Warsaw: Fighting air pollution with public transport

As Warsaw mobilises to tackle its chronic air pollution, creating cleaner public transport is proving vital for making the Polish capital more liveable for everyone.

Warsaw skyline

Thick, grey smog is becoming an increasingly common sight in many Polish cities. In fact, of the European Union’s 50 most polluted cities, 33 are in Poland. This is due partly to the country’s reliance on coal power. The problem is even worse in winter, as many of the country’s inhabitants still heat their homes with antiquated heating systems. In Warsaw, transportation is another key contributor, producing around 60 per cent of the city’s air pollution, as well as more than 16 per cent of its CO2 emissions.

With air pollution now responsible for an estimated 45,000 premature deaths per year, Warsaw is fighting back, and creating a cleaner, more efficient public transport system is a key part of the solution.

“Today, big cities like Warsaw can’t rely on individual modes of transport and require an effective system for moving inhabitants.”

Katarzyna Strzegowska

“Public transportation is the blood circulation of the city,” explains Katarzyna Strzegowska, Director of the Warsaw Public Transport Authority. “Today, big cities like Warsaw can’t rely on individual modes of transport and require an effective system for moving inhabitants. This means fewer cars on the road, friendlier streets, cleaner air and less noise.”

Accordingly, Warsaw has invested significantly in upgrading and extending the city’s underground metro system and tram network, particularly to the city’s outer suburbs. The Warsaw PTA is also exploring different alternative fuels, and its fleet currently includes vehicles using natural gas, LNG, hybrid drivelines (both serial and parallel) and full electric.

Katarzyna Strzeowska

Katarzyna Strzegowska, Director of the Warsaw Public Transport Authority

“Warsaw has been investing into electro mobility for many years and already more than half of public transport passengers are carried by vehicles powered by electricity,” says Katarzyna Strzegowska. “Electric buses in particular have many advantages since they are quiet and emit less pollution, which can be very important in certain areas. It is also easier to use buses in areas where other forms of transport are limited.”

In 2020, 180 articulated electric buses will be added to the city’s fleet, and an estimated €99 million will be invested in developing charging infrastructure, including fast charging terminals and a new electric bus depot.

However, with so many alternative fuels to choose from – many of which are still in early development – the question of which fuel is the best investment is yet to be settled. And a number of obstacles remain before electricity can become the fuel of choice for Warsaw’s public transport system.

“Energy storage is the greatest challenge that electro mobility is facing today,” says Katarzyna Strzegowska. “Conventional batteries are expensive and heavy, and can affect the flexibility of the bus. If we use smaller batteries, we have to build charging infrastructure, which means vehicles are confined to specific routes. When building infrastructure, we also have to consider the impact on urban aesthetics as well as the load on the city’s electricity grid.”

In the meantime, the Polish Alternative Fuels Association (PSPA), which brings together representatives from industry, government and academia to promote the use of zero- and low-emission technology, welcomes the investment in electromobility.

“Overall, electric buses have a positive impact on a city’s liveability and can have the added benefit of improving its image too.”

Maciejem Mazur

Maciejem Mazur

Maciejem Mazur, Managing Director of the Polish Alternative Fuels Association (PSPA)

“This is obviously the right direction and we hope it will continue into the future,” says Maciejem Mazur, Managing Director of the PSPA. “Electric and hybrid-electric buses have the greatest potential, especially in the context of our growing air pollution problems. They generate virtually no harmful emissions, do not leak harmful operating fluids and do not pollute the environment with noise. Overall, electric buses have a positive impact on a city’s liveability and can have the added benefit of improving its image too.”

The PSPA, which also hopes to see more passenger cars and trucks utilizing alternative fuels too, believes that public investment and government support will be vital – especially in the early development phases. “In Poland, alternative fuels are facing similar barriers as every other market, namely high costs and insufficient infrastructure for refilling and charging,” adds Maciejem Mazur. “The financial factor is most decisive for potential buyers of such vehicles, so the market needs more support. We need to implement effective incentives and a suitable legislative system that is consistent with current market realities.”

The Warsaw Public Transport Authority agrees, and in addition to investing in vehicles and infrastructure, it is also working with local municipalities to help reduce the cost of public transport tickets and increase the costs of driving private cars in the city centre. In the meantime, it will continue to keep a close eye on technological developments and changes in the market.

“Overall, when making a decision on what transport solutions, we have to consider many aspects such as the budget, the availability of technology, urban development, the environmental impact and comfort of the passengers,” says Katarzyna Strzegowska. “We are continuously keeping track of new propulsion technologies being developed, and regularly undertake cost-benefit analyses to try to find solutions that will best meet our expectations. Right now, our analysis shows that electric buses will not be cost-effective without high subsidies. But we are always monitoring the market and future analyses may well be different as cheaper solutions appear.” 

Public transport in Warsaw

Population: 1.7 million
Public transport usage: 3 million trips daily
Buses: Approximately 1,500 buses servicing 288 bus lines
Trams: Approximately 800 trams and 27 tram lines
Underground metro: Two lines and 27 stations, with another three under construction
Public bikes: 3,000 bikes available from 204 rental stations

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