Over a barrel – and on your bike

Increasing oil and gas prices provide a stark reminder of transport’s dependency on fossil fuels. Selwyn Parker reviews the developing situation and the possible impacts on greener mobility options.

Just when we thought it was safe to travel again by air, road, sea and rail after some two years of pandemic-forced immobility, the war in Ukraine has thrown a spanner in the works by sending fuel costs sky high.

In a stark demonstration of how all forms of transport continue to remain dependent on fossil fuels, drivers are already paying more at the pump, air travel is set to rise in price, cruise ships are contemplating fare increases (as well as slashing itineraries), and numerous rail networks have been forced to cut routes.

Europe-wide prices at the pump pass the two-Euro mark, as seen in Turku, Finland

In mid-April, spooked markets had sent the price of a barrel of Brent crude, one of the key benchmarks, to over USD 100 compared to around USD 40 in the same month of 2021. Most experts expect prices to stay at that level, while some forecast USD 140 in the event of a complete embargo against Russian hydrocarbons.

Even if and when peace in Ukraine is restored, it will probably take years for governments to find enough oil and gas to replace Russian supplies. The problem in Europe, the region with the most-affected countries, is a pre-existing dearth of energy. As the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies points out in a paper published in March on the short-term situation, “the European market is already very tight” and warns that a worsening geopolitical context could “make a challenging market situation even tighter, with price surges to new record highs the inevitable outcome.”

In short, Europe has little room for manoeuvre – with obvious implications for all forms of travel.

Already, then, we’ve clearly got an energy shock on our hands, probably the most serious since the 1970s when the oil-producing nations of OPEC turned off the taps: between October 1973 and November 1974, the price of a barrel crude rose five-fold.

Retro reporting: how USA’s NBC covered the 1973 oil crisis

Back in the seventies, most western countries responded with all kinds of fuel-saving measures, for instance, by legislating slower speeds on roads. The British government, for example, appealed for citizens to take public transport and handed out fuel rationing books (although they were never actually used).

In the half-century since, aviation has become a voracious user of fossil fuels – and now faces yet another setback as it struggles back from the pandemic. The airline association IATA notes that “jet fuel prices rose sharply since the start of the conflict”, reaching  USD 150 a barrel in late March – up 39 per cent in just one month and 121 per cent year-on-year. As sanctions against Russia bite deeper – or indeed are extended – the outlook will become even more dismal, fears IATA.

The cost of jet fuel accounts for about a quarter of an airline’s operating expenses, and ticket prices inevitably reflect this. Although some airlines have hedged against the rising cost of jet fuel, others are fully exposed. So far, bookings to most destinations are rising as travel-starved passengers get back in the air, albeit from low pandemic levels. But fares aren’t yet reflecting the latest fuel costs.

Unfortunately, it’s too early for the next generation of sustainably produced jet fuels (sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF) to come to the rescue of the airline industry. Although airlines are using it in small amounts as a “drop-in” fuel, there is not enough of it, and it’s too expensive. As European SAF leader Neste tells me, “the main challenge for the development of SAF is the cost at three to five times more than conventional jet fuel.”

That’s because the commercialisation of SAF is in its infancy and because the cost of raw materials and the production process is high. However, at the current high price of jet fuel, the economics of SAF look better. The price difference is down to around three times that of conventional fuel. That would add around 4 to 15 euros to the price of a fare over a conventionally fuelled flight, Air France-KLM has found.

The International Transport Forum recently organised a webinar to explore the development of flagship SAF policies in leading aviation markets (USA and EU) and emerging aviation markets. Aviation experts explained the current SAF sector’s output and mid- and long-term targets. The meeting discussed policies to scale up volumes and economic and regulatory instruments to support airlines’ switch to SAF.

Regional policies to promote sustainable aviation fuels: ITF webinar

Meantime down on the earth, 1970s-style measures may yet be enforced for road transport if fuel shortages increase. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has just provided a blueprint. Its “Ten-Point Plan to Cut Oil Use” would slash oil demand by 2.7m barrels a day in just four months if fully carried out in advanced economies, the IEA says. That amount is equivalent to the oil demand of all the cars in China.  

Along with greater use of high-speed and overnight rail and virtual meetings replacing air travel, the plan calls for lower speed limits (at least 10km/h less on highways), cheaper public transport and car-pooling. All of these seem very dated, except for Zoom meetings.

Faced with such restrictions, road users will probably opt for electric vehicles. Indeed sales of EVs and hybrids are already up just about everywhere. Commuters could also jump on bikes. The Dutch government has just decided to pump an extra EUR 240m into a cycling-to-work programme between now and 2024. If other countries follow suit, expect an even bigger boom in e-bikes than we’ve already got.


Selwyn Parker is an independent journalist and author of Chasing the Chimney Sweep about the first Tour de France of 1903.


ITF’s 2021 report “Decarbonising Air Transport: Acting Now for the Future” provides an overview of technological, operational and policy measures that can accelerate the decarbonisation of aviation.

Learn more about ITF’s work on cutting carbon emissions from transport through more ambitious policies around the globe. See the ITF’s Decarbonising Transport initiative

एक नया तरीका: मेट्रो और मुंबई

मुंबई का बुनियादी ढांचा बदल रहा है । शहर में फील्डवर्क करते हुए, कार्ल एडलर ने देखा कि भारत की वित्तीय राजधानी में नए परिवहन मोड महानगर को कैसे नया रूप देंगें ।

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मैं उठता हूँ , तैयार होता हूँ , बाहर जाता हूँ  और चर्चगेट तक लगभग एक किलोमीटर चलकर आता हूँ । मैं जांघ-ऊंचाई वाले बोल्डर और बाड़ की लंबाई के बीच से गुज़रता हूँ, जो फुटपाथ को संकुचित करते हैं । कोई इष्टतम ऊंचाई नहीं है जिस पर मेरी निगाहों को इस तरह  टिका सकूँ कि बाधाओं से बच जाऊं ; यहाँ हर जगह आश्चर्य है, और पूरे दृश्य पर पूरा ध्यान देने की आवश्यकता है। अंत में, मैं चर्चगेट पहुँचता हूँ। मैंने यहाँ और बांद्रा के बीच के लिए एक मासिक पास खरीदा है, इसलिए मुझे टिकट खिड़की के  बाहर कतार में इंतजार नहीं करना पड़ेगा। मुझे अगले तीन सप्ताह तक ऐसा नहीं करना पड़ेगा। मैं लंबे सफेद गलियारे के अंत में मेटल डिटेक्टर से गुज़रता हूँ   और बर्थ में आराम से बैठी चौड़ी बैंगनी ट्रेनों को देखता हूँ ।

