Creating a cleaner transportation system

CTA 'L' Train

By Robert and Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

It is well known that our transportation system is a major contributor to climate change; environmental impacts beyond that are somewhat ignored. A combination of behavioral and technological changes are essential to reduce the multiple deleterious impacts from fossil fuel consumption. Behavioral changes including walking, biking, mass transit, carpooling and occasional car use.

Driving more fuel efficient vehicles helps reduce adverse impacts but currently low fuel prices undermine the urge to buy them.

Ben Morelli reported on a comprehensive review of passenger vehicle life cycle assessments on cars fueled by hybrid, plug in hybrid, battery electric and internal combustion engines. He indicated that electrified vehicles had better environmental performance but only if the electricity is supplied from renewable sources. Recharging from renewable energy sources offsets the environmental burden of batteries.

Biofuels are often cited as important transportation energy sources to replace those derived from fossil fuels. The environmental impacts of crops grown for biofuels remain controversial. While sugarcane is a good source for ethanol production, if tropical rainforests are cleared to grow it carbon storage capacity of the intact forest is lost along with losses of biodiversity and soil and water storage.

Pete Danko reported on a 2012 Swiss study which indicated only a few biofuels such as ethanol from corn and sugar have a better ecobalance than those derived from oil-based fuels such as palm oil. While not endorsing biofuels, the study acknowledges that wise management can make a valuable difference. Biogas from residues and waste materials were cited as having half the environmental impact of gasoline. Other potential biofuel materials include grasses, saplings and hemp.

Clearing tropical forests to establish rubber plantations to satisfy the increasing demand for tires and palm oil plantations for fuel accelerates biodiversity loss.

Mobility remains highly valued in society but its environmental impacts are harmful to citizens and the environment. Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl have called for a transportation revolution. They envision a dramatic reduction in both vehicle miles travelled and in air transport by returning to electrified urban and interurban transport powered with renewable energy. About 33 cities in the U.S. have light rail systems. The world’s oldest line, begun in the 1830s in New Orleans and electrified before 1900, is still operating today. The newest system was installed in Tucson in 2014.

Both Chicago and Milwaukee have proposals to build short lines to existing points of interest within each city. Chicago’s would improve access to resources such as the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum and Navy Pier with connections to existing rail and bus service. Milwaukee’s streetcar route would link the Amtrack station and popular destinations which could include the airport and Marquette University. Groundbreaking should occur this year with service in late 2018.

Much of the rail service in Europe and Russia is electrified; US service could be similarly powered. A rail line from Milwaukee to the west coast was electrically powered with a short section of diesel through the Rocky Mountains until the 1970s.

Our mobility needs can be met with far less environmental damage.

Reach the Vogls at

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