Thinking of riding your bike to work? Renting a car for a few minutes to cut across town? Walking instead of firing up the V8? You're not alone. A suite of new transportation modes is emerging in sprawling North American cities, with consequences for overall fuel consumption.
Cities with wide suburban radii, poorly served by public transport and bicycle routes, provide limited options to cars. But the walls that defend our entrenched patterns of personal mobility are breaking down. Slowly, people living in big North American cities are being offered new means of getting from A to B.
After decades of suburbanization, it's difficult to diminish our dependence on cars. However, the fallout from developments of the past half-dozen years – for example, the high cost of vehicle operation from rising oil prices; the hassles of greater commuter congestion; and heightened environmental consciousness – have acted as a collective catalyst for seeding "multimodal" transportation offerings. In many major North American centres, both civic policies and entrepreneurship are working to change how people get around with less cost and greater benefit.
For instance, a recent article in Atlantic Cities highlights the momentum behind car-sharing companies like Car2Go, as well as other trends in alternative mobility. Though the article centres on substitutes for taxis in big American cities such as Washington, D.C., such societal shifts are potentially significant from an energy viewpoint, because any change to our transportation paradigm changes our energy consumption – especially our oil use.
For example, Car2Go rents out fuel-sipping Smart Cars by the minute. You can hop in one that's parked nearby and leave it at your destination. The service is available in three Canadian cities: Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary – where its recent debut coincided fortuitously with a taxi-rate hike.
If you visit downtown Montreal, Ottawa or Toronto you will notice Bixi bike stands. For $95 a year in Toronto you can pick up or drop off a communal two-wheeler; the company claims users have made more than 500,000 trips over the past year.
In many big cities, civic policy makers are riding in tandem with such private-enterprise initiatives; across North America public funds are being allocated for infrastructure such as bike trails and dedicated cycling lanes.
The data is slow to be gathered and compiled, but discernible trends have emerged over the past decade. In the United States, the National Household Travel Survey routinely monitors four modes of urban transport: private vehicles (automobiles, SUVs or pickup trucks); public transport, such as buses, subways and light rail; walking; and "other." Notably, travel in private vehicles is trending down; public transport is up slightly; and walking is very much on the rise – between 2001 and 2009 using one's legs is up more than 20 per cent in cities with a population greater than three million. The "other" category, which includes cycling, bike sharing and car sharing, is also trending up.
When we think of competitive threats to oil, we tend to think of substitutes such as biofuels and natural gas. But because two-thirds of every barrel of oil consumed goes toward moving objects – mostly us – around, any change to our transportation paradigm also must be followed. In a past column (ARC Energy Charts, May 14, 2012), for instance, I discussed alternatives to physical transportation that have been triggered by demographic changes (younger people are driving less) and virtualization (navigating the Internet instead of a paved highway).
Physical changes to our urban mobility are still nascent, but the numbers show North Americans are no longer driving more each year, and gasoline consumption is trending down. It's still hard to detect how much of this decline is attributable to new modes of personal transport. Things like bike sharing may not yet be moving the proverbial needle on the rate of oil demand. But a consumption dial that is not stirring is significant to an industry that has long been accustomed to watching the needle always move to the right.