प्रत्येक ट्रेन बड़े हरे रंग की संख्याओं और अक्षरों के साथ एक डिस्प्ले के नीचे खड़ी हुई हैं जो इंगित करती है कि ट्रेन कब जा रही है, कहाँ रुकेगी और कहाँ ख़तम  होगी। यह कोड सरल है, लेकिन उन सभी महीनों में इसे क्रैक करने से मुझे ऐसा लगा कि अब मैं मुंबई से हूँ । अब मुझे इसके बारे में सोचने की भी जरूरत नहीं है। मैं उस संकेत के नीचे ट्रेन तक जाता हूं जो मुझे बताता है कि यह एक्सप्रेस नहीं चलती है, कि यह अंधेरी जाती है, और यह दूसरों की तुलना में जल्दी जा रही है। मैं गाड़ी में प्रवेश करता हूं और ओवरहेड पंखे को चालू करने के लिए अपनी सीट के पास एक स्विच फ्लिप करता हूँ । तीस सेकंड के भीतर, हम प्रस्थान करते हैं। दरवाजे बंद नहीं होते हैं, लेकिन यह सामान्य है। माहिम जंक्शन के लिए मेरे पच्चीस मिनट या उससे अधिक की यात्रा में, मेरी कार में भीड़ बढ़ जाती है और लोग उन खुले दरवाजों के पास खड़े हो जाते हैं, और उस \ पट्टी को पकड़ते हैं जो समर्थन के लिए प्रवेश द्वार को द्विभाजित करती है। प्रत्येक स्टेशन पर, सवारी वाहन के रुकने से पहले प्लेटफॉर्म पर कूद जाते हैं, ट्रेन के साथ कुछ मीटर जॉगिंग करते हैं और फिर धीमी गति से चलते हैं। हम माहिम जंक्शन पहुँचते हैं; मैं गाड़ी से बाहर निकलता हूँ और ट्रेन को उत्तर की ओर धुंध में खोते हुए देखता हूं।

मैंने इस यात्रा के बाद लगभग आधा साल, सोमवार से शुक्रवार तक, घनी उष्णकटिबंधीय गर्मी में बिताया। एक शौकिया परिवहन उत्साही और नवोदित विद्वान होते हुए, महानगर की सभी चीज़ों से ज़्यादा, मुंबई की लोकल ट्रेनों ने मुझे आकर्षित किया । इस प्रणाली ने डेढ़ सदी से अधिक समय तक शहर की संचार प्रणाली के रूप में कार्य किया है। सब्सिडाइज्ड किराए से सभी सामाजिक-आर्थिक पृष्ठभूमि के मुंबईवासियों को लोकल ट्रैन इस्तेमाल करने का मौका मिलता है । इसकी विशिष्टताएं पौराणिक हैं।। अनगिनत बॉलीवुड फिल्मों में भीड़-भाड़ वाली लोकल ट्रेनों में लटके लोगों के क्लिप होते हैं। पात्र अक्सर वाहनों के अचूक पिंजरे जैसे  हिस्सों में मिलते हैं। मुंबई की लोकल ट्रैन गेटवे ऑफ इंडिया, ताज महल पैलेस होटल और मरीन ड्राइव की आर्ट डेको वाली इमारतें के सामान शहर का प्रतीक हैं । हालांकि, यह खामियों के बिना नहीं है।

मुंबई की लोकल ट्रेनों का सुरक्षा रिकॉर्ड बेहद खराब है। भारत की सरकारी रेलवे पुलिस के मुताबिक 2019 में नेटवर्क के अंदर 2691 लोगों की मृत्यु  हुई थी। इसके अलावा 3194 लोग घायल हुए थे। यह संख्या अन्य शहरों में अकल्पनीय होगी। चलती गाड़ियों से गिरना और  प्लेटफार्मों के बीच से पार करने वाले लोग इन मृत्युओं के मुख्य कारण हैं। स्टेशनों पर जाते समय चलती वाहनों से कूदने से भी लोग घायल हो जाते हैं। भीड़भाड़ ने घंटों की यात्रा को यात्रियों के लिए दुःस्वप्न बना दिया है। गाड़ियों को दो वर्गों में बांटा गया है। प्रथम और द्वितीय श्रेणी में बहुत अधिक अंतर नहीं हैं, लेकिन प्रथम श्रेणी के टिकट की कीमत द्वितीय श्रेणी के किराए से लगभग दस गुना अधिक हैं, जिससे ऐसी स्थिति उत्पन्न होती है जहाँ द्वितीय श्रेणी में अत्यधिक भीड़ होती है और पहले में बहुत अधिक जगह होती है। सिस्टम की सभी विलक्षण और आदर्श धारणाएं खुली ट्रेन के दरवाजे से बाहर निकलती हैं, और यह अहसास होता है कि इस प्रणाली को किसी प्रकार के अपग्रेड सेट की आवश्यकता है।  स्थानीय ट्रेन प्रणाली में एक सीमित सेवा क्षेत्र है। मुंबई में रहने वाली एक युवा पेशेवर, श्रुतिका मणिवन्नन, लोकल ट्रेनों से यात्रा करती हैं, लेकिन सिस्टम की अपेक्षाकृत खराब कनेक्टिविटी पर प्रकाश डाला,”लोकल ट्रेन बड़ी दूरी के लिए सुविधाजनक है क्योंकि यह मुझे यात्रा के समय की बचत करती है, लेकिन मैं इसे छोटी दूरियों के लिए टालती हूँ क्योंकि स्टेशन तक पहुंचने में कुछ समय लगता है”।

इस दबाव को कम करने के लिए, मुंबई ने एक नई मेट्रो प्रणाली बनाने के लिए एक महत्वाकांक्षी परियोजना शुरू की है। यह परियोजना कई मुंबईवासियों के अपने शहर से गुजरने के तरीके को पूरी तरह से बदल देगी। यह लोकल ट्रेनों के लिए एक सुरक्षित, अधिक आरामदायक विकल्प का वादा करती है। नए नेटवर्क में अंततः दस लाइनें शामिल होंगी और दोनों का उद्देश्य उन क्षेत्रों की सेवा करना है जहां वर्तमान में स्थानीय ट्रेन की पहुंच नहीं है या फिर लोकल ट्रैन के अलावा एक और विकल्प प्रदान करती हैं । मुंबई मेट्रोपॉलिटन रीजन डेवलपमेंट अथॉरिटी (एम. एम. आर. डी. ए.) के अनुसार, पूरा सिस्टम लगभग 190 किलोमीटर तक फैला होगा।  व्यापक शहरी रेलवे नेटवर्क हासिल करके, मुंबई सडकों पर निजी वाहनों की संख्या में कमी देखने की उम्मीद भी रखता है। अभी तक, केवल एक परिचालन लाइन, लाइन वन है। लाइन वन एक पूर्व-पश्चिम गैलरी में चलती है जिसमें पहले रेलवे कनेक्शन नहीं था और तीन लोकल ट्रेन लाइनों में से दो के बीच महत्वपूर्ण स्थानांतरण स्टेशन प्रदान करती है। इसका निर्माण पब्लिक प्राइवेट पार्टनरशिप के माध्यम से किया गया था, जिसमें रिलायंस एनर्जी लिमिटेड की 69% हिस्सेदारी थी। इस परियोजना की लागत लगभग 43०० करोड़ रुपये थी और सेवा 2014 में शुरू हुई थी। लाइन वन लेकर अन्य लाइनों पर सवार के अनुभव की जानकारी मिलती है।

