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The effectiveness of Light Rail transit in achieving regional CO2 emissions targets is linked to building energy use: insights from system dynamics modeling


Procter, A., A. Bassi, J. Kolling, L. Cox, N. Flanders, N. Tanners, AND R. Araujo. The effectiveness of Light Rail transit in achieving regional CO2 emissions targets is linked to building energy use: insights from system dynamics modeling. CLEAN TECHNOLOGIES ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY. Springer, New York, NY, 19(5):1459-1474, (2017).


This paper describes a system dynamics (SD) model as a decision support tool for community sustainability with the proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail Project (D-O LRP) in Durham and Orange Counties, North Carolina, as a case-study. The paper focuses on energy use and CO2 emissions outcomes.


Cities worldwide face the challenges of accommodating a growing population, while reducing emissions to meet climate mitigation targets. Public transit investments are often proposed as a way to curb emissions while maintaining healthy urban economies. However, cities face a system-level challenge in that transportation systems have cascading effects on land use and economic development. Understanding how an improved public transit system could affect urban growth and emissions requires a system-level view of a city, to anticipate side effects that could run counter to policy goals. To address this knowledge gap, we conducted a case study on the rapidly growing Research Triangle, North Carolina (USA) region, which has proposed to build a Light Railway by 2026 along a heavily used transportation corridor between the cities of Durham and Chapel Hill. At the same time, Durham County has set a goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions by 30% from a 2005 baseline by 2030. In collaboration with local stakeholders, we developed a system dynamics model to simulate how Light Rail transit and concurrent policies could help or hinder these sustainable growth goals. The Durham–Orange Light Rail Project (D–O LRP) model simulates urban–regional dynamics between 2000 and 2040, including feedbacks from energy spending on economic growth and from land scarcity on development. Counter to expectations, model scenarios that included Light Rail had as much as 5% higher regional energy use and CO2 emissions than business-as-usual (BAU) by 2040 despite many residents choosing to use public transit instead of private vehicles. This was largely due to an assumption that Light Rail increases demand for commercial development in the station areas, creating new jobs and attracting new residents. If regional solar capacity grew to 640 MW, this would offset the emissions growth, mostly from new buildings, that is indirectly due to Light Rail. National trends in building and automobile energy efficiency, as well as federal emissions regulation under the Clean Power Plan, would also allow significant progress toward the 2030 Durham emissions reduction goal. By simulating the magnitude of technology and policy effects, the D–O LRP model can enable policy makers to make strategic choices about regional growth.

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Record Details:

Product Published Date: 07/01/2017
Record Last Revised: 05/17/2018
OMB Category: Other
Record ID: 336504