Committed to the environment (2): Is public transport always climate-friendly?

Environmental Protection and Public Transport – top issues addressed by PTV Transport Consult experts. Photo: pixabay/Harald Meyer-Kirk

Environmental protection plays a key role in transport planning. We spoke with Petra Strauß, Head of Public Transport Planning and Assessment at PTV Transport Consult, about the possibilities and limits of public transport (PT) in terms of environmental sustainability.

Compass: Are you and your Transport Planning and Assessment team always active in the field of environmental protection?

Petra Strauß: We have always considered public transport to be part of eco-mobility, which also encompasses walking and cycling, i.e. transport modes that allow for eco- and city-friendly travelling. In most of our planning projects, we also aim at increasing the modal split, which means the public transport share in total transportation. Public transport is often considered to be one of the better options when it comes to reducing emissions and protecting the environment. However, it cannot be said that public transport is environmentally friendly per se. Empty diesel buses are not eco-friendly. But walking and cycling are of course climate-friendly passenger transport alternatives.

Compass: When does public transport become a climate-friendly option?

Petra Strauß, Head of Public Transport Planning and Assessment at PTV Transport Consult.

Petra Strauß: It always depends on where and how it is used. Constructing and operating a tram system will only have a positive impact on the environment if there are enough passengers who use the tram instead of their own vehicle. It would be great and beneficial for the environment if more people used public transport. Therefore, we hope to see much bolder action, such as city tolls and reduced parking space in larger cities, cheaper public transport fares and, of course, higher investments in public transport in order to be able to increase the frequency of services and offer modern vehicle technology – important measures that would help make public transport attractive for many people.

Financial resources are still very limited when it comes to planning new public transport services. In rural areas, we often only operate at the level of services of general interest. It is nice to have these services, but for the majority of travellers they are not attractive enough. With more funding, we could achieve much more: we could provide better connections, more flexible services and a higher level of convenience and protect the environment at the same time. 

Compass: Could e-mobility help make transport more environmentally friendly?

Petra Strauß: E-mobility has a long tradition in public transport with its trams or trolleybuses. They make public transport so eco-friendly. Deutsche Bahn [German Railways] as well as cities and transport operators use green electricity in order to offer climate-friendly services.

There has also been much progress in the bus sector. The trolleybus might even be experiencing a renaissance, presumably as a hybrid variant with battery equipment. As a result, overhead lines would not have to be implemented throughout the area, but at the same time the vehicles would be powerful enough and have no range problems. We are currently working on various feasibility studies in this field. The City of Berlin is considering whether such a system should be introduced for the Berlin-Spandau district. I think this is a very positive development.

It would of course be just as important in terms of CO2 emissions and clean air in cities to finally increase the penetration of electric vehicles (EVs) within the private passenger vehicle market. We cannot save the earth’s climate by focusing exclusively on public transport – all modes of transport must contribute to this. However, public transport should play an increasingly important role. It could also function as a game changer because it’s usually the public sector that is responsible for the transport services.

Compass: How do current developments such as MaaS and the new sharing culture influence the situation?

Petra Strauß: Using large vehicles that are shared by many people has been a tried and tested concept in public transport for a long time. A concept that helps reduce both the number of vehicles and the level of emissions. Bundling the demand for mobility services works very well in large and medium-sized cities. There is also a great business potential for new services in urban areas, whereas the situation in rural areas is different. Here car dependency will remain relatively high. Moreover, the services are more expensive as the vehicles are shared by a lower number of passengers. This is one of the focal points of our current activities. The aim of many research-related projects is to find out what conditions must prevail and what types of services contribute to making transport cleaner.

Compass: Can you think of a current example?

Petra Strauß: As part of Darmstadt’s Green City Plan, we identified positive effects for Mobility as a Service (MaaS) as a last mile concept. However, offering MaaS in inner-city areas, where they compete with local public transport services, appears in a rather critical light. A smooth integration of these services into the public transport system is essential in order to make sure that both systems perfectly complement each other. Cherry-picking will not help us achieve an optimum solution for society as a whole. Generally speaking, the MaaS system would have to achieve significantly higher occupancy rates compared to passenger cars (only around 1.2) in order to reduce road traffic and its impact on the environment.

Compass: What does being committed to the environment mean to you?

Petra Strauß: CO2 consumption is certainly the most pressing problem, and the transport sector must do much more to solve it. At PTV, we are working on various projects, e.g. within the framework of the Mobility and Fuel Strategy of the Federal Government (MKS). Here, we analyse supply concepts and their respective contribution to CO2 reduction, such as the effects of shifting to new forms of mobility.

In urban areas, it is all about the quality of urban life, i.e. not only clean air but also less noise and space consumption by using appropriate means of transport. For example, to get from A to B, it is more appropriate to take a bicycle using one’s own muscle power or electricity than a large 1-2-ton car. It would therefore be important to further strengthen pedestrian and cycle traffic and expand public transport, which has reached its capacity limits in all cities during rush hours. Additional services and shorter headways could help in the short term. But over the long run it will be necessary to expand the infrastructure.

Compass: What kind of project would you personally like to work on to promote climate protection in Karlsruhe?

Petra Strauß: Karlsruhe has already done a lot. We have an excellent light rail system here, which has become a role model for many other cities at both a national and international level. And we are looking forward to the ‘Kombilösung’, the combined solution that is scheduled to be completed by 2020 (with Kriegsstraße by 2021). It comprises 2.4 km of tram tunnel under Kaiserstraße, 1 km at the southern branch into Ettlinger Straße as well as the conversion of Kriegsstraße with 1.6 km of tram tunnel and new tram line above this tunnel. I already worked on my favourite project in Karlsruhe: Last year we designed a new route network, which will be introduced together with the combined solution. The aim is to meet the challenges of urban development and attract even more passengers.

Karlsruhe has an excellent light rail system here, which has become a role model for many other cities at both a national and international level.

Karlsruhe has made enormous progress in terms of cycle traffic. The German cycling club ADFC has released its annual ranking of the most bicycle-friendly cities and towns in Germany. In its latest ‘bicycle climate test’ Karlsruhe ranked number one within their size category. Nevertheless, I think that more space for cyclists and pedestrians and increased road safety should be top priority in today’s traffic and urban planning.

Compass: What are your favourite means of transport?

Petra Strauß: Like almost every member of my team, I usually cycle to work (approx. 25 minutes). For business trips, I use the train. It’s very convenient as you can prepare and follow-up your meetings, and at the same time it’s an eco-friendly way of travelling.

Compass: What projects are you currently working on?

Petra Strauß: We carry out public transport projects in a comprehensive and targeted way – from strategic planning to the final implementation. The introduction of a CityBahn system for Wiesbaden is my current favourite project. Moreover, we are currently analysing the potential of cable car corridors on behalf of the City of Dachau. And we are working on impact analyses for several cities that plan to introduce free or cheaper public transport services. A regular task of our department includes the development of local transport plans commissioned by major cities and counties in order to describe the quality and development of public transport. There is a trend towards a ‘mobility plan’, which encompasses all modes of transport and comprehends all factors in a single context.

Find out more:

Committed to the environment (1): How ecological can transport planning be?