मैंने पहली बार 2018 की शरद ऋतु में एक जॉब साइट पर पहुंचने के लिए लाइन वन की सवारी की। एक सहकर्मी और मैं उमस भरी दोपहर में हमारे धारावी कोलीवाड़ा के कार्यालय से सायन स्टेशन तक गए । भीड़-भाड़ का समय अभी शुरू ही हुआ था, और हम मध्य रेलवे की वाहन  में सवार हो गए, जैसे ही वह प्लेटफार्म पर पहुंची । हम पूरी यात्रा के लिए दरवाजों के पास रहे- वाहन  में आगे जाने का मतलब यात्रियों की लगातार बढ़ती भीड़ के पीछे फंसना हो सकता है। हमने ट्रेन को लाइन वन के पूर्वी टर्मिनस घाटकोपर पर छोड़ा और मेट्रो के लिए संकेतों का पालन किया। आखिरकार, हम उज्ज्वल और शानदार मेट्रो स्टेशन पर पहुँचे। हम टिकट खिड़की तक गए, वहां इलेक्ट्रॉनिक टोकन खरीदे और उन्हें टर्नस्टाइल पर चिप रीडर के सामने लगाया । गेट खुल गए और हमने प्लेटफार्म तक एस्क्लेटर ले लिया । हमारे सिर के ऊपर लगे एलसीडी पैनल ने हमें बताया कि अगली ट्रेन सिर्फ दो मिनट में रवाना होगी। जल्द ही, हम वातानुकूलित ट्रेन में चढ़कर बैठ गए। हमने मेट्रो से बाहर शहर को अपने नीचे से गुज़रता देखा और दस मिनट के भीतर, अपने गंतव्य पर पहुंच गए।

बाद में कई बार मैंने लाइन वन की सवारी की, सभी एक साथ मिश्रित होते हैं- लाइन का उपयोग करना सुखद और सीधा है। इस नई प्रणाली में लोकल ट्रेनों की विशेषताओं का अभाव है और यह कभी भी शहरी पहचान का केंद्रबिंदु नहीं हो सकता है, जो लोकल ट्रेनें कई मुंबईवासियों के लिए हैं। लेकिन, यह निस्संदेह नेटवर्क पर जगह खाली कर देगा और ड्राइवरों को निजी वाहनों के साथ आने-जाने का एक व्यवहार्य विकल्प दे सकता है। सबसे महत्वपूर्ण बात यह है कि मेट्रो की बढ़ी हुई सुरक्षा अधिक मुंबईवासियों को कम से कम डर के साथ जीने की अनुमति देगी।


कार्ल एडलर साइंस पो पेरिस में मास्टर के छात्र हैं और इंटरनेशनल ट्रांसपोर्ट फोरम में इंटर्नशिप कर रहे हैं।


2022 के अंत तक मुंबई की मेट्रो की कई अतिरिक्त लाइनों के चालू होने की उम्मीद है।

इंटरनेशनल ट्रांसपोर्ट फोरम दो परियोजनाओं पर भारत में परिवहन को डीकार्बोनाइजिंग पर काम करता है:

डार्बोनिसिंग ट्रांसपोर्ट इन इमर्जिंग इकनोमीस (डीटीईई) – भारत परियोजना का उद्देश्य भारत सरकार और अन्य हितधारकों को परिवहन उपायों की पहचान करने और परिवहन सीओ 2 उत्सर्जन को कम करने और अपने जलवायु लक्ष्यों और एनडीसी को पूरा करने के लिए मार्ग स्थापित करने में मदद करता है । और अधिक जानें

एशिया के लिए एनडीसी ट्रांसपोर्ट इनिशिएटिव (एनडीसी-टीआईए) का उद्देश्य विभिन्न क्षेत्रों के मंत्रालयों, नागरिक समाज और निजी क्षेत्र के बीच समन्वयित परिवहन के लिए प्रभावी नीतियों की एक सुसंगत रणनीति को बढ़ावा देना है। और अधिक जानें

A New Mode: The Metro and Mumbai

Mumbai is in the midst of an infrastructure makeover. Drawing on his fieldwork in the city, Carl Adler looks at how new transport modes in India’s financial capital will reshape the metropolis.

हिंदी संस्करण पर जाएं

Hanging out: Mumbai Suburban Railway moves over 7 million commuters daily

I wake up, get ready, go outside and walk the kilometre or so to Churchgate. I weave between thigh-height bollards and lengths of fence that constrict the footpath and occasional gaps in pavement. There is no optimal height at which to fix my gaze to avoid impediments to movement; there are surprises everywhere here, and the entire scene requires full attention. Eventually, I reach Churchgate. I bought a monthly pass for between here and Bandra, so I do not have to wait in the queue snaking out from the ticket window. I will not have to do so for another three weeks. I walk through the metal detector at the end of the long white corridor and look out at the wide purple trains sitting snugly in their berths.

Each train rests under a display with big green numbers and letters that indicate when a train is leaving, where it will stop and where it will end up. This code is simple, but cracking it all those months ago made me feel a little bit more like I belonged here. Now I don’t even need to think about it. I walk to the train under the sign that tells me it does not run express, that it goes to Andheri, and that it is leaving sooner than the others. I enter the carriage and flip a switch near my seat to turn on the overhead fan. Within thirty seconds, we depart. The doors do not close, but this is normal. Over my twenty-five-minute-or-so commute to Mahim Junction, the crowd in my car swells and people stand beside those open doors, gripping the texturised vertical metal bar which bisects the entrance for support. At each station, riders jump onto the platform before the vehicle stops, jogging alongside the train for a few metres and slowing to a walk. We reach Mahim Junction; I exit the carriage and watch the train pull north into the haze.

I spent nearly half a year following this commute, Monday through Friday, in the thick tropical heat. As an amateur transport enthusiast and budding scholar, Mumbai’s local trains stole my attention more than anything else in the metropolis. The system has served as the city’s circulatory system for over a century and a half. Subsidised fares allow access to Mumbaikers from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Its idiosyncrasies are the stuff of legend. Countless Bollywood films feature clips of people hanging out of crowded local trains. Characters often meet in the unmistakable cage-like interiors of cars. Mumbai’s local train system is as emblematic of the city as the Gateway of India, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and the Art Deco facades along Marine Drive. It is, however, not without its flaws. 

2.64 billion Mumbai Suburban Railway’s annual riders arguably rate service as the worst anywhere in the world

Mumbai’s local trains have an abysmal safety record. According to India’s Government Railway Police, 2,691 people died within the network in 2019. In addition, 3,194 people were injured. These numbers would be unthinkable in other cities. Falls from moving carriages and people crossing between platforms at rail level are the main causes of these fatalities. People also sustain injuries from jumping from moving cars as they pull into stations. Crowdedness makes rush hour travel a nightmare for commuters. Carriages are broken down into two classes. First and second class do not have many material differences, but first-class ticket prices are around ten times as high as second-class fares, leading to situations where there is intense congestion in second class and a great deal of space in first. All romantic and idealised notions of the system fly out the open train doors on crushing weekday mornings, and the realisation that this system needs some sort of an upgrade sets in. Finally, the local train system has a limited service area. Shrutika Manivannan, a young professional based in Mumbai, commutes with local trains but highlighted the system’s relatively poor connectivity. “[The local train is] convenient for large distances because it saves me on commute time, but I avoid it for shorter ones considering reaching the station itself takes some time”.

“I want my travel to be super cool and modern,” say Mumbaikers on the move

To ease some of this pressure, Mumbai has embarked on an ambitious project to build a new metro system. This project will completely change the way many Mumbaikers move through their city. It promises a safer, more comfortable alternative to local trains. The new network will eventually include ten lines and aims both to serve areas that do not currently have local train access and provide an alternative to some local train routes. According to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), the completed system will stretch over nearly 190 km. By having a more comprehensive urban railway network, Mumbai also hopes to see a reduction in the number of private vehicles on the road. As of now, there is only one operational line, Line One. Line One serves an east-west corridor that did not previously have a railway connection and provides important transfer points between two of the three local train lines. It was constructed through a Public-Private Partnership, with Reliance Energy Limited holding a 69% stake. The project cost about INR 43 billion, and service began in 2014. Riding Line One gives insight into what rider experiences on other lines will be like.

