Smarter strategies for clean mobility
The transportation sector accounted for 37% of end-use sector carbon emissions in 2021. In nearly half of the world’s countries, it’s the leading source of energy-related emissions. In our globalized economy, the need for safe, fast and reliable transportation isn’t going away, so decarbonization efforts must focus on creating more sustainable, energy-saving methods of mobility.
A few industry leaders working on clean transportation initiatives include Emma Head, Technical Service Delivery Director for HS2; Alexander Ståhle, PhD Urban Design, CEO Spacescape, Founder Placetoplan, and Ståle Rød, Executive Vice President at Skanska Group. Each of these industry leaders offers a glimpse into specific solutions to transportation emissions.
Decarbonizing railways with HS2
Trains, whether local, regional or national, are generally a cleaner form of transport than cars, buses and planes. A foundational part of expanding sustainable mobility is leveraging those natural strengths of railways over other vehicles.
That’s exactly what Emma Head is seeking to accomplish as part of a team developing HS2 — a high-speed rail line designed to sustainably traverse the UK. This flagship transportation project involves the construction of over 250 miles of new rail line. With stations connecting to several major English cities — Manchester, Birmingham and London — HS2 is also designed to tie into existing rail lines. This allows for expanded travel to areas outside HS2’s initial reach, such as Scotland. While this would be an impressive expansion of low-carbon mobility on its own, HS2 aims to be the most sustainable high-speed railway in the world through a few important innovations.
Railway construction and maintenance are a significant part of a train’s total carbon emissions. The HS2 team aims to be diesel-free on all construction sites by 2029, drastically cutting their construction emissions. In addition to these diesel-free sites, the materials used in the railway’s construction are also a part of pursuing sustainability. Concrete, for example, contributes to 8% of global carbon emissions, but is often an essential construction material. In prior railways, cheap concrete would be used to fill dead space inside non-load-bearing parts of the railway. In HS2, that dead space is filled with balloons designed to seal off non-structural components of the railway without using carbon-heavy concrete.
HS2 also incorporates plant life into its construction, planting trees along much of the railway and cultivating urban green spaces above each train tunnel. HS2 aims as well to contribute to energy savings through waste-eliminating fuels such as HVO. This plant-based fuel not only provides a clean alternative to fossil fuels but also leverages material that would otherwise be discarded, like palm oil.
All said, HS2 is an example of a new way of approaching transportation and its relationship to sustainable places. The vision, construction and implementation of HS2 provide mobility alternatives that not only limit carbon-heavy resources but also strengthen the connectedness of UK railways. The transportation gaps being bridged by HS2 enable faster, more sustainable urban growth and create easier access to otherwise isolated areas of the country. The ability of HS2 to bring people together through clean, accessible and fast rail transport is all the more impressive for its positive environmental, as well as social, impact.
Pursuing sustainable urban mobility
Not every sustainable innovation depends on a specific tool or resource. Instead, we can create more sustainable places by reimagining how we make use of the resources we already have. Alexander Ståhle, author of “Closer Together”, has written extensively about how, by guiding the future trends of urban development, we can use design principles to cultivate a cleaner transportation industry in cities.
One way to decrease transportation emissions is to reduce our reliance on carbon-emitting forms of transportation. Through concepts like the 15-Minute City, or Alexander’s even more radical idea of the 1-Minute City, urban planners can make important city resources available within short walks or bike rides, reducing residents’ dependence on cars, buses and trains. This extends not just to residents but to businesses as well. During the Covid pandemic, retail digitalization increased dramatically, and while personal travel decreased, commercial transit shot up. With more care given to streamlining supply chains and distribution centers, walking and biking could also become an effective last step in product deliveries.
A focus on efficient planning also applies to the way cities understand their own roads. To Alexander, we shouldn’t just think of city streets as mediums of transportation. Instead, they should also be places of socialization and gathering. In this way, streets are as much about outdoor living space as they are about mobility. This, again, creates a more efficient urban layout, making the need for carbon-heavy modes of transportation the exception, not the rule.
All of these improvements depend in some way on changes in behavior and attitudes toward transportation. Walking and biking won’t cut carbon emissions if people are still incentivized to drive their cars rather than ride their bikes. Because of this, developers should focus on urbanism that emphasizes quality-of-life improvements as its foundation. Cheaper public transport or tax breaks for development projects that incorporate 15-Minute City principles, for example, create incentives for efficient urban planning. These kinds of economic benefits for both residents and real estate developers can ensure sustainable places are incorporated into a city’s design.
Investing in sustainable innovation
Sustainable transportation depends on the willingness of urban developers to commit to reducing carbon emissions in their transportation-related projects. Thankfully, carbon neutrality is a primary target for many developers within the coming decades. Ståle Rød, for example, is part of a Skanska team seeking to reach carbon neutrality by 2045. As he tells it, these goals — far off as they may seem — are ambitious. To achieve these long-term targets, developers like Skanska are having to be smart in the way they allocate resources.
A chief area of investment for Skanska is in reducing its direct carbon emissions during urban development. These emissions come from building materials used during construction and from the construction process itself. To cut these emissions, Skanska has developed materials like green steel and low-carbon concrete, which provide low-carbon alternatives to what are normally emissions-heavy development resources. Skanska is also investing in updated machinery, moving away from diesel-dependent equipment in favor of electrically powered machines. Pursuing these innovations allows for low-carbon projects that make a positive climate impact from planning through construction. The end result is a city whose infrastructure is built for its residents. Clean, reliable transportation breaks down geographic barriers, and accessible mobility creates a tighter-knit community. The positive environmental impact of low-carbon construction improves urban air quality, making cities healthier and safer. These green construction and mobility innovations don’t just improve the efficiency of urban infrastructure – they improve the quality of life of the people that make up the city.
Making sustainable places together
Key to Skanska’s goal of carbon neutrality is the ability to collaborate. No sustainability milestone is achievable by one person or even one organization. The interconnected pieces of cities, roads and other built environments require a cooperative approach to reducing carbon emissions. By sharing knowledge, expertise and technology, Skanska and its industry partners are working to decarbonize transportation through technological innovation and smart urban planning. Success in creating clean mobility is achievable when sustainability leaders work together toward a common goal.
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