a photo of a man on an electric bike riding through heavy smog in Shanghai, China.
A man on an electric bike rides through heavy smog in Shanghai, China. Aly Song/Reuters

To Avoid Climate Disaster, Urban Transportation Must Change, Now

Cities have a key role to play in confronting climate change, and it starts with shared mobility—and taking back the streets from the private car.

Today, hundreds of thousands of students from over 100 countries are walking out of their schools to join a Global Climate Strike, part of a wave of youth protests around the world aimed at demanding immediate government response to the climate crisis. “I don’t want your hope,” said Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish student who initiated the movement, in her quiet, eloquent demand at Davos in January. “I want you to act. I want you to act as if you were in a crisis … as if the house were on fire. Because it is.”

The demand? That governments acknowledge the crisis, and move with commensurate speed and action.

In an urbanizing world, the transportation sector is a major generator of climate-altering gases, contributing as much as 60 percent of a city’s emissions. It’s also a profound influence on the lives of the children who grow up amid fossil-fuel burning behavior: Air pollution from transportation leads to lower birth weights and higher incidence of asthma; traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for American teenagers.

To hold warming to a 1.5 degree Celsius rise, as urgently laid out in the most recent IPCC report, we must reduce CO2 emissions by 50 percent by 2030. There are a suite of transportation-related actions that can be taken in cities that could achieve this goal.

Two years ago, I convened eight of the world’s largest city and transport NGOs; together, over seven months, we hammered out a vision for resilient, sustainable, and thriving cities and a set of clear principles to guide execution. This framework, the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities, has been adopted by more than two hundred companies and city advisors. If put into practice worldwide, they would not only dramatically reduce emissions in cities, but would also dramatically improve the quality of life for those who live in them. And they could do it without expensive and time-consuming infrastructure investments. Here’s how:

How cities spend their money

Right now, too many transportation investments take us further away from a carbon neutral world, rather than closer. We need to stop investing in new automobile infrastructure and put that money into improving the quality and service of more efficient ways of travel, such as public transit and segregated bike lanes. Not only have these been typically underinvested in, the investments that have been made are not commensurate with the fraction of travel that should be made by these means.

It’s also time to recognize how heavily subsidized private automobile travel is—and remove those subsidies. At the local level, that starts with removing free parking, and pricing this limited resource properly. We should unbundle parking spaces from residential and office buildings, and make residents feel the true cost of that not-free parking. We must recognize the price we pay from local car-generated pollution and integrate those costs into actual transport prices.

More broadly, we have to speed the electrification of urban transport and prioritize those vehicles that travel the greatest distances with the most people, giving us the biggest emissions return for our investment. Buses, shuttles, taxis, and delivery vehicles are the most intensively used vehicles. We should electrify them—and create charging infrastructure that supports their needs—first.

How streets operate

This is a realm that most city governments (but not all) do control. Implement lower speed limits on city streets to 20 mph/30 kph. This saves lives, reduces emissions, and makes a city more compatible with walking, biking, and scooting. (It’s also proven that actual average speeds remain basically unchanged.) Change stop light phasing to give greater priority to walking, cycling (pedestrian-only phases, green waves at 10 mph). Encourage and enable zero-emission modes for the 50 percent of trips that are less than 2 miles (3.5 kms).

There are a host of low-cost, high-impact ways to restrict (high-emission) motorized through-traffic from certain blocks, districts or neighborhoods. Cities can turn streets in front of a school into play areas every afternoon; create car-free nightlife districts to support restaurants, bars, and theaters every evening; and shut large sweeps of roads to support recreation on the weekends. Collectively, such measures can be powerful tools for building community support for lower-emissions transportation.

Cities are facing enormous disruption by new technology-enabled forms of transport such as shareable electric scooters and e-bikes, as well as the rise of on-demand delivery. Rather than banning them or reducing their potential, cities need to give a chance to new vehicles and services that permit more space-efficient and less-polluting travel. Prioritize curb space for pick up, drop off, and parking of intensively shared vehicles instead of idle storage of little-used vehicles. Create lane reallocation for more efficient modes. We need a lot more HOV 3+ and bus-only lanes.

All these shifts share a goal: Providing greater space for pedestrians and people using any vehicle—from a scooter to a streetcar—that is less dangerous and more healthy than riding in a single-occupancy motor vehicle.

How cities can start quickly

Those crying for urgent action on de-carbonizing urban transportation are often corrected by those who call for pragmatism: “It isn’t politically possible to move so quickly!” These changes can generate opposition in the short term. But there is an answer to that, and it is pilots. Demonstrations of pedestrian-friendly projects in New York, Stockholm, Washington, D.C., and Mumbai have been proven to reduce political pushback. Pilots also enable us to learn, iterate, adapt, and evolve, to demonstrate and quantify that not only does the change from the status quo not make the sky fall, it makes our daily lives better. So, start today. It’s only a pilot!

Cities have no excuses. They can tap the excellent expertise and local knowledge of people and nongovernmental organizations that exist in their countries. They can redirect the budgets they do have. They can work with the panoply of new service offerings and newly available technologies that have been disrupting urban transport and changing the quality of current mobility. We just need to organize ourselves and work firmly and consistently in a unified direction, towards a sustainable, livable, and just future.

When the house on fire is the planet, there is no safe escape route. The only way to save ourselves and our children is to stop feeding the fire—and fix the house.

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