If It’s Not Public Transport, It’s an Environment Problem

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Personal cars are not an efficient means of transport as they cause 11 times as much congestion compared to a bus ferrying passengers during rush hours

UN Report

United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 11: Making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.

By now, you must be asking yourself what the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are and what they hope to achieve.

The UN SDGs are a blueprint for making the world a better place and sustainable for all. They address the biggest challenges that the world is experiencing, including Inequality, Poverty, Environmental Degradation, Climate Change, and Peace & Justice.

There are 17 SDGs: No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health & Well-Being, Quality Education, Gender Equality, Clean Water & Sanitation, Affordable & Clean Energy, Decent Work & Economic Growth…

… Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure, Reduced Inequalities, Sustainable Cities & Communities, Responsible Consumption & Production, Climate Action, Life Below Water, Life on Land, Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions and Partnerships for the Goals complete the set of sustainable objectives.

Now that we have learned the Sustainable Development Goals, let’s focus on SDG Number 11: What does that specific goal hope to achieve?

According to the United Nations, more than 50% of the global population resides in cities. The intergovernmental organization projects that by 2050, two-thirds of all humanity, equivalent to 6.5 billion people, will be urban, which is not sustainable.

The solution to handle this rapid urbanization is to ensure safe & affordable housing availability, find innovative ways to improve urban planning & management in inclusive practices, build resilient societies & economies, create green spaces, and invest in public transport.

Get an in-depth view of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals by reading Iunera’s series of articles below.

In this piece, we will examine the special relationship between public transport & the environment or, more precisely, how boarding public transport helps the environment.

 Carbon Emissions & Global Warming

According to a BBC environment feature dubbed Smart Guide to Climate Change: How Our Daily Travel Harms The Planet, road transport is responsible for around a quarter of CO2 emissions globally.

Road vehicles, in particular cars, buses, trucks & motorbikes, are responsible for 75% of greenhouse gas emissions from transport.

A research paper published by the American Environmental Defense Fund, dubbed Global Warming on The Road: The Climate Impact of Automobiles highlighting the popular sentiment amongst scientists, states that motor vehicles contribute a lot to what the scientists describe as “The most serious environmental problem that the world faces.”

As many science class toppers would know, the car’s main contribution comes from the carbon dioxide emitted the moment the engine starts burning fuel.

The greenhouse gas pollution that causes global warming comes from numerous sources. Any single contribution may seem small in proportion to the world total, but collectively it becomes a problem of vast scale. To address a problem of such magnitude requires international agreements and national policies.


An article authored by Jenny Green published by science blog Sciencing observes that greenhouse gases confine heat in the atmosphere, which culminates in worldwide temperatures rising.

Without greenhouse gases, the Earth would be covered on ice, but burning excessive amount of fossil fuels, such as gasoline and diesel has caused an increase of 0.6 degrees Celsius, or 1 degree F, in global temperatures since pre-industrial times, and this will continue to rise over the coming decades. Warmer global temperatures affect farming, wildlife, sea levels, and natural landscapes.


Every Challenge Needs a Champion

Every problem needs a champion, somebody to raise awareness that a situation requires a closer look and a collective, well-thought-out approach to finding a solution.

In this instance, that champion is Greta Thunberg.

The 18-year-old Swedish Climate Change Activist sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on a carbon-neutral journey in August 2019 via a boat to attend summits in the United States and Chile, although the talks that were slated to be held in Chile were moved to Spain.

She was doing so to raise awareness about the need for sustainability in travel.

Consequently, public transport is the best option to ensure sustainability and keeping the green cities dream alive.

Public Transport as a Viable Solution

We now understand the dangers carbon emissions pose to climate change. In this piece, we will look at how Public Transport helps the environment.

Reducing Congestion

A report authored by the University of Moratuwa (Sri Lanka) Department of Transport researchers Jayasooriya Chinthaka Sampath and Bandara Yapa Mahinda dubbed Measuring The Economic Costs of Traffic Congestion states that traffic snarl-ups are a thorn in the flesh of most developing nations including Sri Lanka.

Traffic congestion costs economies billions in financial and labour time losses!

The report notes traffic congestion costs Sri Lanka 40 billion (USD200 million) rupees per annum.

Although the figures differ, other countries can relate to Sri Lanka’s situation as traffic congestion is a massive problem for a large percentage of all countries in the world.

A book published by the United Nations dubbed Traffic Congestion: The Problem and How to Deal With It projects that the traffic congestion problem will get worse for most countries.

Its main expression is a progressive reduction in traffic speeds, resulting in increases in journey times, fuel consumption, other operating costs, and environmental pollution, as compared with an uninterrupted traffic flow.

