10 Shifts Needed to Transform Transportation Systems and Meet Climate Goals


Transforming Transportation

Transportation is a major contributor to climate change, accounting for nearly a quarter of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. To limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, deep decarbonization of the transportation sector is urgently needed. This will require bold and sustained action by governments, businesses and individuals to transform transportation systems. Here are 10 key shifts identified by the authors that could put the world on track to creating sustainable, low-carbon mobility for all.

Shift 1: Rapidly Expand Mass Transit Networks

Expanding and improving public transportation networks should be a top priority. This includes metros, light rail, bus rapid transit (BRT) and busways. Mass transit provides high-capacity, frequent service on fixed routes. It can move large numbers of people quickly and conveniently without a car.

You have many options to choose from. Metros are ideal for dense urban corridors handling over 20,000 passengers per hour per direction. Light rail offers ground-level, grade-separated transit on dedicated tracks. BRT uses dedicated bus lanes and stations to bypass traffic congestion. Express buses and busways are key links serving neighborhoods.

When planned and funded properly, mass transit can be transformational. It reduces emissions, congestion, air pollution and space needed for parking. It connects people to jobs, education and services. It makes cities more livable and prosperous. Investing in mass transit infrastructure lays the foundation for sustainable mobility.

Shift 2: Create People-Centered Streets and Human-Scale Communities

Streets should be designed for people, not just cars. A complete rethinking of urban design is needed to promote “15-minute cities.” Daily necessities are within a 15-minute walk, bike ride or public transit trip. This creates vibrant, human-scale neighborhoods. It reduces sprawl and auto dependence.

Simple solutions can have a big impact. Widen sidewalks, add protected bike lanes and extend curbs at intersections. Create sheltered bus stops, pedestrian plazas and play streets. Use traffic calming measures like speed bumps and chicanes. Plant trees for shade and beauty. Place parking behind or beneath buildings. Parks, benches, public art and greenery invite people to linger.

The benefits are immense. Walking and cycling become preferred options. Streets become places for community and connection. Noise, crashes and emissions decline. Children, seniors and those without cars gain independence of movement. Compact, mixed-use communities emerge. Provide the infrastructure, and active mobility will follow.

Shift 3: Electrify Transportation to Cut Emissions

Widespread adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) is essential to decarbonize transportation. EVs produce no tailpipe emissions. When charged with clean electricity, they have a far lower carbon footprint than gasoline or diesel vehicles. From scooters to trains, electrification is feasible for many modes.

Buses are a high impact area to electrify. Cities from Shenzhen to Santiago now run large electric bus fleets. Electric trucks, though currently more expensive, are advancing rapidly. Electric micromobility like e-bikes and scooters is taking off. High speed rail and urban metros are already electrified in many countries. As batteries fall in cost, more segments will electrify.

Governments should set aggressive EV adoption targets and policies to meet them. Key steps: vehicle emission standards, purchase incentives, charging infrastructure investment, preferential parking/lanes, fuel economy standards, ICE vehicle restrictions. Done right, deep EV penetration is achievable within 10-15 years. Make the switch and clean our air!

Shift 4: Rethink Urban Freight and Delivery Systems

Commerce keeps cities functioning, but freight movement contributes heavily to congestion, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. New approaches are needed for urban freight and delivery systems. The goal should be smart logistics to keep goods flowing efficiently and cleanly.

Solutions exist to green this sector. Deploy more cargo bikes, electric delivery vans and green trucks for last mile trips. Use off-peak delivery schedules to avoid traffic. Consolidate loads and optimize routes with smart logistics. Create municipal freight facilities outside cities and use EVs or clean trucks for urban pickup and delivery. Enforce vehicle pollution standards for heavy duty trucks.

Cities can plan and manage freight better. Prioritize fleet electrification, shift deliveries to low traffic periods, streamline loading zones and coordinate stakeholders. Proactively guide e-commerce growth in a sustainable direction. Adopt policies to drive innovation in urban freight. The movement of goods will be transformed.

Shift 5: Make Inter-City Rail and Expressway Bus Flourish

For travel distances between 100-1,000 km, fast intercity trains and express buses are the most climate-friendly and convenient options. They allow car-free long distance travel. Night trains enable restful sleep while in transit.

Europe has excellent intercity rail networks like the TGV in France and ICE in Germany. China’s bullet trains serve millions daily. Express buses thrive in Latin America and Asia. High speed rail lines should be expanded worldwide. Electrified trains running on dedicated tracks can move people smoothly for 500-800 km distances at 300 km/hr or more.

Intercity buses serve an equally vital role. Quality express bus services radiate from major cities across entire nations with extensive route networks. They require only paved roads, making expansion easy. With comfortable seats, WiFi and charging ports, express buses make journeys productive and affordable. Upgrade transit stations and simplify ticketing to make journeys seamless.

