A 2022 report by The Eco Experts shows that the transport industry accounts for 20% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. This is roughly 8.43 billion metric tonnes (9.29 U.S. tons) of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions each year. These emissions come from burning fossil fuels to power cars and other vehicles, trains, airplanes and ships. All these emissions make it the world’s second most polluting industry after fossil fuels.

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The transport industry can be broken down into four main categories: travel by road, aviation, shipping of goods and rail. While aviation is often believed to be the main culprit of high GHG emissions in this sector, data shows that this is actually not the case. In fact, air travel is only responsible for 11.6% of passenger transport emissions worldwide. Vehicular transport (both passenger and freight) contributes to 74.5% of all transport emissions, with passenger transport making up the majority of this. This is understandable, as most households own at least one car and use it as one of their primary means of transport.

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The easiest way to limit GHG emissions in this sector is by utilizing public transport. In fact, it is one of the most effective actions that an individual can take to conserve energy and reduce CO2 emissions. This is because private vehicles are the largest contributors to a household’s carbon footprint. For example, if a person were to switch from using their car to using existing public transport for a 20-mile commute, they could reduce their annual CO2 emissions by 20 pounds per day. While this does not seem like much, this amounts to 48,000 pounds each year! Overall this would reduce the GHG emissions produced by a two-adult household by up to 10%.

Five climate benefits of public transport

Opting for public transport has several benefits across the realms of social, economic and environmental sustainability. Below is a list of the top five climate-related benefits that public transport has.

1. Less air pollution

Vehicles typically release one pound of CO2 for every mile driven. By taking public transportation, it is not only an individual’s or a household’s CO2 emissions that drop, but rather there are positive ripple effects on city-wide and nationwide scales. Estimates show that the use of public transport in the U.S. saves up to 37 million metric tons of CO2 every year. Through moderate increases in citizens opting for public transport or bicycles over private vehicles, this figure could increase by six to 14 million tons. This decreases atmospheric pollutants and could drastically improve air quality, particularly in urban environments.

2. Reduced noise pollution

Besides a reduction in air pollution, limiting the use of private vehicles also results in a drop in noise pollution, especially along routes with heavy traffic. This is beneficial for us and animals in the region as loud, disruptive noises can impact circadian rhythms and sleep, which consequently affect overall health and well-being.

3. Healthier communities

Less air and noise pollution are better for human health and well-being, especially with regard to chronic conditions like respiratory illnesses. A cleaner environment is also beneficial for biodiversity, particularly in urban areas where their survival is threatened by human-induced factors. Furthermore, less pollution also allows plants to sequester large amounts of CO2, which further benefits the planet.

By switching to public transport and/or non-fuel-based modes of transport like bicycling or walking, people also benefit from increased exercise. When air quality is improved, people also spend more time outside, which positively impacts physical and mental well-being.

4. Decreased traffic congestion

Public transport can help reduce congestion in urban areas. Studies show that in the U.S. in 2011, public transportation usage saved 865 million hours of travel time. These numbers are likely to have increased in recent years. Congestion does not only hinder commutes and harm the environment, but it also is costly! Without public transport, congestion costs in 2011 would have risen from $121 billion to $142 billion in almost 500 urban areas across the U.S.

5. Less fuel dependency and fewer harmful chemicals

Though there is an increased adoption of green energy across various sectors, the transport industry is heavily reliant on fuels for transport. In fact, petroleum-based fuels make up 90% of all fuels for transportation. In the U.S. alone, over 11 million gallons of gasoline are saved thanks to public transport each day. This translates to 4.2 billion gallons of gas each year!

Additionally, fewer cars also limit the use of antifreeze and other fluids, which are harmful to the environment. These pollutants are drastically cut down through the use of public transport.

Why we need better urban planning to encourage public transport use

Public transportation is not as well-utilized across the globe, even if well-maintained transport systems are in place. But why is this the case? There are three primary reasons: density, accessibility and walkability and urban environment. All of these are components that good urban planning can resolve to create healthier cities.

A city’s density directly impacts how public transport services are provided. For example, in Barcelona, 30% of daily trips and commutes are carried out by public transport. On the other hand, in Atlanta, this figure drops to 4%. Since Barcelona is 30 times denser than Atlanta, it is easier to provide reliable public transport services.

Accessibility is another key factor that impacts if public transport is utilized. In a comparison of Beijing, London and New York, though Beijing has the highest population density in the city center, its public transport use is significantly less than the other two major cities. This is because the number of jobs and services that can be reached within a convenient walking distance (approximately 20 minutes) is significantly less in Beijing, compared to New York and London. Beijing also has very wide streets, large street blocks and buildings set far from the street edges, which also impact access of public spaces.

Finally, the walkability and urban environment of cities is another component that impacts how people get around. Studies show that streets that are well-maintained, bustling and safe encourage pedestrians to commute. In fact, people are likelier to walk further distances to access public transport in these types of urban environments. Conversely, wide roads, narrow or poorly-maintained sidewalks, and fewer trees make streets less walkable. It is in these types of urban environments that people are significantly less likely to use public transport, even if it is only located 100 meters away from their home.

Nowadays, developing cities are in the process of building more public transportation infrastructure to lessen the use of private vehicles. While these efforts are important, governments should also understand that factors pertaining to the urban fabric also impact if and how public transport is used. Hence, investments should also be made to enhance public environments to encourage the use of public transport, which will result in healthier cities and communities.


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