Towards a greener future: how cities around the world are rethinking public transit

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The roar of engines has long been part of a city’s soundscape. For a century, for billions of city dwellers around the world, getting around has meant getting on a diesel bus or gasoline rickshaw, or for the better-off, a car. Today, a quiet transformation is underway. Berlin, Bogotá, Colombia and several other cities are taking creative steps to reduce gasoline and diesel from their transit systems. They do so despite striking geographic, political and economic differences that complicate transformation. Berlin is relaunching the electric tram lines that were torn apart during the construction of the Berlin Wall. Bogotá builds cable cars that cross the clouds to connect working-class communities perched on distant hills. Bergen, a city on the edge of the fjords in western Norway, is shifting its public ferries from diesel to batteries – a remarkable change in a petro-state that has been enriched for decades by the sale of oil and gas. gas and now wants to be a leader in electric age ships.

Bergen buses are also now electric, supplied by Chinese bus manufacturers who have taken hold of the market in cities as far away as Los Angeles and Santiago, Chile. The change is audible. “You can hear voices in the streets again,” said Jon Askeland, mayor of the county that includes Bergen. Urban transport is at the heart of efforts to slow climate change. Home to more than half of the world’s population, cities account for more than two-thirds of global carbon dioxide emissions.

And transportation is often the most important and fastest growing source, making it imperative not only to encourage more people to get out of their cars and use public transportation, but also to make transportation itself less polluting and more efficient. The biggest challenge was faced by the cities most in need of change: the most populous and polluted metropolises in Asia and Africa, where people depend on informal public transport such as minivans. diesel or motorcycle taxis. But where cities do, they find that electrifying public transport can solve more than just climate problems. It can clean the air, reduce traffic jams, and ideally make it easier for ordinary people to get around town, which is why some politicians have staked their reputation on overhauling public transit. In many cases, municipal governments have been able to take climate action faster than their national governments. “It requires political weight,” said Claudia López, mayor of Bogotá, in an interview. “For 25 years, Bogotá has been condemned to depend on diesel buses. It is irrational in the 21st century. Berlin: reviving the trams

Ingmar Streese called this a “historical error”. When the Berlin Wall was erected, half of Berlin’s electric tram lines fell. In 1967, when Streese was 3 years old, West Berlin had pulled out almost every track from die Elektrische – The Electric. Cars have invaded the roads. Today, 30 years after the fall of the wall, as Germans face the dangers of climate change, there are growing demands to reclaim the roads from cars for walkers, cyclists and transport users. in common. Enter die Elektrische. Again. The 1960s mistake “is now being corrected,” said Streese, a Green Party politician and Berlin’s permanent secretary for environment and transport. Berlin, along with several European cities, including Lisbon, Portugal and Dublin, are relaunching trams not only to purify the air, but also to reduce emissions to meet legally binding EU climate targets. These targets require a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.

Still, the policy of taking space away from cars is tricky. Berlin, with 1.2 million cars, has enacted a congestion tax, but it only applies to a tiny part of the city. This is all part of a larger effort to improve public transport, including electrifying all buses by 2030, expanding the metro and commuter trains, adding cycle lanes and building nearly 80 km of tram lines by 2035. Trams are not universally appreciated. Critics point out that they are loud, shaking along crowded streets day and night. They are slower than subways, and in the age of carpooling and electric scooters, old-fashioned. Tram fans point out that they are cheaper and faster to build than subways.

Bergen, Norway: battery operated ferries

Heidi Wolden spent 30 years working for the Norwegian oil and gas industry. Today, she is working to put oil and gas out of use in her country’s waterways. Wolden is the CEO of Norled, a company that operates public ferries increasingly on batteries instead of diesel. Ultimately, Wolden hopes to take his ferries far beyond the fjords. She wants to make Norled a leader in the electrification of maritime transport. This is part of the nation’s ambitious effort to electrify all kinds of public transport, a plan all the more remarkable given that Norway is a very small, very wealthy petrostate.

“Personally, I am extremely happy that we are heading in the right direction,” Wolden said on a Friday morning as the Hjellestad, a car ferry operated by Norled, departed from a dock near Bergen. Norway has set ambitious targets to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. Almost all of Norway’s electricity comes from hydropower. But what to do with its own oil and gas industry is at the center of a strong national political debate. The September elections brought to power a center-left coalition, comprising small parties pushing for an end to oil and gas exploration in the North Sea. Bergen wants to accelerate its transition from fossil fuels. Its urban buses and trams run on electricity. Taxi operators have been told they are due to switch to all-electric vehicles by 2024, with subsidies for drivers to install chargers in homes. Ferry operators have been offered longer and more profitable contracts to offset the cost of the conversion. Unlike some other countries, including the United States, where climate policies are deeply polarized, in Bergen there was not much hindsight. Askeland said politicians on the left and right had agreed to cut the budget for other spending to pay for the more expensive electric ferry contracts. After all, said the mayor, voters in the region are aware of the fight against climate change. “It influences us politicians, of course,” he said.

Bogotá, Colombia: Gondolas with Wi-Fi

The TransMiCable is a loop of red cable cars that run up the valley to neighborhoods stacked up along the hills that surround Bogotá. Seven lines are planned to be built as part of the city’s efforts to clean up public transport. Nearly 500 Chinese-made electric buses are on the road, and contracts are underway to purchase an additional 1,000 by 2022, making Bogotá’s electric bus fleet one of the largest of any city in the world. outside of China. The mayor, López, a cyclist, wants to add around 175 miles of cycle paths. But for Fredy Cuesta Valencia, a teacher from Bogotá, what really matters is that the TransMiCable has given him back his time. He used to spend two hours, in two slow buses, crawling through the hills to get to the school where he teaches. Now it takes her 40 minutes to get to work, an hour at worst. There is Wi-Fi. Clouds. Roofs below. “It’s a lot less stressful,” said Cuesta, 60, a folk dance teacher. “I check my phone, I look at the city, I relax.” Sengupta is a NYT reporter © 2021


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