Review of Sustainable Transportation: Problems and Solutions

The cover of Sustainable Transportation: Problems and Solutions. from

Review of Sustainable Transportation: Problems and Solutions

In Sustainable Transportation: Problems and Solutions (Black, William. New York: The Guilford Press, 2010) the author comprehensively examines the topic of sustainable transportation, first going over what the problems are and then examining possible solutions. Overall, this book is a good overview of the problems society is encountering in making transportation sustainable, although it has several grammatical errors that detract from the message and I was disappointed not only by how little time was spent discussing public transit as a solution to sustainable transportation but how it was dismissed as a solution (more on that later).

The Problem of Sustainability

Black defines sustainable transportation as "one that provides transport and mobility with renewable fuels while minimizing emissions detrimental to the local and global environment and preventing needless fatalities, injuries, and congestion" (264). There is no question that right now our transportation system is far from sustainable: not only do we continue to use fossil fuels, a finite resource, but our vehicles, even though they are more than 90% cleaner than they were thirty years ago, still cause air pollution and contribute to global climate change. Plus, we find ourselves in ever increasing congestion and, despite tremendous advances in safety, way too many people still die in car crashes each year.

How do we solve these problems? While Black considers a wide range of potential solutions, he seems most interested in two: the adoption of alternative fuels, particularly hydrogen fuel cells; and the increased deployment of intelligent transportation systems, particularly signs that can help people drive more safely and efficiently on roadways by adjusting speed limits in response to events such as poor weather.

Interesting, despite the fact that the book was published in 2010, there is no mention of the possibility that driverless cars could promote sustainable transportation, As I write this California and Nevada have passed legislation allowing for driverless cars to operate on public roadways, with other jurisdictions surely planning to follow suit.

Driverless cars would certainly reduce crashes (computers never drink and are never tired) and will probably reduce congestion by allowing cars to travel closer together at high rates of speed (computers have pretty good reaction times). Since the timeframe of the book is far enough into the future to see a time when hydrogen fueling stations are common (2030), it seems like a great flaw of the book to overlook the impact driverless cars will have twenty years from now.

How Transit Fits In

According to Black, it really does not. While a doubling of trips taken on transit in the United States from 3 to 6% would not by itself achieve the goal of sustainable transit, I think it would have more of an impact than he believes. Since every trip on transit (unless the trip starts at a park and ride lot) by definition involves a pedestrian trip before and after, increasing the number of transit trips also increases the number of pedestrian trips. Increasing transit trips also increases the number of bicycle trips, although the limited number of bicycle storage spaces on a transit vehicle limits the use of this mode as a way of accessing public transportation. In addition, the very young and the very old - the age groups that have the most car crashes - are also the age groups that use transit the most.

Improving transit is likely to result in even more of these subpar drivers giving up their automobiles. Although Black dismisses any equity issues involved in sustainable transportation, making transit better can help the poor give up cars they cannot afford, thereby improving their quality of life.

Public transportation is already one of the most sustainable modes of transportation out there, even if you only consider methods of propulsion . All of Los Angeles Metro's 2,000+ buses run on CNG. American transit providers were amongst the first adopters of hybrid vehicles and are to this point the only people who have operated fuel cell vehicles. Since the dawn of the streetcar era transit vehicles have run on electricity, and as electric sources have become cleaner the light rail lines, streetcars, and subways of the world have become even more sustainable.


Overall, I feel Black spends too much time defining the problem and not enough time discussing the solutions. Although gas prices have declined from their record highs in the summer of 2008, you know that hybrids are the future of automobiles in America when you see Priuses mixed in with high-end BMWs and Mercedes as cars arrive at a posh Malibu party. Light rail lines have helped spark an interest in more urban and sustainable living that goes far beyond the passengers they carry. In my opinion, they help to provide an "excuse" for higher density transit-oriented construction , and I expect to see more dense infill even in places like Phoenix when the economy recovers. While most Americans desire to live in single-family houses, it is important to remember the streetcar suburbs were all single family houses - but single family houses at densities high enough to support transit. While Black is correct in saying there is no political will for stricter enforcement of lowered speed limits or significantly higher gas taxes in America, natural forces are slowly but surely pointing us to a more sustainable future.