Management & Operations

How Transit Can Find the Green in Going Green

Posted on April 9, 2007 by Janette Sadik-Khan and Cliff Henke

You cannot pick up a newspaper or listen to a newscast without seeing something about global warming, climate change, greenhouse gases or environmental stewardship. These stories are often accompanied by references to “green” infrastructure; “sustainable” design; bike, pedestrian and rail transportation; alternative fuels and the like. This new lexicon reflects the public’s growing desire for environmentally sensitive transportation, energy and water systems and programs that meet the needs of today and preserve the quality of life for future generations.

There is also a convergence of these issues with the desire to move beyond fossil fuels, both for national security needs as well as economic reasons. Both politicians and Wall Street are also starting to “get it.” And, the good news is it can often pay off for the public transport industry in both arenas.

Transit has always been perceived as environmentally friendly, but there is much those in the industry can do to make their organizations more sustainable. This article will look at what some transit organizations are doing to promote these issues — particularly in day-to-day operations — including how going green pays off.

Sustainability framework
Industry concepts and practices regarding sustainability are motivated by a larger international context as well as specific industry initiatives both in the U.S. and globally. Outside the U.S., the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the biodiversity treaty, the Rio Earth Summit and other international agreements have been slowly building toward a global consensus that environmentally sensitive development practices are required to achieve sustainable development goals. These laws have also been reinforced by national and regional policies throughout the world, voluntary international standards and individual corporate actions.

The most widely used framework for corporate efforts on the issue has been the ISO 14000 series of environmental management standards. ISO 14001, the standard for establishing and implementing an environmental management system at a facility, is discussed in greater detail below.

The International Public Transport Union (UITP) has also taken up the issue of sustainability. For example, in 2003 UITP rolled out a Sustainable Development Charter, a voluntary, measurable commitment to implement sustainable development policies in their organizations. Today, more than 100 UITP members, transit agencies and companies are signatories. This has been followed up by the first UITP international conference held in Bilbao, Spain, this past October. Topics included various aspects of sustainable development, including case studies demonstrating the environmental, social and economic advantages of sustainability initiatives and the contributions the public transport sector can make toward sustainability.

While the U.S. has been notoriously absent from Kyoto’s list of ratifying countries, other efforts have stimulated the public transportation industry’s sustainability efforts in this country. A growing number of U.S. organizations have certified their facilities to ISO 14001 standards, and more than 400 U.S. mayors have signed a Climate Protection Agreement to adopt Kyoto-like greenhouse emissions inventory and reduction policies for their cities.

APTA has also gotten into the sustainability act. It began a series of annual workshops on sustainability in Portland, Ore., last year. Sessions included many of the same topics addressed at the UITP conference in October 2006.

Sustainability in practice
While there are many ways of implementing green initiatives within a public transport organization, the most effective use the well-established international principles of environmental management discussed above. The most thoroughly described of these can be found in ISO 14001, the international voluntary standard for establishing and implementing an environmental management system. The basic principles and structure of this system include:

Management commitment. An effective commitment to environmental principles must first come from the top. Like many process and procedural standards that have been developed in public transportation, implementation of something as transformational as environmental management is much more difficult if management is not seriously committed to it.

Written policy and procedures. Policies and procedures should also be spelled out in the form of an environmental manual. For public transport, they could include green building principles such as those found in the Leadership in Energy Efficient Design (LEED) standards. In addition, procurement practices — everything from purchasing of cleaner vehicles to recycled paper — and operational policies that encourage energy efficiency and waste reduction should be included.

Tracking and corrective action. It is only partly effective to have policies and procedures in place; true progress will not occur without a tracking system that measures progress toward achieving sustainability goals that can identify areas that need improvement if measures come up short. The Japanese concept of kaisen (continuous improvement) certainly applies to environmental management systems.

Sharing with stakeholders, incorporating feedback. This step is perhaps the most controversial, because it involves telling everyone about your progress — or lack thereof. Legal implications are frequently cited as a reason more organizations have not adopted ISO 14001 in the U.S. This is not a universally shared opinion, however, as reflected in the increasing number of U.S. facilities that are being certified to the standard.