I first rode Line One in the autumn of 2018 in order to reach a job site. A colleague and I walked through the humid afternoon from our office in Dharavi Koliwada to Sion station. Rush hour had just begun, and we crammed into the Central Railways car when it pulled up to the platform. We stayed near the doors for the whole trip- going further into the car could have meant getting stuck behind the ever-swelling mass of commuters. We left the train at Ghatkopar, Line One’s eastern terminus, and followed the signs for the metro. Eventually, we reached the bright and polished metro station. We walked to the ticket window, bought our electronic tokens and waved them in front of the chip reader on the turnstiles. The gates opened and we took the escalator up to the platform. The LCD panels above our heads told us the next train would depart in just two minutes. Soon, we stepped onto the air-conditioned train and sat down. We watched the city roll underneath us and, within ten minutes, had reached our destination.

Turning point: The Mumbai Metro in action

The many subsequent times I have ridden Line One all blend together- using the line is pleasant and straightforward. This new system lacks the local trains’ quirks and it may never be the centrepiece of urban identity that local trains are for many Mumbaikers. But, it will undoubtedly free up space on the network and it may give drivers a viable alternative to commuting with private vehicles. Most importantly, the metro’s enhanced safety will allow more Mumbaikers to live with at least a little less fear.


Carl Adler is a Master student at Sciences Po Paris and is working on an internship at the International Transport Forum.


Several additional lines of Mumbai’s metro are expected to be operational by the end of 2022.

The International Transport Forum works on decarbonising transport in India over two projects:

The Decarbonising Transport in Emerging Economies (DTEE) – India project aims to help India’s government and other stakeholders to identify transport measures and establish pathways to reduce transport CO2 emissions and meet their climate goals and NDCs. Learn more

The NDC Transport Initiative for Asia (NDC-TIA) aims at promoting a coherent strategy of effective policies for decarbonising transport that are co-ordinated among various sector ministries, civil society and the private sector. Learn more

The wind may be free, but it’s not easy to catch

Shipping is rediscovering sail power thanks to innovative projects reaping promising results on the high seas. Selwyn Parker sets sail to find out how, and when, ships may once again be powered by the wind.

Within the next few months, one of Japan’s biggest shipowners, Mitsui OSK, will send a giant wind-assisted coal carrier to sea in an experiment that is being closely watched by the entire maritime sector.

The vessel of 88 900 deadweight tonnes will fly a 52-metre high “hard sail”, retractable to less than half the height, that is designed to convert the wind into, in effect, free propulsion.

Mitsui’s Wind Challenger shows impressive early results

Called the Wind Challenger project, Mitsui has been quietly working on the technology for 13 years and will put it to the test in the Southern Hemisphere autumn. In terms of fuel saved, the shipping group estimates the additional power provided by the sail will enable it to cut the vessel’s greenhouse gas emissions by between five and eight per cent.

If the technology operates to expectations, Mitsui says it may install sails on other big vessels in what would mark another step forward in the belated effort to harness the wind for commercial shipping.

The wind is free. Yet shipping has largely ignored it since sail-powered cargo vessels all but disappeared from the world’s oceans. Until the last three or four years, that is.

Quite suddenly, wind-powered technology is evolving rapidly. Currently, shipowners have a choice of seven different systems, including rotor sails, hard or rigid sails (like Mitsui’s), soft sails, kites, suction wings and turbines.

And the penny is dropping. Gavin Allwright, the secretary of the International Windship Association, tells me: “The industry is waking up to the fact that wind-assist (and primary wind) propulsion systems are needed in the toolbox of decarbonisation solutions. Perception has shifted, especially in Europe but increasingly in Asia too.”

While it’s early stages in the rediscovery of wind, he estimates that the number of installations globally will double over the next 12 months to about 40. And that’s just on larger ships like tankers, roll-on/roll-offs, large bulkers and general cargo, among others. 

About 20 smaller vessels, including cruise ships, already use soft-sail rigs, with more on order.

Largely unnoticed outside the industry, wind-assisted technology is moving rapidly from an experimental process to everyday use. One of several shipping groups to take the plunge, German ferry group Scandlines will in May 2022 install a second Norsepower-built rotor sail on its hybrid-powered Berlin, following successful trials on a sister ship sailing across the Baltic Sea to Denmark where prevailing winds are favourable.

Rotor wind power: German’s Scandlines hybrid ferry in operation

According to chief operating officer Michael Guldmann Petersen, the retractable, chimney-like sail achieved the targeted reductions in CO2 emissions of four to five per cent, quite enough to make the trial permanent. Other shipping groups report similar or better results. The Maersk shipping giant, for instance, calculates an average improvement of 8.2 per cent in fuel efficiency after 12 months of sea trials on a tanker.

Many of the wind-power projects have the backing of emissions-conscious governments. Mitsui’s Wind Challenger programme is funded from Tokyo, while Scandlines’ rotor sail is one of the beneficiaries of the Wind Assisted Ship Propulsion (WASP) project supported by a EUR 4.5m grant from the European Regional Development Fund.

Governments have high hopes for wind-powered ships. A five-year-old EU report estimated up to 10 700 installations by 2030, while UK’s Clean Maritime plan is even more hopeful, anticipating about 40 000 vessels – or up to 45 per cent of the fleet – will be sail-driven to some extent by 2050.

So far, shipping groups plying coastal routes have led the charge and most of them have gone for hard sails, notably from the factories of Netherlands eConowind and Finland’s Norsepower. The latter specialises in rotors, a modernised version of a 100-year-old technology that can deliver fuel savings of up to 25 per cent in the right conditions.

Here, due recognition is appropriate. Anton Flettner was a German aviation engineer who devised what some still call the Flettner rotor. Long before his time, he saw that a spinning cylinder, using the Magnus effect, could harness and boost energy from the wind. A rotor-powered ship crossed the Atlantic as long ago as 1925. However, the shipping industry was looking the other way and Flettner’s rotor was forgotten for the best part of a century.

But Anton Flettner’s day has finally come. Another coastal trader, Netherlands’ Boomsma Shipping, has opted for eConowind’s foldable VentiFoil. Not dissimilar to rotors, it operates on a principle known as boundary layer-suction created by ventilators mounted inside the aerofoils. Boomsma hopes for savings of ten per cent.

A demo of the Ventifoil in action

The wind may be free, but there have been teething troubles in harnessing it. Some shipping groups tell me it’s been a steep learning curve for the crew of some vessels, for instance, in maintaining and deploying sails. And some manufacturers have had to send their sails back to the workshop after storm battering.

While all this technology is about adding power, one shipping group prides itself on deriving all its propulsion from the wind, save for a small engine to be used in port. In mid-February, Brittany-based Grain de Sail placed an approximately EUR 10m order for the construction of an aluminium cargo schooner that will transport fine products, mainly coffee, chocolates and wines, across the Atlantic and sail back with raw materials. The yacht will have a payload capacity of 35 tonnes, seven times more than its predecessor currently plying the oceans, plus bulk liquid tanks. Each crossing should take about two weeks.

The first of the fleet: Brittany’s Gain de Sail’s first sailing cargo ship is already in operation

Being driven 99 per cent by the air flowing across its 1 170 square metres of sails, the vessel’s crew costs are cut to the bone. Although the schooner will carry a crew of about nine, just two will be able to handle it at any one time.


Selwyn Parker is an independent journalist and author of Chasing the Chimney Sweep about the first Tour de France of 1903.


