10 Ideas for a Green Transportation Infrastructure

By: Chris Warren  | 
There are ways to green our transportation infrastructure and simultaneously improve our health and quality of life. Learn more. Check out these green science pictures!

Key Takeaways

  • Enhancing electric vehicle use by expanding charging infrastructure and adopting uniform charging connectors can significantly reduce carbon emissions.
  • Developing green highways that utilize sustainable materials and designs, such as permeable pavements and recycled construction materials, can mitigate environmental impacts.
  • Promoting smart growth in urban planning reduces the need for car travel and supports more sustainable transportation options like biking and public transit.

Sometimes, the best definition of a concept can be found by describing what it is not. When it comes to the idea of a green transportation infrastructure, that’s pretty easy. All one has to do to get across the idea is to highlight the experience virtually all of us have shared at some point in our life (and for millions of Americans it can be literally an everyday experience): sitting in our motionless cars on a jam-packed highway as the vehicles spew emissions and pollution into the air.

As has been demonstrated repeatedly, a transportation infrastructure based around individuals in automobiles contributes to global warming, pollution, health problems and energy insecurity. Conversely, the idea behind a green transportation infrastructure is one that provides opportunities for people to get around their communities using their own power -- such as walking or biking -- or by other more environmentally sensitive means, like trains or buses. “A truly green infrastructure is one that residents enjoy, provides durable and inexpensive mobility and addresses the underlying conditions from which our energy crises arise,” says Ozzie Zehner, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the upcoming book "Green Illusions".


Even in cases when it’s difficult or impossible to remove the car from the picture entirely, there are ways to green our transportation infrastructure and simultaneously improve our health and quality of life. Click ahead to find out one way to improve what’s already in place.

10. A Boost for Electric Vehicles

Granted, this won’t address what some see as the inherently environmentally unfriendly aspects of a transportation infrastructure geared towards automobiles. But the truth is that replacing gas-powered autos with those that run on electricity will make a big difference in reducing emissions of carbon dioxide. “Our modeling shows a significant benefit in CO2 reduction for every mile our customers drive on electricity,” says Mike Tinskey, Ford Motor Company’s associate director of global electrification infrastructure. “For example, a driver of a Focus Electric [car] will save about 1 ton (.907 metric tons) of CO2 over a one year period compared to the gasoline equivalent.”

A big problem, however, in the growth of electric vehicles is the lack of chargers available -- the equivalent today of having just a handful of gas stations. Tinskey estimates that there are currently around 3,000 chargers nationwide but that number will quadruple over the next year alone, thanks in large part to funding from 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus. Also important in making electric vehicles more viable is that six automakers recently agreed on a charging connector that will make it possible for most electric cars to be charged much more rapidly than was previously possible -- an 80 percent charge in just 10 minutes.


Click to the next page to learn what a green highway is.

9. Green Highways Partnership

The idea of a so-called green highway is controversial enough that the very first of the frequently asked questions on the official Web site of the Green Highways Partnership asks: "Is the phrase 'Green Highways' an oxymoron?" For some people, like author Ozzie Zehner, the answer would likely be, yes. "America's extensive automotive transportation system, alongside impressive benefits, yields a host of negative side effects such as smog, CO2 and deadly accidents," he says.

But the Green Highways Partnership, an effort begun by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Federal Highway Administration, seeks to enlist public and private entities in an effort to make highways function better for those who drive on them (i.e. less congested) and also more sustainable. More specifically, green highways are those that use permeable materials in their construction in order to prevent metals and toxins from seeping into watersheds; utilize recycled materials to reduce landfill use; and control invasive species and promote the health of a natural, native habitat. Another element of the partnership is that it aims to achieve all of these, and many more, goals through market-driven, voluntary approaches and not via regulation.


Click forward to get out of the car and go up, way up.

8. Pedestrian Bridges

When it was originally built in 1889, the Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was all about commerce and transportation, allowing people and goods to flow easily over the Hudson River 212 feet (64.62 meters) below. For years, the bridge sat unused after a fire nearly destroyed it in 1974 until a group called Walkway over the Hudson began its efforts to transform the 1.25-mile-long (2.012 kilometer) bridge into a place for the public to enjoy. The group was finally successful in its efforts when the Walkway Over the Hudson State Park opened in 2009 -- making it the longest pedestrian bridge in the world, which has since attracted more than 1 million visitors.

