The roar of engines has long been part of the soundscape of a city. For a century, for billions of urban people worldwide, getting around has meant boarding a bus powered by diesel or an auto rickshaw that runs on gasoline, or among the affluent, a car. Today, a quiet transformation is underway. Berlin, Bogotá, Colombia, and several other cities are taking creative steps to cut gas and diesel from their public transit systems. They are doing so despite striking differences in geography, politics and economics that complicate the transformation. Berlin is reviving electric tram lines that were ripped out when the Berlin Wall went up. Bogotá is building cable cars that cut through the clouds to connect working-class communities perched on faraway hills. Bergen, a city by the fjords in western Norway, is moving its public ferries away from diesel toward batteries — a remarkable shift in a petrostate that has for decades enriched itself from the sale of oil and gas and that now wants to be a leader in marine vessels for the electric age.
Bergen’s buses, too, are now electric, supplied by Chinese bus-makers that have seized on the market in cities as far afield as Los Angeles and Santiago, Chile. The change is audible. “You can hear voices again in the streets,” said Jon Askeland, mayor of the county that includes Bergen. Urban transportation is central to the effort to slow climate change. Home to more than half the world’s population, cities account for more than two-thirds of global carbon dioxide emissions.
And transportation is often the largest, and fastest growing, source, making it imperative to not only encourage more people to get out of their cars and into mass transit, but also to make transit itself less polluting and more efficient. The biggest challenge has been faced by cities that most need to make the shift: the most crowded and polluted metropolises of Asia and Africa, where people rely on informal mass transit such as diesel minivans or motorcycle taxis. But where cities are succeeding, they are finding that electrifying public transit can solve more than just climate problems. It can clean the air, reduce traffic jams and, ideally, make getting around town easier for ordinary people, which is why some politicians have staked their reputations on revamping transit. In many cases, city governments have been able to take climate action faster than their national governments. “It requires political clout,” Claudia López, mayor of Bogotá, said in an interview. “For the last 25 years, Bogotá has been condemned to depend on diesel buses. That’s irrational in the 21st century.” Berlin: Bringing back the trams
Ingmar Streese called it “a historical mistake.” When the Berlin Wall went up, half of Berlin’s electric tram lines came down. By 1967, when Streese was 3 years old, West Berlin had ripped out nearly all the tracks of die Elektrische — The Electric. Cars took over the roads. Now, 30 years after the fall of the wall, as Germans confront the perils of climate change, there are growing demands to reclaim the roads from cars for walkers, bicyclists and users of public transit. Enter die Elektrische. Again. The mistake of the 1960s “is now being corrected,” said Streese, a Green party politician and Berlin’s permanent secretary for the environment and transport. Berlin, along with several European cities, including Lisbon, Portugal, and Dublin, are reviving trams not only to clean the air but to curb emissions to meet the EU’s legally binding climate goals. Those goals require a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared with 1990 levels.
Still, the politics of taking space away from cars is tricky. Berlin, with 1.2 million cars, has enacted a congestion tax, but it applies only to a tiny slice of the city. It is all part of a broader effort to improve public transit, including by electrifying all buses by 2030, expanding metro and suburban trains, adding bike lanes and building almost 50 miles of tram lines by 2035. The trams are not universally liked. Critics point out they are noisy, rattling along crowded streets day and night. They are slower than subways, and in the era of car-shares and electric scooters, old-fashioned. Tram fans point out that they are cheaper and faster to build than subways.
Bergen, Norway: Battery-run ferries
Heidi Wolden spent 30 years working for Norway’s oil and gas industry. Today, she is working to put oil and gas out of business in her country’s waterways. Wolden is the CEO of Norled, a company that operates public ferries increasingly on batteries instead of diesel. Ultimately, Wolden hopes to take her ferries well beyond the fjords. She wants to make Norled a leader in electrifying marine transport. It is part of the nation’s ambitious effort to electrify all kinds of public transit, a plan all the more remarkable because Norway is a very small, very rich petrostate.
“Personally I am extremely happy that we are moving in the right direction,” Wolden said one brisk Friday morning, as the Hjellestad, a car ferry that Norled operates, set off from a quay near Bergen. Norway has set ambitious targets to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030, compared with 1990 levels. Almost all of Norway’s own electricity comes from hydropower. But what to do about its own oil and gas industry is at the center of a robust national political debate. Elections in September brought a center-left coalition to power, including small parties pushing for an end to oil and gas exploration in the North Sea. Bergen is keen to fast-track its transition away from fossil fuels. Its city buses and trams run on electricity. Taxi operators have been told they must switch to all-electric vehicles by 2024, with subsidies for drivers to install chargers at home. Ferry operators have been offered longer, more profitable contracts to offset the cost of conversion. Unlike in some other countries, including the United States, where climate policies are deeply polarising, in Bergen there was not much pushback. Askeland said politicians on the left and right agreed to trim the budget for other expenses to pay for the costlier electric-ferry contracts. After all, the mayor said, voters in the area are conscious about addressing climate change. “That influences us politicians, of course,” he said.
Bogotá, Colombia: Gondolas with Wi-Fi
The TransMiCable is a loop of firehouse-red gondolas that glide up from the valley to the neighbourhoods stacked along the hills that surround Bogotá. There are plans to build seven lines as part of the city’s efforts to clean up its public transport. Nearly 500 Chinese-made electric buses are on the roads, and contracts are out to buy an additional 1,000 by 2022, making Bogotá’s electric bus fleet one of the largest of any city outside China. The mayor, López, a cyclist, wants to add roughly 175 miles of bike lanes. But for Fredy Cuesta Valencia, a Bogotá schoolteacher, what really matters is that the TransMiCable has given him back his time. He used to spend two hours, on two slow buses, crawling through the hills to reach the school where he teaches. Now it takes him 40 minutes to get to work, an hour at worst. There is Wi-Fi. Clouds. Rooftops below. “It’s a lot less stress,” said Cuesta, 60, a folk dance teacher. “I check my phone, I look at the city, I relax.” Sengupta is a journalist with NYT©2021