The International Transport Forum’s report on Navigating Towards Cleaner Maritime Shipping shares lessons from the Nordic Region’s work to meet energy and environmental policy goals, including energy diversification, cutting air pollution and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Get the report

Building back inclusive, low-carbon mobility in Latin American Cities

To mark this week’s Transforming Transportation Conference 2022 on the theme “Climate-Centered Mobility for a Sustainable Recovery”, Ernesto Monter Flores and Stephen Perkins reveal urban changes in Latin America that maximise pandemic disruptions and allow more livable cities.

Better biking: Covid pushed the creation of new bike paths in Bogotá, Colombia

The Covid-19 pandemic saw demand for transport drop significantly. Demand has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, and urban mobility patterns might show a long-term impact. There could be fewer daily commutes to work for some types of employment, increased delivery traffic seems here to stay, and we should be able to capitalise on the gains made in active mobility.

Recovery from the pandemic requires investment that creates an opportunity to rethink mobility and accelerate progress on our strategic objectives, especially decarbonisation and inclusion. Decarbonising transport will not only reduce CO2 emissions but can create green jobs and will rely on more inclusive mobility. It poses challenges, however, in financing the transition and ensuring the financial sustainability of transport systems. 

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the International Transport Forum (ITF) recently concluded a study on the most effective measures to decarbonise transport in three cities in Latin America; Bogotá, Buenos Aires and Mexico City (PDF link). These cities are each unique in terms of the legacy infrastructure, financing and service delivery models that today’s mobility is built on, but each is implementing ambitious programs to promote cycling, walking, ride-sharing, electric vehicles and public transport. 

The joint study evaluates the potential of the mobility policies pursued by each city to cut CO2 emissions. The work uses a data-driven methodology designed by ITF, adjusted for each city with input from stakeholders, and developed in collaboration with the city mobility authorities.

The ITF’s Decarbonising Transport in Latin American Cities project: helping policy makers in Bogotá, Buenos Aires and Mexico City to achieve their CO2 reduction ambitions for the transport sector

The fundamental priority for each city is to deliver safer, more equitable and inclusive mobility. But there are strong linkages between decarbonisation and interventions to create safe and secure environments for vulnerable users and improve public transport and active mobility options. Indeed without these initiatives, electrification will not be sufficient to meet climate targets. The challenge is to scale up interventions well beyond current ambitions in each of the cities.

Basic investments are critical: in sidewalks protected from cars; in surfaced roads in peripheral suburbs so that buses can reach them; in maintenance of roads to be safe for cyclists; and in providing partially separated space for cycling. Particular attention needs to be paid to the approaches to public transport stops so that pedestrians can access buses and Bus rapid transit (BRT) safely, without dangerous crowding dangerous carriageway crossings.

Bogotá has long invested in safe cycling infrastructure and has much the highest share of cycling in daily trips among the cities. Biking is used for commuting across Bogotá’s population, not just for the young in wealthier quarters of the city. The one benefit of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the accelerated extension of protected cycling networks in all three cities. Temporary cycle lanes were established rapidly to cope with the shutdown of public transport systems during lock-downs. And most of these lanes are now being made permanent.

Tempus fugit: Mexico City’s informal microbuses don’t always move when you want

Public transport accounts for the largest share of daily trips in all of the cities; over a third in Bogotá and Buenos Aires and two thirds of trips in Mexico City. Buses and BRT account for most of the heavy mass transit services in all three cities, but in Mexico City half of all public transport trips are on microbuses. Microbuses operate under an incomplete regulatory framework that fails to control routes, frequency and quality of service. Services are inefficient, overcrowded and slow as drivers wait to pack in passengers before departing. Travelling from the periphery to centres of employment requires several changes. This can represent a significant share of daily wages even though fares are controlled and low in relation to operating costs.

The city is introducing GPS tracking to keep operators to agreed routes and investing in better public transport exchange stations. But more fundamental concession reform will be required for increased investment and to achieve the levels of planning control over routes and service quality of a city like Buenos Aires.

The key to making journeys better for the worst-off commuters is direct public transport from the periphery to the centre, where employment opportunities are concentrated. Providing targeted, time-based subsidies for the poorest users is also effective, as Bogotá’s Sisben travel card system demonstrates, even if it has difficulty in reaching citizens on the most precarious incomes. Targeted support has proven more effective than capping fares at low levels, which tends to drive a vicious cycle of underinvestment and declining quality.

Funding public transport is always challenging. A combination of fare revenue, general taxation and local property or business taxes is usually needed for operation and especially investment. The impact of Covid-19 on operator revenues is forcing authorities worldwide to look again at how they fund public transport to attract more car users and meet climate goals. Contributions from commercial property development is part of the answer. Examples range from Mexico City’s under-used provisions for betterment charges to London’s developer contributions, currently being used to fund extensions to metro lines.

Sparking innovation: Santiago de Chile’s electric buses thrive thanks to public-private partnerships

Looking beyond the three cities, Chile reconcessioned the bus services in Santiago during the period of study, building on the successful regulatory models of Singapore and London. Ownership of the vehicle fleets has been separated from the concessions to run services, which are let for short periods through competition. This has allowed electric utilities to invest in electric buses, rapidly establishing the continent’s biggest electric bus fleet. Bogotá has increasingly ambitious electrification plans. On the other hand, Mexico City has focused on upgrading and expanding its small existing electric trolley bus system. This is the right place to focus initially. However, the scale of electrification needed to decarbonise transport, in step with decarbonising power production, will require finance of the scale achieved in Santiago.

Urban transport demand is expected to grow 3.5-fold in Latin America to 2050. Under existing policies to shift travel to public transport and active travel, improve vehicle fuel economy, and electrify mobility, CO2 emissions may ‘only’ increase 1.7-fold. While this is encouraging, it is not in line with the global objective of reducing CO2 emissions to a level that will limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees. Emissions in the three cities have to fall by much more.  

Fast forward: Watch the ITF’s Transport Outlook team’s projections for transport demand to 2050

This requires investment to expand bus, BRT, metro and rail systems to reach the periphery with good quality services. Public transport electrification must be scaled-up alongside sales of electric cars, funded through taxation and innovative financing partnerships of the kind used in Santiago. Policies to manage demand for car use and reallocate road space to public transport and active mobility will also be critical. The rapid expansion of protected space for cycling in the three cities during the pandemic is a highly successful precursor of what is to come.

The policies pursued in Bogotá, Buenos Aires and Mexico City for safe, inclusive and environmentally sustainable mobility are effective. But they need scaling up if they are to match climate ambitions, and for that they need sustainable funding.


Ernesto Monter Flores is Principal Transport Specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank.

Stephen Perkins is Head of Research and Policy Analysis at the International Transport Forum


Further reading:

Decarbonising Transport in Latin American Cities: A Review of Policies and Key Challenges

Decarbonising Transport in Latin American Cities: Assessing Scenarios

“Garbage in, garbage out”: Why gender-blind transport policies are not gender-neutral

With just one month until International Women’s Day 2022 on the theme “Break the Bias”, María Santos Alfageme calls for action to solve transport data’s gender bias

You reap what you sow with GIGO

Despite decades of investing in better analytics and storage systems, many organisations still struggle to make optimal use of their data. Data enables governments to govern, and good data enables governments to govern efficiently (International Transport Forum, 2021). However, the adoption of data-driven approaches in policymaking comes with several challenges. These include having an under-skilled workforce, digitalising valuable data trapped on printed paper, or accounting for citizens who do not produce digital data. Too often, the public sector has an abundance of data that is underutilised or yet to be discovered (GovTech, 2021). Not harnessing this “dark data” is partly responsible for our gender-blind transport policies.