According to Vincent Press, a spokesperson for Bergman Associate, the design firm that spearheaded the renovation of the bridge, the environmental benefits of the project -- and this sort of pedestrian bridge generally -- are multiple. "Pedestrian bridges provide opportunities for alternative, environmentally friendly transportation modes such as biking and walking," he says. "In this case, the Walkway over the Hudson connects miles of trails on either side of the Hudson, encouraging exercise and clean modes of transportation." The fact that the bridge utilized an existing structure -- rather than starting from scratch with all new materials -- also provided green benefits, especially since lead and asbestos from the original structure were replaced with more sustainable materials.


Read on to discover how prevalent green building material is.

7. Construction Materials Matter

There are plenty of aspects of the Brooklyn Bridge Park that make it green. First, the 85-acre project, which is partially open, is a park, and the first one built in Brooklyn since Prospect Park more than a century ago. It will replace an industrial area full of piers and warehouses with public space for recreation and restored wetlands and other habitat, it also relies on recycled, local materials. For instance, granite slabs from the nearby Roosevelt Avenue Bridge have been used to create steps in the park; stone from the Willis Avenue Bridge in the Bronx have been incorporated to create a variety of seating and walkway features; and steel from some warehouses have been left in place and reused. All of this is to say that recycled building materials can provide a green boost to any project.

Even in cases when building materials can't be recycled and reused, there are options that are far more sustainable than what was used in the past. For instance, so-called permeable pavers are a big benefit when it comes to managing rain and storm water runoff in such a way that it returns underground or collects in pools where it can be reused instead of running off and being lost or polluting watersheds.


For example, as part of a multi-pronged effort to reduce storm water runoff by 1.5 million gallons each year, a community in Minneapolis, Minn., installed around 1,100 square feet (102.2 square meters) of permeable pavers made by a company called Belgard. Implementing these permeable projects across the watershed is shifting the practices that reduce runoff from residential properties.

Keep reading to see why it's not just recycled materials that contribute to a green infrastructure.

6. Making the Old New Again

Giving people the opportunity and encouragement to get out and walk sometimes takes a little creativity, especially in hyper-urban areas like New York City. In the city's old Meatpacking District, a group of committed citizens have transformed what was once a piece of what would now be called green infrastructure -- an elevated railway line -- and transformed it into a nearly 1.5-mile (2.14 kilometer) walkway and park on the west side of Manhattan called the High Line. What was a transportation route for meat and other agricultural goods heading into factories and warehouses from 1934 to 1980 is now a popular park with areas for public art and urban gardens.

A groundbreaking and unique project, the High Line could be the beginning of a larger trend. Already, Chicago is considering a very similar concept, called the Hydrogenerator, and a floating park has been proposed on the River Thames in London.


Click ahead and see why greenways are aptly named.

5. Greenways

The East Coast Greenway is nothing if not ambitious. An ongoing effort, the East Coast Greenway is an attempt to create a continuous network of trails for use by bicyclists and pedestrians from Maine to Florida; think of it as a sort of Appalachian Trail outside of the woods. Although only about one quarter of it exists right now in the form of trails dedicated for non-motorized transportation, efforts like the East Coast Greenway are quintessential green transportation infrastructure initiatives: providing opportunities for those not in cars to get around and in between towns and, in this case, even states. Obviously, not all greenways -- which are literally corridors of undeveloped land, often in the form of pedestrian-oriented paths around cities or towns -- all are as encompassing as one that snakes up the entire Atlantic seaboard.

In Atlanta, for instance, a quasi-greenway approach is being used to push for what is called the BeltLine, a 22-mile (35.41 kilometer) corridor that incorporates parks, trails and public transportation along with commercial and residential development. It is part of an effort to better manage the city's planning in such a way to avoid more car-oriented sprawl. Robby Bryant worked with HDR Engineering, the company that designed the first 5 acres of the BeltLine, and says that this holistic approach also provides important opportunities beyond just transportation.


The company worked with the city and residents in order to take a storm water retention pond into the focal point of a park, which is part of the BeltLine. Instead of a system to sewers and tunnels, Bryant and his colleagues simultaneously prevented storm runoff while creating such features as a 40-foot (12.19 meter) waterfall. "The overriding goal of the project was to provide flood protection that went beyond the utilitarian," says Bryant. "The park and pond have actually become a destination, which is not something you would typically equate with a retention pond."