UN Report: Traffic Congestion: The Problem and How to Deal With It

The book notes that traffic congestion occurs due to the intense use of automobiles. It further states that private cars are preferred for personal mobility, heightened status, and a sense of security.

A key point stressed in the book is that personal cars are not an efficient means of transport as they cause 11 times as much congestion compared to a bus ferrying passengers during rush hours.

The report concludes that it is necessary to keep congestion in check and public transport is the key to that.

Fuel Efficiency

Research shows single-occupancy vehicles post the lowest fuel efficiencies when assessed from a per rider basis.

Judging by this line of thinking, a full-sized diesel bus offers a better chance of spending economically than a regular car.

Factor this: when economy is the key metric, a fully occupied bus has a fuel efficiency that is six times greater than a single-occupancy car.

This means that more fuel is saved in public transportation while cutting down on massive amounts of air pollution.

For example, an average commute in Oklahoma City in the United States is 15 miles, while a car consumes one gallon per 20 miles. This means that an average consumer forks out about 5 dollars a day on gas for their daily commute, which translates to 1.5 gallons at 3.25 USD per gallon on average.

If the same resident were to commute two times a week using public transport, they would save a total of 156 gallons of gas and over $500 per year!

If the commute is longer or if prices hike, the commuter stands to make even more significant savings.

A research paper authored by Shafiq Ur Rahman, An Associate Professor at the University of Leeds dubbed Improved public transport to curb car use and fuel consumption in Asian cities: A research framework for integrating rickshaw usage with bus rapid transit (BRT), observes the integration of Non-Motorized Transport (NMT) with top-class transit systems is a sure way to guarantee comfort and convenience to public transport users.

The research paper notes that this could help reduce the dependency on cars and fuel consumption which pose a threat to the environment and, more specifically, climate change.

Air Pollution Reduction

It doesn’t matter the type of fuel that a public transport vehicle uses. Taking the bus, riding a bicycle, or boarding a train helps cut down on air pollution.

Every time a commuter makes up their mind to leave their car at home, that instantly becomes a win for the environment. When contrasted with single-occupancy levels, public transport emits 95% less carbon dioxide, 48% less nitrogen oxide, and 92% fewer volatile organic compounds!

These pollutants cause global warming, health problems, acid deposition, and smog when released into the atmosphere. Hence, switching to using public transport will result in an improvement in air quality, ultimately leading to a better quality of life.

One of the solutions fronted by the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to cut down on carbon emissions is reevaluating commuter habits and looking at possible behavioural changes. In this case, public transport is suggested as a viable solution to reducing the carbon footprint.

For instance, if commuting for a week on a particular route were an 18-mile trip every day, using public transport as an alternative to single-occupancy vehicles would reduce the carbon footprint by two tonnes annually.

The smarter option is to have fewer cars on the roads and make public transport more convenient to encourage people to leave their cars at home.

Thankfully, Big Data is making this possible by predicting the number of passengers on a public means of transport for a user, thus helping them make an informed decision. Big Data is also being leveraged to enhance punctuality for both passengers and operators, cut down on recurring delays, assess the demand for public transport routes, and optimally navigate multimodal means of transport.


According to the EPA, air pollution is becoming a nightmare for the whole world. As per the institution, cities that post high levels of particulate matter and ground-level ozone pose a serious health risk for the residents of that region.

When the public is exposed to poor air quality, it leads to respiratory health diseases, premature death and more cases of pneumonia cancer alongside other ailments.

More cars on the road carrying fewer passengers are pieces of a broader problem, and that is why the importance of public transport cannot be stressed enough.

Conversely, most means of public transport do not conduct door-to-door services leaving room for riders to walk short distances until they get to bus stops or get home.

Using public transport helps cut down on air pollution, and the health benefits are well-documented. As mentioned in the previous subsection, studies show that public transport produces lesser quantities of air pollutants like carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide per passenger mile.

Additionally, research conducted during the 1996 Olympic Games observed that wider public transport coverage led to a fall in peak auto use by 22.55 %, leading to a fall in source emissions from single-occupancy vehicles. During the games, hospitals and emergency rooms recorded a 42% decrease in asthma-related admissions due to the falling levels of air pollution.

No Brainer

The UN has already warned us that we are headed towards unsustainability on the current trajectory.

Meanwhile, a teenager, who has taken the world by storm with her climate activism, took the unprecedented move of travelling across the Atlantic Ocean to rally further support for what she believes in.

At the same time, we are wasting our time stuck in traffic and polluting the environment in the process.

With evidence showing that public transport solves multiple challenges in one fell swoop, the decision is obvious and easy:

Choose public transport.

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