Infinite examples of gender biases in the transport sector exist. Probably the most prominent ones are the design of default-male transport products like buses, bus straps, or seatbelts. Gender biased transport policies are even more worrying when we realise that, even if women represent the majority of public transport users, public transport planning has historically been shaped around the standard male A-to-B travel patterns. Or when we realise that samples used to determine vehicle safety standards make women 73% more likely than men to be seriously injured or die in a car crash. As we become increasingly reliant on artificial intelligence and different technologies to manage our databases, the need to address this bias is more urgent now than ever.

Why car design is killing women | Caroline Criado Perez

Achieving gender equality in transport requires quality, policy-relevant data on women and girls’ transport use. Without it, we cannot make informed decisions, and we cannot track if or how those decisions are improving lives. The good news is – we have that data! In recent years, there has been a proliferation of concepts underlining the gender bias in transport policies, like NYU’s “pink tax on transport “or Professor Inés Sánchez de Madariaga’s coined term “mobility of care “. The last two decades have seen public investments in projects to bridge the data collection gender gap (e.g. DIAMOND project, the Transport Innovation Gender Observatory, etc.), as well as free, self-paced training courses. These contribute to a growing body of evidence collating best practices to address this issue institutionally.

The International Transport Forum (ITF) works to better understand both female transport users and transport professionals. For instance, the ITF published a compendium highlighting positive examples of how women can benefit from the transformative innovations in the transport sector, proving that transport connectivity is a decisive factor in women’s empowerment. ITF will soon publish a Gender Analysis Toolkit for Transport Policies to help countries carry out their own gender analysis. Last year, ITF’s official platform for interaction with the corporate sector – the Corporate Partnership Board – held a workshop on gender bias in transport data, and a joint and public event with the Science Technology and Innovation Division at the OECD, entitled Addressing the Gender Bias in AI Data. These exchanges made it clear that without inclusive, purposeful public-private data partnerships between mobility operators and authorities, the biases of our systems risk being perpetuated.

Joint ITF-OECD event on Addressing the Gender Bias in AI Data

These events were not aimed at data professionals, though. They served as an eye-opener to the social consequences of not addressing gender bias and the benefits that ethical, inclusive use of databases could bring to society. The adoption of data-driven approaches can increase objectivity, equity and fairness. And they will, if we ensure that the data we collect and use to design policies is representative by default.

Contrary to what many still claim, a gender perspective to transport planning is not ideological. It is about effectiveness. Not accounting for half of the population means that we will not deliver policies that serve all citizens. This is not only unfair and inequitable, but unsustainable. “Garbage in, garbage out” (GIGO) is a concept common to computer scientists and the tech industry to express that the quality of output is determined by the quality of the input. Since a computer processes what it is given, we must be mindful of producing policies that do not blindly perpetuate old injustices, as Caroline Criado-Perez upholds in her book Invisible Women.

Women-only subway car in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The OECD March on Gender calls us to raise the bar for better policies for gender equality. Now is the best time to rethink and restructure the way we collect data and use it meaningfully. At the same time, new governance frameworks are being developed to effectively govern digital spaces. It would make sense to push to create systems that ensure a gender lens is embedded in all aspects of public policy. Let’s prioritise equity, and let’s not lose sight of heterogeneity within the “women” cluster. We must be ready to assess multi-variable realities that have an effect on travel patterns, such as income, race, background, occupation or age, to ensure a “global dialogue for better transport”.


María Santos Alfageme is a Research Officer at the International Transport Forum’s Corporate Partnership Board

Fertile Ground for Innovation: A Fresh Look at Rural Mobility

Our rural regions are highly car-dependent, creating huge problems for those who do not want to use their car or cannot drive or afford a car. Carl Adler looks at innovative transport options that better connect rural users.

New options on offer: A rural mobility hub in France | Copyright: Ecov France

Rural areas around the world are in the midst of significant changes. Remote workers from urban areas have taken up residence in the countryside. Families looking for fresh air and space have sought property in small towns and villages. Rural societies have also been rocked by high levels of outmigration and shrinking economic opportunities. The growing gulf between cities and rural areas represents one of the most significant societal divisions within many countries today. Transport discrepancies between rural and urban areas are an oft-overlooked and critical aspect of these broader differences. Within the world of transport, urban mobility is a frequently discussed and highly visible concept, while rural transport is often an afterthought or missing entirely from the discourse. In fact, mobility policies for rural areas are often addressed through an urban lens. This leads to service which does not align with the realities of rural life and further disenfranchises rural residents from participation in society. Furthermore, broad initiatives to decarbonise transport which tend to prioritise urban transport, threaten to sweep rural mobility issues under the rug altogether.

Transport policies become a tipping point in the urban-rural divide: “Gilets Jaunes” protests in France

By taking stock of rural transport realities and innovations in the field, ITF’s Innovations for Better Rural Mobility report provides policymakers with a path forward to provide rural-dwellers with excellent mobility solutions. The report’s strongest message is political: to be successful, new rural transport initiatives must stem from the experiences of people living in rural environments.

Rural and remote mobility is characterised by heavy dependence on private cars. This is unlikely to change in the near future. However, many people living in rural areas cannot drive or do not own cars. These individuals are often members of the least-advantaged segments of society: the elderly, low-income people, individuals with physical mobility constraints. Providing mobility options to rural areas is an important way to foster inclusion and give all rural-dwellers an opportunity to live full lives.

There are several common logistical challenges related to providing good practice mobility solutions to rural areas. Distances are often too great for micromobility solutions to be implemented as standalone modalities. Demand is frequently perceived to be too low for conventional means of shared transport like bus lines to be practical or financially viable. However, these obstacles make the field of rural mobility a fertile ground for innovation. For example, a Finnish pilot programme aimed to unify different forms of subsidised rural transport (e.g. paratransit and schoolbuses) through a digital platform in an attempt to merge parallel or redundant transport networks into one system. An app-based carpooling system in France has given people a new and reliable way to get around. Digital innovations such as these are vital to making rural mobility as efficient and user-friendly as possible, thus increasing access and use.

Finally, different localities have experimented with implementing transport hubs in rural areas. These typically bring various forms of transport, like buses, car-sharing stations and bicycles for last-mile connectivity, into one physical space. In addition to helping rural residents connect to many more types of transport, these mobility hubs can be further drivers of economic growth in rural areas and function as spaces of congregation and commerce.

The SMARTA Project provides a snapshot of Europe’s rural mobility situation

In light of the exciting changes digital technologies can bring to rural mobility, now is an opportune time for policymakers to look at rural mobility policies. Throughout this exercise, it is of the utmost importance that rural mobility is considered differently from urban mobility and that policy is informed by people living rural lives. In the words of Professor Laurie Pickup, the Innovative Mobility for the Periphery Working Group chair, “Peripheral, outlying, marginal, etc. – are urban words. Rural areas may be ‘peripheral’ to city-dwellers, but to rural communities, these areas are the centre of their worlds.”


Carl Adler is a Master student at Sciences Po Paris and is working on an internship at the International Transport Forum.


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Dream on: the overnight rail comeback that’s revitalising inter-city travel

As night trains return in force, Selwyn Parker revisits the old adage that the journey can be just as important as the destination

Europe to Asia while you snooze: The famous Trans-Siberian Express connects Moscow with Vladivostok over eight nights’ travel

As the European Year of Rail reaches its close, one of its legacies will be the restoration of arguably the most loved of all journeys after a long absence caused primarily by cheap flights that have undercut overnight rail and by the advent of superfast trains that slashed travel times between cities.

