By Ethan Rankin
As a teenager and young citizen, I have a strong and direct connection with the next generation. Among high school and college students like myself, the realities of climate change are widely accepted, and we are prepared to take action. Perhaps the most important action young people are ready to take is to choose public transit over private transportation. Unlike our Gen X parents, members of Generation Z are willing to take the train or bus, and to live in denser areas closer to public transportation options.
In my home state of Massachusetts in the US, those headed to college are eager to study at urban universities. The populations of Massachusetts’s cities are booming again, with the fastest growth occurring in areas well served by transit. However, Boston’s transit system (like those across much of the US) is unprepared to handle this remarkable opportunity to keep young people out of cars and encourage a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The MBTA (Boston’s transit operator) uses trolleys and cars from the mid 1980s. Engine fires and breakdowns in snowy conditions are common. Even when the trains are running, they operate at a sluggish pace. Frustrated riders peer out train car windows and see cars speeding by on the highway. So many young people who would be willing to embrace denser living and public transit are discouraged from doing so by the inconveniences of outdated technology. In order to make a major transition away from cars and towards transit, young people need support from practical and effective public transportation options.
In China, the massive rural-to-urban migration continues, with over 100 million (mostly young) Chinese beginning their lives in megacities each year. Cities like Shanghai have designed their transportation systems to meet this heightened demand with transit. On a recent visit to Shanghai, I rode these rail systems, which my peers would choose any day over their private vehicles.
Shanghai’s Metro system and Maglev train should be considered paradigms for sustainable transport in growing cities. Here, the technology of the system fosters high ridership. The Metro runs with efficiency and speed that encourages all Shanghainese — young and old, rich and poor — to mold their lives around their transit system. LED signs and cutting-edge passenger information systems utilize tracking hardware to provide up-to-the-second train arrival updates. Technology aboard the train cars run frequent diagnostics and detect faults that reduce delays and have all but eliminated the disabled trains and equipment failures so common to American systems. Since its inception in 1995, the Shanghai Metro has experienced only two significant technological malfunctions affecting service. As a result, the trains run quickly and provide uninterrupted efficient transportation across the city for nearly 8.5 million riders per day.
While the Metro provides a model for sustainable urban transport, the Maglev train is realizing a future of transit-based intercity travel. Connecting Shanghai to its suburban airport, the Maglev has demonstrated the potential for technology to make the automobile all but obsolete for long-distance travel. Running on electric power that can be generated by a multitude of clean sources, the environmental benefits of magnetic levitation include reduced noise pollution and land use, as well as total elimination of CO2 emissions. However, the most critical aspect of the Maglev is its speed. The train operates throughout the entire day at over 400 km/h (250 mph), nearly 300 km/h above highway automobile travel. The train is reliable and most importantly, the quickest option. This is critical — engineers can design a transportation system that is environmentally sustainable, but it will have no beneficial effect unless it is also practical. Shanghai has demonstrated how to build a system that is both.
In Massachusetts and elsewhere, young citizens await a viable public transportation option. They are ready to embrace automobile-free living, and must be encouraged to do so. Cities like Boston, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Toronto, and others must look to models around the world such as the Shanghai Metro and Maglev. Such transit systems represent a pathway for turning the opportunity of global urban migration into a meaningful reduction in (and potentially elimination of) transportation sector carbon emissions, which make up 26% of US greenhouse gas emissions.