Shift 6: Reshape Cities and New Mobility with Autonomous Vehicles

Self-driving vehicles are approaching fast and could redefine mobility. Instead of a personally owned machine, automated vehicles (AVs) may function as a shared transit service. They could expand access to convenient “point-to-point” travel without needing a car.

But simply shifting individually owned cars to privately owned self-driving cars would be disastrous for congestion and sprawl. Smart policies are critical to leverage AVs for sustainable mobility. Cities should avoid decades of suboptimal outcomes from AV adoption.

Planning ahead is key. Invest in high quality mass transit as the backbone of mobility. Use street design to actively discourage individual AV ownership. Guide AVs to operate as shared vehicles in mixed traffic lanes without expanding roads. Impose surcharges for zero occupancy trips. Phase in dedicated AV lanes only after achieving high occupancy rates. Proactively shape AV adoption for livable cities.

Shift 7: Adapt Infrastructure and Technology for Resilience

Transportation infrastructure is vulnerable to climate change impacts – extreme heat, flooding, rising seas and extreme weather events. Systems must be adapted to become more resilient using both physical and technological measures.

Physical adaptations include elevating critical infrastructure, building seawalls, using flood resistant materials, expanding drainage capacity, strengthening structures to withstand winds, installing cooling systems and backup power systems. Operational responses like service modifications during heat waves are also important.

Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and smart infrastructure can also enable greater resilience. ITS provides real time information to operators and travelers, allowing dynamic responses to changing conditions. Sensors, AI and advanced modeling help anticipate and manage disruptions. Invest now in resilience to keep mobility flowing smoothly regardless of climate shocks.

Shift 8: Prioritize Fairness and Access for All

Transportation connects us to jobs, education, healthcare and more. Yet millions face limited access due to high costs, lack of options or discrimination. As systems transform, ensuring fair access for all travelers must be a key aim.

Plan and design mobility systems to benefit disadvantaged groups and non-drivers. Locate affordable housing near transit hubs with frequent service. Make streets accessible for those with disabilities or limited mobility. Keep fares affordable for low income families. Use demand-responsive microtransit to cover last mile gaps. Enforce equal treatment of all riders and travelers.

Mobility justice must be an outcome of new policies and technologies. Work to rectify past inequities and exclusion. Actively consult underserved communities in decision making processes. Leverage change to expand access and opportunity. Movement is a basic human right. Keep equity at the center as systems progress.

Shift 9: Mobilize Innovation, Data and Finance

Accelerating change requires tapping innovation, data and new financing models. Public-private collaboration can create win-win mobility solutions informed by rich data insights.

Encourage startups and established players to deliver mobility innovation – EV adaption, micromobility, smart logistics, AI-enabled systems, alternative fuels, materials science advances and more. Policy labs allow controlled testing of new mobility pilots. Crowdsourced data and ubiquitous sensors provide mobility data to optimize networks. New mobility services create diverse travel choices.

Governments can access new revenue streams to fund mobility – congestion charges, carbon fees, fuel taxes, transport utility fees, special assessment districts, infrastructure bonds, public land value capture and more. Pursue public-private partnerships, benefit sharing agreements and innovative finance to fund major projects. With creative thinking, financing gaps can be filled.

Shift 10: Use Behavior Change and Awareness to Accelerate Transformation

Shifting mindsets and travel behavior is crucial to drive change. People often have entrenched habits. Car culture dominates many places. Alternatives may be unfamiliar or perceived as lacking convenience. Smart communication is key to disruption.

Promote sustainable transportation through public engagement campaigns. Highlight the benefits – health, cost savings, productivity, community. Make sustainable options simple, fun and rewarding. Use apps, events and incentives. Target youth outreach and education. Workplaces can encourage commuting by transit, walking or cycling. Carpooling and trip sharing apps help enable shared rides.

Small actions add up. Taking public transit, biking or walking for just a portion of weekly trips reduces emissions. Challenge colleagues to leave their car at home once a week. Support citizen-led movements advancing sustainable mobility in your city. Changing minds moves people; moving people changes the world. Transformation starts with you.


Achieving a just transition to sustainable mobility for all requires reimagining transportation in our cities and communities. As this article outlines, multiple advances on many fronts are needed to realize low-carbon transportation at scale. Deep collaboration between civil society groups, governments and businesses is crucial to instigate the range of solutions highlighted.

Public support and engagement is equally vital to drive policies and demand change. Avoiding the most catastrophic climate impacts will take bold vision, investment of resources and willingness to disrupt the status quo and adopt new models. Together we can redesign mobility around the world to protect our shared future. The journey starts today.

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