Connection and its costs: Ground transportation and climate change

The urgency of radical action to mitigate the causes of climate change is more apparent every week. In early October 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report describing the transformative, systemic changes necessary to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees C, with a window for action of little more than a decade. An even more recent study published in Nature found that the oceans have absorbed much more heat from our warming planet than was previously understood, which means that the impact of burning fossil fuels is even higher than earlier projected. We are moving much more quickly toward perilously high increases in global temperature than we thought, with a much shorter timeframe to diminish and reverse our impact.

How do the ways that we move ourselves and the goods we manufacture and consume perform when measured in terms of greenhouse gas production? How do we imagine, and evaluate, transportation futures through this lens? Transportation: Connection and Its Costs, a part of the League’s Five Thousand Pound Life initiative, is a three-part series of programs that looks at air, sea, and ground transportation in the age of climate change. Presentations and discussions from the programs on air and sea transportation, presented in June 2018, are available here.

The November 3, 2018 conference looked at land-based transportation of both people and goods. (Videos documenting the day can be found below.) The US EPA says that the transportation sector produced 28% of US greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 (tied as the largest sectoral producer, along with the production of electricity, also at 28%), and within the transport sector, land-based modes produced 85% of greenhouse gases. The accelerating pace of technological innovation in this arena, along with increasing capital investment and cultural evolution towards the adoption of new modes of movement and new demands for speed and ease in the movement of goods, have all coalesced into a moment of intense activity and discussion. Ride-hail companies have significantly changed the mix and number of vehicles on city streets around the country and around the world; the quality of service of public transportation, at least in New York, is in a sorry state; ambitious start-ups offer new products and services at a dizzying rate; autonomous vehicles are the focus of high-stakes competition among the big technology and car companies. Cultural critics, public policymakers, and designers are rushing to keep up.    

Are we asking the right questions as this wave of activity and invention sweeps us forward? What are the energy use and emissions implications of all of these new technologies, and the desires and demand they create? Does the move to electric-powered vehicles offer the benefits we think it does? Even with the intensity of interest in transportation futures, are we moving fast enough, and in the right direction, to do what needs to be done? Who gains and who loses in this transportation transition? Can public policy shape this explosion of activity for our collective benefit? How can architects and planners contribute to a productive future? 

The November 3 conference brought together scholars, policymakers, and designers to help understand the relationships between mobility, energy use, and climate change. The League’s hope is that cross-disciplinary conversation about the assumptions embedded in our thinking, the potential unintended consequences of our actions, the choices we face, and the possibilities we can imagine can help set us on the path to a much less carbon intensive and more viable future.

The event was organized by The Architectural League and held at the Cooper Union.


Personal mobility

Experts explore the links between urban transportation systems and climate change.

December 18, 2018

The movement of goods

What does the increasing demand for instant consumer satisfaction mean for climate change, land use, and labor?

December 18, 2018