are taken to please those that are not necessarily the citizens of the city in question. How many sustainable strategic decisions had to be “adapted/streamlined” to please industries in order to be implemented?
    – Fourth, there is a need to create car-free neighbourhoods where roads are not the central element and where residential parking spaces are non-existent. If people really want a car then they can live in the suburbs and acknowledge the commuting time that it will necessitate.

    A car is not a simple object of consumption. Its usage actually impede the health and well-being of others at both local and global levels. Society is now accepting that it is forbidden to smoke in most restaurant because, let’s face it, it is plain disgusting and disrespectful. Why then are cars still allowed in every single corners of cities when they pollute, they create noise, they take 10 times the space of one person when to actually transport one person, etc.?

    As long as cars will be the building bloc of cities, these cities will never be sustainable and discussing about sustainable cities when cars is still part of the equation is somewhat ridiculous. Even if there is a push for EVs, cars are still the least efficient, the most dangerous, and the most selfish transportation system. Bring me more buses even though they would run on fossil fuels and I would be happy if it reduce the amount of single-serving vehicles.

    Thank you.
    P.S.: Yes you can still walk in Winter, I am living in Montreal where we have cold and snow for nearly 6 months per year.
    P.P.S.: Even a family can use transportation systems and does not automatically need a car. Family activities are often found in each neighbourhood and public transportation systems are adequate for both adults and kids alike.

  2. EVs are the future of mobility. Our cities are becoming more and more polluted beacause of vehicle emissions and this has to be stopped! Using electric vehicles, car sharing and public transport people can make the difference. Sustainable mobility is the way.


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