Night trains are being revived in several regions, notably Europe, as rail authorities bow to passengers’ growing recognition that speed is not always the most important consideration. As Veronika Haunold, EU and international affairs manager for Austria’s state-run OBB rail service that helped pioneer the recovery of overnight travel with the launch of the Nightjet in 2020, explains: “What matters most to night train passengers is what time they arrive at their destination in the morning, not how long it takes them to get there.”

Fresh arrivals: Nightjet passengers the morning after | Photo credit: © Harald Eisenberger www.eisenberger.co.at

The aftermath of the pandemic may also be exercising its influence as inter-city commuters seek more personal space in the form of separate compartments with individual facilities. And by no means least, there’s flight-shaming, the movement that disapproves of travel by air because of the high emissions per passenger. Governments are under pressure to at least restore the regulatory balance between rail and aviation.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the night train is making a long-awaited comeback. In Europe, several companies have ambitious plans for the near future. France’s Midnight Trains expects to start selling tickets in 2024 for cross-border travel. OBB’s Nightjet, which is run in co-operation with government-owned rail groups in France, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland, has proved so popular that frequencies will be steadily increased as tracks become available. And there are moves afoot to expand Eastern Europe’s EuroNight service between capitals with the co-operation of OBB and other rail groups.

Sleeping on a Vietnamese … sleeper

And that’s just in Europe. Indonesia revived its night trains in 2018 after a long period of neglect and now provides facilities akin to business class in aircraft.

In some countries, though, the night train never went away. For Thailand, Bangkok’s long-running sleepers may be basic – no showers, for instance – but they have been popular with locals, commuters and tourists for years. In 2016, more luxurious sleeper cars were added.  But the grandaddy of night trains is surely Britain’s privately-owned Caledonian Sleeper, running Sunday to Friday from the top of Scotland to London Euston. Launched in 1873, the Sleeper survived in various guises until 1988, an astonishing 115 years, before it was revived in 1996 and has been going strong ever since, picking up carriages during the night. Completely new carriages were introduced in mid-2019, replacing tired rolling stock with worn interiors. Britain has a good record in domestic night trains – a second service, the Night Riviera Sleeper between London Paddington and Penzance on the Cornish coast, was revived in 1983.

A no-frills express sleeper in Thailand

The revival of the overnight train is a victory for passengers. Rail enthusiasts treasure the experience it provides – dining and drinking while the countryside flies by before falling asleep to the clickety-clack of the wheels. As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in From a Railway Carriage: “All of the sights of the hill and the plain/Fly as thick as driving rain;/And ever again, in the wink of an eye, Painted stations whistle by.”

It all started going wrong for overnight rail in the 1990s. In the teeth of competition from aviation, state-run rail largely allowed the overnight service to wither and nearly die. Most European state-run companies poured their resources into domestic networks and cut the cross-border links on which overnight services rely. And having given up the fight almost before it started, they parked up their cars. As rail consultant Mark Smith of The Man in Seat 61 points out: “[Some] operators abandoned night trains and scrapped the stock or let it rot in sidings, so it was no longer fit for purpose without major expenditure.”

While Brussels may have the best of intentions for night trains, some countries just aren’t working together and red tape is rife. In just two examples, as OBB’s Haunold points out, locomotives must be changed at the German border to comply with local standards, while Belgium insists that doors can only open for disembarkation on one side. In short, more cross-border co-operation is required. “What is needed is a timetable that is co-ordinated throughout Europe,” she told a seminar this year. Other operators complain about cross-border tax complications such as VAT, something airline passengers don’t have to pay.

Arriving in style: Austria’s ÖBB entice new Nightjet passengers to “dream now and enjoy tomorrow”

Another factor in the near demise of the night train was the need for speed. Both passengers and rail companies everywhere became excited about flagship superfast trains hurtling through the countryside at 200-300km/h. Before 1965 when Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train started slashing travel times between cities by half, overnight rail in the basic “blue sleepers” was common. Today there’s only one surviving night train in all of Japan, the Sunrise Express serving two destinations out of Tokyo. However, berths are so popular, especially the private cabins, that it’s essential to book well in advance.

Today’s night trains are a definite improvement on those of yesteryear. The new operators are improving the experience: mini-suites with individual toilets and showers, more comfortable beds, working facilities, quieter carriages, high-quality bars and food. Passengers are happy to pay a premium for this level of comfort, with tickets prices roughly pitched at the equivalent of a night in a four-star hotel, including travel. All that’s required now is for EU-wide regulators to get together so that costs and complexity can be reduced.


Selwyn Parker is an independent journalist and author of Chasing the Chimney Sweep about the first Tour de France of 1903.


The International Transport Forum’s Decarbonising Transport initiative promotes carbon-neutral mobility to help stop climate change. It provides decision makers with tools to select CO2 mitigation measures that deliver on their climate commitment. Learn more

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Aerial Revolution: Electrifying Air Travel is on the Horizon

With the finish line now visible in the race for commercial electric flight, Selwyn Parker takes a bird’s-eye view of the battery-powered flyers landing (very!) soon at a place near you

Cabbie in a cockpit: Virgin Atlantic’s VA-X4 soars over London | Image: Vertical Aerospace

The frontrunners in the race for commercial, electrically powered flight could hardly be more different. Vertical Aerospace’s VA-X4 is a bulbous-nosed prop-driven five-seater, including the pilot. Germany’s fish-shaped Lilium is a sleek swivel-winged design that distributes its six passengers front to back. China’s e-Hang two-seater looks like a helicopter cabin with wings mounted on two booms. And Eviation’s Alice, the fastest of the current designs, is a more normal-looking nine-passenger aircraft.

Despite the radical variation in design, all these aircraft share something in common. They will be much quieter than any of today’s aircraft. They are surprisingly quick, varying between 150 and 460 km/h. And they are just around the corner; most of these companies expect to start selling tickets around the middle of the decade.

The future is (nearly) now: Germany’s Lilium show off a real-life demo

In a few short years, commercial electrical flight has gone from dream to reality. Right now, regulators in Japan, Europe, the UK, and the US are putting several designs through the hoops. Virgin Atlantic is confident enough to have ordered a fleet of VA-X4s. Sweden’s Heart Aerospace says it has pre-sold no less than 200 of its ES-19s, a 19-passenger aircraft with a range of 300 km, for a planned debut in 2026. And DHL Express has ordered 12 Alices for delivery in about three years.

There are deep pockets involved. Rolls-Royce has built the electric power train in the VA-X4 and is investing in the P-Volt, a commuter aircraft carrying up to nine passengers that is due to take off commercially in 2026.

Handy helipad: eVTOLs’ manoeuvrability allows them to use existing helicopter infrastructure | Image: Vertical Aerospace

Down on terra firma, a new infrastructure is emerging in the form of “vertiports” to accommodate urban taxis in the form of eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off and landing). Some German airports, including Munich, are preparing for the Lilium Jet. About 25 vertiports are planned in the UK, including one at London Heathrow, with 2025 set as a likely start date. Rome airport is readying for VoloCity’s e-copters. And airports in the US expect to have vertiports ready in about three years, just in time for the anticipated arrival of electric flight. An eVTOL can also use existing helipads, of which there are thousands around the world.

