There’s never been a better time to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Oil and gas prices are skyrocketing as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with gas prices exceeding $4 a gallon in the United States in March 2022 and more than $10 a gallon in other countries. Meanwhile, the world is already experiencing the deadly effects of climate change in the form of heatwaves, droughts and wildfires — impacts that will only intensify as emissions and temperatures rise.

As the largest consumer of oil worldwide and one of the main CO2 emitters, reimagining the transport sector is key to cutting ties with fossil fuels.

Reducing Oil and Gas Use in Transportation

Indeed, a growing body of research shows that cutting fossil fuel use by investing in cleaner modes of transport — including public transportation, cycling and walking — is essential for creating safe and sustainable cities.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently put forward a 10-point plan for how governments can reduce oil reliance in transport, which includes incentivizing public transport use and improving the experience of walking and cycling. According to the TUMI Transport Outlook, public transport capacity needs to double and 50% of trips should be made by walking or cycling by 2030 to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F), the target scientists say is necessary for preventing the worst effects of climate change. The 2022 IPCC mitigation report found that cities can reduce their transport-related fuel consumption by about a quarter through combinations of more compact land use and car-free infrastructure, like pedestrian lanes and bike pathways. And other research shows that investing in public transport and walking and cycling infrastructure yields myriad benefits for the climate, economy and human health.

Traffic fatalities increase as global temperatures rise
Avoiding the worst effects of climate change will require reducing motorization rates, but doing so could also save millions of lives.

And yet despite the very clear benefits of public transport, walking and cycling, they remain grossly underfunded compared to infrastructure for cars. Here are five ways to boost public transport and active mobility to reduce oil reliance and create a more sustainable future:

1) Keep motorization growth rates in check.

The world is on pace to go from 1.3 billion cars today to 2.2 billion by 2050. Even with rising numbers of electric vehicles, reducing the rate of motorization remains one of the main ways to reduce transportation-related oil use and carbon emissions. It is also the most challenging to address, as it requires individual behavior changes and a break in the decades-old motorization dependence and prioritization by individuals, businesses and governments.

Today’s high gas prices can actually help with this behavior change due to the income elasticity of demand. An example from California shows that for every $0.50 increase in the price per gallon of gasoline, the amount of weekday traffic on freeways next to commuter rail systems declined by 0.7%. Meanwhile, the increase in passengers per day on nearby commuter rail was approximately equal to the decline in the number of vehicles on freeways.

In lower-income countries where motorization rates are already low, now is a critical moment to make sustainable modes of transit safer, more efficient and more appealing. In cities like Addis Ababa and Bogotá, 80-90% of all trips are made via mass transportation, walking or cycling. Car ownership, however, is expected to increase as these countries’ economies grow, and much transportation investment still goes to motor-vehicle infrastructure like roads, highways, bridges and tunnels.

But there’s a way to break with past patterns: When operators improve the quality of mass transportation; provide affordable, safe and comfortable service; and build safe, inclusive and effective walking and cycling infrastructure, they can achieve the behavioral change needed by giving users viable alternatives to cars. For example, beginning in the 1970s, Curitiba, Brazil, implemented a number of land use and transportation strategies, such as installing a bus rapid transit corridor and pedestrianizing the city center. As a result, more than 70% of all travel in the city happens via public transit, walking and cycling.

2) Encourage innovation to improve the quality of mass transport.

Mass transport has the potential to significantly reduce oil use and emissions from the transport sector while providing wider and more equal access to jobs, education and services. However, riders are only likely to shift from cars to public transport when services are affordable, high-quality and reliable. High fares and infrequent or uncomfortable service can push many riders towards cars and leave others struggling to access transportation at all.

Yet public transport has been a victim of disinvestment and unsupportive policies for years. For example, according to the National Association of Urban Transport Companies, ridership on Brazil’s public bus systems decreased by more than 26% between 2013 and 2019, in part because of policies promoting car and motorcycle purchases, such as subsidies and tax breaks on fuel costs and import fees. Today, challenges are multiplying in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns, with ridership plummeting to 20% of pre-pandemic levels in many places.

Providing more space in cities for public transport, increasing finance, and investing in new, cleaner, more comfortable infrastructure can make a huge difference in attracting new riders and regaining old ones. In the late 1990s, for example, Bogotá’s public bus system suffered from low operating speeds and high crash and pollution rates. Starting with the establishment of the public transit agency TransMilenio in 1999, the city upgraded the lagging system by serving wider sections of the city, introducing an automated fare system, and adding routes and 1,500 new buses. The overhaul increased ridership to up to 1.5 million passenger trips daily; reduced road traffic injuries and deaths in areas where the system operates by 75% and 92%, respectively; and decreased citywide air pollutants by 40%.

Electrification of the sector promises even larger reductions in pollution and potential cost savings via lower fuel expenses. TransMilenio is on track to operate the largest fleet of electric buses outside of China. When completed, the system is expected to include 406 buses and transport 36 million passengers yearly.

3) Creatively finance public transportation systems.

Experience shows that extensive public transport systems can rarely be paid for by ticket fares alone. Systems need more robust and sustainable funding from the public sector and capital investments — funding that helps mass transport systems not only survive, but thrive.

Diversifying funding sources can provide steadier revenue that is resilient in the face of crises. The public sector’s financial resources for TransMilenio came from a fuel tax (46%), local revenues (28%), a credit from the World Bank (6%) and grants from the national government (20%). Half of the 25% gasoline tax levied in Bogotá is used for the continued expansion of the system. In Vienna, Austria, which is also expanding its public transport system, user fares cover only about 55% of operating costs, while indirect payments from the national government, a public transport tax on large employers, and fees from on-street parking and city-owned parking garages cover the rest.

4) Build safe infrastructure for walking and cycling.

Mass transportation is key to making cities work, but walking and cycling are in fact the greenest modes of transport. They are also the easiest and least costly investments in the transport sector.

Continued at World Resources Institute (WRI)