Examples of sustainability in operation. Sustainable practices in the transit industry are more frequent than one might think. Some examples include:

Clean vehicles. While many public transportation fleets buy hybrid and natural gas-fueled vehicles to meet regulatory mandates, others do so because of policy choices to have the cleanest fleets possible. In fact, according to industry data, as many as 2,000 hybrid transit buses are on order or in service; many more than that are powered by natural gas. In fact, one transit bus in six now operates with advanced propulsion. In addition, many service vehicles now have state-of-the-art propulsion systems. Although more expensive, hybrid and gas-fueled service trucks and supervisor cars are showing up in public transportation fleets, sending the public a message that transit agencies are incorporating environmentally friendly policies into their revenue fleet acquisition programs.

Of course, all heavy and light rail vehicles have electric traction power and many commuter rail lines are also electrified, but enhancements can be made to improve the efficiency of these systems. For example, Sacramento’s light rail power distribution system has retrofitted its substations to greatly reduce transmission-related power losses. New designs in third rail from Europe can also be used to reduce power losses. In addition, insulated bipolar gate transistors in traction inverters have greatly reduced weight, improved performance and vastly improved energy efficiency on new and rehabilitation car fleets throughout the industry.

Minimizing waste stream. Public transportation organizations on the supply side as well as the operating side of the industry have adopted aggressive environmental management policies with respect to waste reduction. New Flyer Industries, for example, has been certified to the ISO 14001 standard in its Winnipeg, Manitoba, facility. In addition to aggressive scrap recycling, New Flyer began evaluating the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) used in the workplace back in 2002, and found that the primary sources of VOC emissions were associated with flooring installation (gluing and sealing) and surface coating (painting) operations. The company implemented new processes and worked with suppliers to develop new products, and have reduced the VOC emissions to the atmosphere by approximately 46%.

Green design in facilities. Denver’s Regional Transportation District has had passive and active solar designs in some of its maintenance facilities since the early 1980s. Tucson, Ariz., received a LEED Silver Rating for its energy and water savings design in its new 250-bus maintenance complex. New York City Transit (NYCT) has earned a similar rating for its Corona rail shop.

Incorporating staff feedback through “sustainability committees.” There is growing interest in bringing environmentally responsible practices to the workplace. In Parson Brinckerhoff’s (PB) office in Bristol, England, its ISO 14001 certification has already realized projected cost savings in the first year of its certification period, conservatively estimated at more than $30,000 for the office.

Green investment pays off
As mentioned above, public agencies and private-sector organizations can greatly enhance both sustainability and their budget pictures by adopting strong “green” policies. Here are some examples of those returns:

  • NYCT strongly encourages suppliers, contractors and consultants doing business with the agency to incorporate its “Design for the Environment” guidelines. NYCT initially endorsed sustainable development for business reasons, beginning with an asbestos abatement concern. With only part of their program implemented, the agency estimates savings have already exceeded $2 million in annual energy consumption alone.

    In California, a study of LEED-certified facilities showed that although standard LEED buildings cost $4 per square foot more to build, the investment can be paid back in less than two years through energy and other operational savings and over 20 years can generate returns of 1,200%.

  • In Portland, the Tri-County Metropolitan Transit Agency in the design/build consulting services RFP for its LRT Project in the I-205 Corridor stated in its evaluation guidelines that 20% of the evaluation would be based on how well proposers addressed sustainability.

  • Even the auditing processes for quality and environmental improvements under the ISO standards can be made more sustainable and pay back savings. A study at PB found that a more robust system of paperless recordkeeping could save its U.S. offices and projects more than $1 million annually in direct and indirect costs associated with these audits.

  • As Amory Lovins, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy policy think tank, points out: “Every firm or state/local government seeking to cut CO2 via energy efficiency has reported a profit.”

    This experience is reflected more generally among different sectors. For example, a 2005 study of 179 U.S. firms showed that better environmental performance is significantly and positively related to higher returns on investment and earnings growth. More recently, a survey by PriceWaterhouse-Coopers (Sixth Annual Global CEO Survey) reported that a larger number of CEOs now believe that sustainability is vital to the profitability of any company and that the main factor driving sustainability is concern about reputation and brand.

    Like quality and kaisen mentioned earlier, sustainability is a journey, not a destination, and there are many benefits that accrue along the way — a stronger brand, better community goodwill and substantial, proven operational savings. The increasing costs of energy, water and other vital resources will only make those returns higher in the future. What better time to go for the green?

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