Time-saver

Electric flight promises to be a different experience for passengers. First, it will be much quieter in the cabin at cruising speed, probably around 45 decibels, which is roughly as loud as air conditioning or a washing machine. If you are in an eVTOL, flight times for short hops of around 160 km should be faster than conventional aircraft because it avoids taxiing up and down runways. Also, vertiports are expected to sprout up in such numbers they will be located much closer to home. Although it’s still decades away, life near a busy airport will become much quieter as the roar of jet aircraft could gradually be eliminated by electric flight.

But will electric flight be exclusively for the wealthy? Not according to the industry, which predicts ticket prices at least comparable with the cost of driving a car over an equivalent distance, bringing it within the pocket of most people. For instance, Lilium estimates an average cost of USD 2.25 per passenger mile in its six-passenger eVTOL, while US-based Jaunt Air Mobility predicts about USD 3 per mile for its electric helicopters, roughly equivalent to a ride in an up-market Uber.

Electric aircraft don’t offer a silver bullet to clean up the skies, not least because the current commercial fleet will massively outnumber them for decades to come. On the bright side, Airbus is in pursuit of what the aerospace group’s UK general manager Trevor Higgs calls “jet zero” by using sustainable fuel. Airbus has already set the date – it has promised to start selling zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035.

The International Transport Forum’s (ITF) research into decarbonising air transport recommends that policy makers put in place timely and ambitious fuel quality requirements to encourage the take-up of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). ITF encourages governments to design fuel specifications with effective sustainability criteria which take life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions into account. Further work from ITF showcases flagship SAF policies from leading aviation markets in the US, European Union as well as in emerging markets.

Look, no pilot

Fully autonomous electric flight could also be around the corner, perhaps a decade away. China’s e-Hang says it’s just about ready to go, and, in October 2021, another Chinese company, AutoFlight, demonstrated an unpiloted eVTOL. Called the V1500M, it will carry four passengers for up to 250 km at a maximum speed of 200km/h, according to founder Tian Yu who prophesies: “The V1500M is a milestone for the global development of urban air mobility.”

Hands-free in China: EHang’s autonomous flight trials

It may take a while before passengers feel comfortable about unpiloted flight, though. In mid-2021, a global survey by McKinsey of 4 800 potential customers for electric flight found that, while most of them were attracted to the idea, 60 per cent cited safety as their top concern in fully autonomous aircraft.

Autonomous or not, electric flight will steadily become mainstream as scientists extract more bang for the lithium buck. Within 15 to 20 years, they predict, electric airliners could carry as many as 50 people over the range of 800 km, the distance of roughly half of all flights worldwide.

Yet a flying ferry may get there first! A Boston USA-headquartered marine group, Regent Craft, expects its Seaglider, an all-electric hydrofoil, will be able to travel at up to 160 knots (nearly 300 km/h) by virtue of wings that create a cushion of air over the water. The technology has been around for nearly half a century, but only recently has it been made safe. Regent Craft expects to launch the first 12-passenger flying ferry by 2025, with a 150-passenger version coming later. Towards the end of the decade, Regent Craft hopes the latest batteries will give its flying ferry the same magic range of 800 km.

Is it a bird? All-electric costal travel from Regent Craft’s Seaglider

“The potential to take share from airlines cannot be understated,” predicted chief executive Billy Thalheimer at a ferry conference in Spain in September.

So perhaps the threat to all flight – electrical and otherwise – may come from down below.


Selwyn Parker is an independent journalist and author of Chasing the Chimney Sweep about the first Tour de France of 1903.

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Can Transport Kick Its Carbon Habit?

Global warming cannot be stopped without decarbonising transport. But moving people and goods is still 90 percent oil-dependent and national decarbonisation plans lack focus. A moment of truth is approaching at the COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow in November.

Aviation is one of the hard-to-decarbonise transport modes.
Photo: SevenStorm JUHASZIMRUS/Pexels.com

By Hans Michael Kloth

Just under one-quarter of all the earth-warming, climate-changing CO2 humankind blows into the atmosphere comes from our current transport habits: the petrol-powered and ever-bigger cars in which we drive to work. The fleets of vans that deliver online orders to our doorstep. The kerosin-guzzling planes we fly to overseas beaches and city weekend breaks. The container ships propelled by ultra-dirty bunker fuel that carry our next fridge or laptop across the oceans.

Unlike other sectors of the economy, the carbon footprint of transport is getting bigger, not smaller. More and more people buy cars, hop on planes, buy imported goods as a consumerist middle class emerges in newly prosperous countries, and the world population continues to grow.

The most advanced computer simulations of global transport activity suggest that worldwide demand for transport will more than double by 2050. Even if all the commitments to decarbonise transport in place in early 2021 were fully implemented, transport emissions would still grow 16% by 2050, the year when the international community has vowed to reach net-zero emissions.

Worrying trajectory

Without reversing the worrying upward trajectory on which transport emissions are currently stuck, world leaders will not be able to halt global warming. The good news is that it is possible to change the trend: transport emissions could fall by almost 70% over the next three decades, the models tell us. Yet, it will require the immediate introduction of fully aligned and more ambitious low-carbon policies.   

It can be done – but will it? The best indicators are countries’ decarbonisation strategies, the famous “Nationally Determined Contributions” or NDCs. Signatories of the Paris Climate Agreement have to submit new and, importantly, tougher NDCs every five years that will get them to net-zero emissions by 2050.

The second-round NDCs are now due: they must be on the table for the COP26 climate negotiations that kick off in Glasgow on 1 November with a summit of world leaders. With the conference approaching, many governments sprung into action. The weeks before had seen one or two new NDCs coming in at best.

Getting ready for the COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow.
Photo: Philip King/Shutterstoc
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But in the week ending 15 October, a total of 21 countries submitted NDCs – among them one country that had only ratified the Paris Agreement days earlier (Turkey) and one that has not even signed it (Iraq). Three more countries at least announced they would be submitting NDCs soon.

Marginal impact

From a sustainable transport perspective, the impact was marginal, however. The group of countries that meet the gold standard for decarbonisation policies remains frustratingly low: only 16% of the 194 set sector-wide CO2 reduction targets, up marginally from 15% in the previous week, and with more than two-thirds of second-round NDCs in.

Nations that the World Bank defines as “high-income countries” emit about half (46%) of all transport CO2. Yet only four of them are members of the exclusive group of nations with transport sector targets. Low- and middle-income nations seem more ambitious: they make up 87% of the countries with transport targets but emit only 35% of transport CO2 – although it will soon be more as their economies and populations grow.

High-income countries emit half of global transport CO2 but only few have decarbonisation targets for the sector. Source: International Transport Forum

What’s still in the cards?

Will, then, the 58 countries make a difference that still need to show the world their cards? Even if they all fully recognise the importance of transport by including transport-related decarbonisation measures and targets in their second-round NDCs: overall, not even half (44%) of all Paris Agreement signatories would have set transport CO2 reduction targets.

And the chances are rather slim even for this meagre result. Only seven countries of the 194 have failed to mention transport at all, but five of those belong to the group whose second submission is still outstanding. Worse, more than one-third (20) of the laggards so far envisage no transport decarbonisation measures, and only four (or one in 15) have set transport targets.  

Can transport kick its carbon habit?  Fifty years after the first oil shock, our mobility systems are still 90% dependent on oil. But a moment of truth is approaching fast whether we can get serious about cutting transport CO2 emissions to levels that will stop climate change.

On present information, it could be a sombre one.


Editors’s note: This text has been amended to clarify the number of non-signatories of the Paris Agreeement that have recently submitted NDCs.