Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sweden points the way toward cutting vehicle emissions — and growing tax revenues

Sweden points the way toward cutting vehicle emissions — and growing tax revenues

Posted on November 21st, 2008
By Nathanial Gronewold

Climatewire: NEW YORK — Some of the world’s most innovative intelligent transportation systems (ITS) involve a web of new technologies that enables traffic managers to minimize vehicle congestion and reduce emissions that cause climate change. Some generate tax revenues that can be used to make roads safer and urban travel more efficient.

The more than 10,000 visitors to this year’s World Congress on ITS, which held sessions here this week, were shown a wide array of the latest ITS ideas as tech companies tried to woo government officials to their products and services. Demonstrations held on the few square blocks closed off on the West Side of Manhattan for the event featured cars that refused to crash into each other or run red lights. Other cars had onboard computers warning drivers to watch out for oncoming traffic or pedestrians that they can’t see.

The highlight of the show was a driverless vehicle that uses advanced sensors and cameras to navigate roadways and avoid collisions. While the fully automated passenger vehicle will probably not be seen on the roads for a very long time, the vast majority of the technologies presented here this week — including advanced monitoring systems, coordinated traffic signaling technology and quick toll payment systems — have proved themselves in the real world and are available for cities to take advantage of now.

This year’s trade show focused heavily on safety. Forty-three thousand Americans are killed in traffic accidents each year, and ITS enthusiasts say smart traffic management systems and advanced safety features can do much to bring that number far down. But organizers of next year’s annual intelligent transportation systems convention, to be held in Stockholm, Sweden, are planning to emphasize the benefits of ITS to solving the climate change problem.

As negotiations are expected to heat up in 2009, with European officials and a new U.S. president eager to reach a new international climate treaty, Swedish authorities say they are now pulling out all the stops to show how today’s technology can be used to gain big reductions in emissions from the transportations sector.

Preparations for the Stockholm convention provide “one very good example of what needs to be done and what has been done,” said Ingemar Skogö, director-general of the Swedish Road Administration, at a preview in New York.

Avoiding traffic congestion will be the first big step to reduce CO2

The best way to make big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from all vehicles is through dramatic improvements in fuel economy, or by developing cars and trucks that don’t run on fossil fuels. Vehicles that run purely on biofuels spew much lower amounts of carbon dioxide than conventional vehicles, and fully electric cars, buses or trucks produce no direct emissions from their operation.

But until such technology can be perfected and can stand up on its own in the marketplace, governments eager to reduce the impact of transportation on climate would be wise to look to intelligent transportation systems instead, experts say. By simply avoiding congestion, cars and trucks burn much less fuel, ITS proponents note, thereby pouring less CO2 into the atmosphere.

A recent study by the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that the American economy suffered losses of some $78 billion in 2005 while drivers were stuck in traffic. That amount measures lost time and productivity, but more importantly, lost fuel. About 3 billion gallons of gasoline are wasted each year as commuters idle in their gridlocked city streets.

The main reason behind implementing intelligent transportation systems is to reduce congestion and keep traffic, and the economy, running as smoothly as possible. And the best-designed systems not only reduce traffic jams but also clean the air. Officials at DOT’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration estimate that well-coordinated traffic control systems using an array of technologies can cut vehicle emissions by 13 to 26 percent.

Municipalities the world over have known this for years, but the spread of advanced systems is still spotty.

The problem with ITS is that “there have been a lot of good ideas over the years … but we haven’t seen much deployment,” said Skogö.

Good ideas to end fuel-wasting gridlocks, but not much deployment

But as host to next year’s trade event, Sweden intends to lead by example, hoping that other countries struggling to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions will follow its cue and encourage wider adoption of advanced ITS.

Swedish officials say their nation has already managed to cut its greenhouse gas emission levels by 9 percent without hurting economic growth.

“However, more needs to be done,” especially in transportation, said Ambassador Ulf Hjertonsson, consul general of Sweden in New York.

Stockholm is one of the few cities to impose congestion fees on vehicles that enter the city’s most crowded quarters during rush hour times. The city is also rolling out “load pricing,” charging heavier cargo vehicles more for operating at peak times, to encourage trucking companies to have the biggest trucks enter the city when activity is relatively low. Both programs are expected to generate millions of dollars in additional revenue that officials can pour into road improvements and other transportation projects.

The city is also enhancing its real-time traffic information systems. Traffic information and public transit alerts can be beamed to individuals’ cell phones before commuters head out to work. If there are problems on certain roads or rail lines, then alternate routes are suggested, hopefully giving travelers plenty of time to figure out the best way to get to their destinations.

“It very much has to do with having the entire picture,” said Dan Jangblad, senior vice president at Saab AB, a division of the Swedish carmaker that produces such technology. The same information systems can be used to help traffic management officers and emergency personnel to cooperate with each other and keep traffic flowing, he said.

‘Dynamic’ speed limit signs that can change traffic flows

Another technology featured at the New York event that will make an appearance in Sweden next year is dynamic speed limit signs. Remote operators who wish to slow the flow of traffic in one area to adjust vehicle volume in another can lower the speed limit shown on the signs, reducing the chance of accidents and further traffic delays at the same time.

“You’re able to control the traffic by adjusting speed limits in a dynamic way” depending on what the circumstances call for, Jangblad explained.

Stockholm, like most other large industrialized cities, also makes heavy use of hundreds of cameras to monitor its highways and byways from a command center operating 24 hours a day. Officials this week demonstrated the Web-based system, showing conference in attendees in New York snapshots of real-time street conditions in various corners of the Swedish capital thousands of miles away.

All these technologies have helped Stockholm keep its streets in good order, officials said. That’s not an easy task, either, they point out, noting that the city is built on top of an archipelago of some 30,000 islands and islets.

But even taking into account the city’s creative congestion pricing zones and traffic management systems, it is Stockholm’s impressive public transportation system that explains why the city has a much lighter carbon footprint than comparable U.S. cities, including New York.

“Electrified railway is by far the best solution” for curbing CO2 emissions, said Sören Belin, managing director at the Swedish rail company Green Cargo. City officials estimate that more than 78 percent of Stockholm’s workers get to their destinations during the week via public transit.

Given the length and expense involved in expanding public transit, city officials in Europe and the United States would be wise to invest in tax dollars in ITS to make real fuel savings and emission reduction gains quickly, industry officials say.

World leaders have committed to reducing carbon emission levels by 50 percent by the middle of this century. Saab’s Jangblad said that cuts in transportation emissions — including from street vehicles, airplanes and large cargo ships — could contribute anywhere from 15 percent to 35 percent toward that ambitious target.

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