How to Improve Your Mobility Habits for a Greener Future
For years, Earth Day campaigns have encouraged people to ditch single-use plastic and shrink their personal carbon footprint. These are important steps, of course, but they don’t address the larger systemic challenges at hand — like the fact that fossil fuels still power just about every aspect of our lives, or how most cities are designed.
“We’ve set up our cities to privilege private car use,” says Benjamin de la Peña, CEO of Shared-Use Mobility Center. “That has serious equity and climate consequences in greenhouse gas emissions, the congestion it creates, and the costs for households.”
As the climate crisis continues, rallying people, governments, and businesses around mobility is essential to the solution. Our individual power might be limited, but together we can work towards a world with greener options. And if that also leads to less traffic, we’re all for it.
Investing in greener infrastructure
If cars are the problem, the solution seems simple: just don’t drive, right? Easier said than done. It’s hard to pull off if cities don’t do more to invest in infrastructure that supports bikes, pedestrians, public transit, and carpooling over solo driving.
Oliver Lord, head of policy and campaigns at the Environmental Defense Fund in Europe points out, “In cities like London, dependency on car ownership is inextricably linked to how accessible public transport is.”
Adding more modes of transportation isn’t simply about being anti-car either. It’s actually better for drivers, while helping the environment. “A bike lane does not take away from drivers,” de la Peña adds, “The more people you take out of cars, the less traffic there is.”
Data can play a big role in infrastructure decisions that benefit everyone, too. “Our crowdsourced data is pretty accurate for planning purposes, because it shows where people are actually traveling,” says Andrew Stober, our head of public partnerships. That way, cities can make informed decisions about where to add traffic interventions, like permanent road closures or HOV lanes that encourage less solo driving.
Some cities are already on the right track. De la Peña points to how Barcelona and Madrid are rapidly building new bike lanes to prioritize safer travel for bikes and pedestrians alike. In Japan and Hong Kong, he points out that real estate helps fund public transportation, as land value increases when efficient transportation is nearby.
Progress is happening in famously car-centric places, too.
“Los Angeles, of all places, is investing in mass transit like rail systems and underground lines,” Lord says. “That’s pretty incredible.”
Are electric vehicles really the solution?
In sustainability conversations, electric vehicles tend to draw outsized attention as green alternatives, but the reality is a little more complicated (of course).
“They’re certainly part of the long-term solution, but they’re not the panacea,” Lord says. “If every car on a congested road becomes electric, you’ve still got congestion.” He explains that, even without fossil fuel emissions coming out of your tailpipe, brakes and tires in all cars emit toxic particles that affect the air quality and people’s health. “It gets into people’s lungs and bloodstream, and that’s not going to go away if everything turns to electric.”
The more strategic move, he says, is starting with delivery vehicles and public transportation. That way, electric vehicles start to make an impact without placing the burden of owning one on individuals.
Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at UC Berkeley, points out there’s still a lot to learn about electric vehicles. “More research is needed on the life-cycle emissions of electric technologies, including the manufacturing, replacement, recycling, and disposal of batteries.”
And they’re only as clean as the grid that powers them. Fossil fuels still generate most of the world’s electricity. “Investing in electric vehicles go hand-in-hand with investing in the cleanest, most renewable energy sources,” says Shaheen.
One area that seems promising is so-called “micromobility,” like electric bikes and scooters. These options don’t take up space on the road and move quicker than their analog counterparts.
Cities need to react quickly to understand how they fit into the current mobility landscape. “In the United Kingdom, they’re trialing e-scooters to understand if they should be on the road and to ensure they’re not detrimental to people walking or biking,” Lord says.
Shifting toward shared mobility
Sharing rides is also key to a greener future, but in places where private car ownership still dominates (like the U.S.), changing behavior and getting lots of people to do it isn’t always easy — especially during a pandemic when, for many, ride-sharing doesn’t feel like the best option.
But even now, carpooling is making a strong case. It doesn’t just take cars off the road; it helps fill a gap in transportation for people without reliable public transit — including essential workers.
“We have a lot of hospitals in the U.S. that don’t have great access to public transit. And you have people with critical roles at the hospital who can’t necessarily afford a car. How do you ensure those people can get to work?” says Stober. “Carpooling is kind of ideal in that situation, because with a big employer like a hospital, there’s bound to be people who live along the same route.” And those people can form pods they feel safe commuting in. As more people get comfortable sharing rides again, carpools can help redefine what commutes look like once the pandemic subsides, including making them more sustainable.
It’s also important to remember that shared mobility doesn’t always mean sharing space on a bus or in a car. Any transportation that you use but don’t own is technically a rideshare. That means cars, bikes, and scooters are all up for grabs in ride-sharing services. Better yet, they can make the original shared-use option — public transit — more viable.
“What’s exciting about new shared-use options is that they expand the usefulness of public transportation,” says de la Peña. “You’re not just limited to where the bus stops, you can rent a bike or scooter the rest of the way.”
Even if your household needs cars to get around, sharing more of them can help lighten the load. “Studies show car-sharing services can actually reduce the need to own a second car,” says de la Peña. It’s certainly cheaper and better for the environment.
Eco-friendly transportation habits everyone can try
If you live in a place where driving is the most convenient or the only way to get around, don’t worry. There are still things you can do to make your day-to-day trips more sustainable without the need for a major life shift (like replacing your car with an electric vehicle) you may not be ready or able to make.
Believe it or not, “walking is often overlooked,” Shaheen says. “People often drive for short trips or even move their vehicles from one spot to another at a shopping center, rather than walk.”
In addition to carpooling and using electric vehicles when possible (something to consider the next time you’re renting a car), Shaheen also encourages people to demand more responsive transportation like microtransit from your local governments.
We can also be more conscious of how our goods travel. It’s time to rethink our delivery preferences. “Do you really need your package the next day?” Lord asks. “Businesses will often cater to your needs, so that’s a huge step individuals can take.”
“Employers have a duty to help people understand the most sustainable way to get to work and to be proactive about it, too” Lord says. He recommends employers help subsidize the cost of carpooling and public transit or offer flexible working hours to help reduce pollution and congestion.
Imagine a future with greener transportation options
It’s time for cities to imagine how we can reclaim the space that’s been used for roads. And there are a lot of models for what the future might look like: Stockholm banned diesel cars from downtown, Seoul transformed a highway overpass into a park, and Paris is working towards becoming a walkable, 15-minute city.
Lord points out that the pandemic has certainly forced people to see how their cities can be different. “The pandemic has shifted many people’s habits, which is one of the most challenging things to do,” Lord says.
A cultural shift is happening, too, especially among younger generations. “Applications for driver’s licenses among teenagers are down,” de la Peña says. “For Gen Z, the car isn’t freedom — phones are. That’s where they can use ride-share apps and call transportation.”