Go the next page to discover what happens when bikes get a place of their own.

4. Bike-friendly Communities

Here's something you don't hear often in the U.S.: someone pining fondly for their commute. But that's just how Ozzie Zehner feels when he thinks about the time he spent doing research at the University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands. While there, Zehner, the author of the upcoming book, Green Illusions, and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley zipped around the compact city on his bike, taking advantage of the network of lanes and streets dedicated exclusively to bikes and lightweight motorized vehicles. "Who would have ever thought that commuting could be so fun?" Zehner recalls about his time in Amsterdam.

Fun is just one of the many benefits to cities and towns that commit to making biking easy and safe. "Cleaner, healthier, quieter and safer neighborhoods," are the result of making bikeways and lanes a priority, says Zehner, who argues that even though American cities are more spread out than those in Europe, they are still great candidates for bikes. "Over a quarter of the trips Americans make are shorter than a mile (1.6 kilometers) and over 40 percent are less than 2 miles (3.21 kilometers). These distances would be well-suited for bike travel," he says. If Americans can embrace the concept it will make us more like the rest of the world; indeed, Zehner says the bike is the predominant mode of transport globally, with around 2 billion people using them.


Keep reading to see how fast buses can really be.

3. Bus Lanes

A lot of city dwellers profess an interest in taking the bus to work, but when pressed about why they don’t, there are plenty of reasons keeping them in the cars. Convenience is obviously one, but having to wait at a bus stop and then sit or stand on a crowded bus while cars go by is definitely another big impediment. But cities around the world are doing their best to harness the environmental benefits of bus ridership by making them more attractive to ride. How? One major way is by creating lanes dedicated to buses so that they can zoom past cars and trucks on roadways. Part of a concept called bus rapid transit, dedicated bus lanes have been around for decades and are used in South America, Europe and increasingly in North America and Asia.

A study of the 14-mile (22.5 kilometer) Bus Rapid Transit Corridor in Guangzhou, China, that nation’s third largest city, found that the system will reduce carbon dioxide by 86,000 tons (78,018 metric tons) per year in its first decade of operation. In addition, the study by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, found that Guangzhou’s dedicated bus system reduced particulate emissions that cause respiratory illness by 4 tons (3.62 metric tons) per year.


Read on to see how bus systems paired with subways provide a big green boost.

2. Subways Are Clean

Sure, anyone who rides the New York City subway -- or those in a lot of other cities, for that matter -- everyday will probably snicker (or worse) at the categorical statement that subways are clean. But while some individual subway cars and buses could use a good cleaning, the reality is that these modes of public transport take a heck of a lot of cars off the road and contribute mightily towards a greener planet.

Indeed, according to the Sierra Club, seven of the 12 cities with the best grades for smog-creating car and truck emissions -- places like San Francisco and, yes, New York -- are in states that spend the most on public transportation. Furthermore, the Center for Transportation Excellence reports that subways and buses are a major factor in fighting respiratory illnesses caused by pollution. Indeed, the center says that the bus and subway ridership results in 156 million pounds (70,760 metric tons) of the nitrogen oxides that cause respiratory disease from being emitted, which is to say nothing of the benefits in preventing the output of hydrocarbons that create smog and carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming.


Click on to discover why being “smart” underpins most of our choices about green transportation infrastructure.

1. Smart Growth

To some people, thinking about green transportation infrastructure in isolation is misguided. Instead, they insist that a better approach is to figure out how to configure entire communities in such a way that greener modes of transportation are simply the most obvious and easiest choices. Smart growth, which emphasizes putting homes near shops, jobs and public transportation, does just that by making zoning choices that promote density.

Author Ozzie Zehner says these choices are possible even in places that were originally designed to cater to the automobile. “Communities throughout the United States have successfully converted their big-box stores and parking lots into new community assets such as churches, schools, housing and mixed-use buildings featuring interconnected street grids and lushly planted pedestrian access,” he says. “Take, for instance, a densely built Atlanta neighborhood named Atlantic Station, where residents drive an average of just 8 miles (12.87 kilometers) per day in a region where the average employed individual drives 68 (109.4 kilometers).”

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