Much of today’s conversation on climate change is centered on the consumption of fossil fuels by vehicles. - STA

Much of today’s conversation on climate change is centered on the consumption of fossil fuels by vehicles.


Public transportation is a greener choice than other traveling options, but considering the scale of the climate change problem, there’s much more work to do. While public transportation in the U.S. saved the equivalent of 16 coal-fired power plants’ worth of CO2 emissions in 2018, the transportation sector remains the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. With the help of historic amounts of federal infrastructure funds now available, coupled with targeted innovations, public transit is better positioned to make real, sustainable change for the future of our environment.

Thinking Beyond Fossil Fuel Consumption

Much of today’s conversation on climate change is centered on the consumption of fossil fuels by vehicles. Reducing emissions by minimizing the use of fossil fuels is necessary, and public transport can make an important contribution in this area.

The Federal Transit Administration recently announced $1.66 billion in grants for transit agencies to invest in more than 1,100 zero-emission buses, nearly doubling their number with this year's funding alone. This investment will make a tangible impact. Yet, there’s an opportunity to go beyond fleet conversion and consider energy consumption across entire transit operations, which are large and growing.

In the U.S., about 6,800 organizations provide nearly 10 billion passenger trips per year. Sixty-nine new systems and 135 rail and bus extensions were built between 2000 and 2019, adding more than 1,700 additional segment miles. These vast networks include stations and stops, workshops and warehouses, track systems and buildings, and structures of all kinds. Optimizing these assets and operational processes and procedures can lead to a reduction in the ecological footprint of transport operators.

Digitalization of Processes is the Key to Optimization

Optimization requires visibility and understanding. And, the key to those is the digitalization of transit planning and operations. By combining digital maps, asset information, and camera and sensor feeds with artificial intelligence and office-to-field workflows, transit operators can create live, actionable models of their networks. These digital twins provide unprecedented levels of awareness into a system’s health, which enables operators to proactively address issues that impact the efficient use of resources.

In addition, there are downstream effects of this approach on overall operational efficiency and effectiveness. As passenger transit is expected to increase, continuous maintenance of existing infrastructure will become even more important. Cost is also a factor. According to a study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), up to 20% of operating costs can be saved simply by leveraging digital solutions for maintenance.

Shared mobility: New Dimensions in Public Transport

Reducing CO2 emissions will only work with a holistic concept that embraces new ways of thinking about public transportation, including expanding and integrating transportation offerings. For example, shared mobility services can offer more environmentally friendly options across numerous vehicle types and traffic routes, from traditional bicycles to electric bikes, scooters, and cars. While these services may be privately run, they are regulated as part of the larger portfolio of public options, and enable cities to increase transit utilization, improve connection to traditional transit stops and target new users.

However, this new dimension in public transportation must be carefully planned, organized, and managed to ensure they support the larger sustainability goals. By again leveraging a digital twin-approach, transit authorities can more effectively monitor and optimize the distribution of vehicles, usage based on behavior patterns, safety and regulatory compliance, and more. Insights gained can be translated into concrete measures, including adjustments to operating zones, schedules, and parking/charging stations, as well as incorporation into holistic public transportation plans. By optimizing the use and acceptance of shared mobility offerings, cities can ensure the continued proliferation of more climate-friendly options.

Embracing Change for a Better Tomorrow

While reducing consumption of fossil fuels by transitioning to electric fleets is a given, public transport operators must look for areas of improvement beyond fuel consumption to reach carbon neutrality goals. Leveraging digital twins to optimize processes can not only improve asset management and service reliability across networks, but it can also help reduce the carbon footprint of operators. By adopting new technologies that aid both traditional transit and new shared mobility offerings, public transportation agencies can increase their resource efficiency and service utilization, which will ultimately positively impact the environment.   

About the author
David Armstrong

David Armstrong

VP and GM for Hexagon’s Safety, Infrastructure & Geospatial division, North America

David Armstrong is VP and GM for Hexagon’s Safety, Infrastructure & Geospatial division, North America.

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