Transportation Questions for Climate Action

To bring climate pollution under control, we need to reshape transportation, especially the way we get around on the ground.

Namely, we have to evolve from a mono-modal system that is extraordinarily energy-intensive because it requires one tool for almost every job–the private car, typically carrying one person–towards a system that is resource-efficient.

No question a big part of resource efficiency is more efficient motors with cleaner energy sources. That means electrifying more or less every motor vehicle, and then some.

But just as important, and what we need to wake up about, is making the system architecture into one that is multimodal. An architecture that provides a diversity of travel choices giving people multiple good options. That ferrets out subsidies working against the most economic travel tool for the job in order to give the most climate-compatible modes a level playing field. That multiplies the possibilities through “geometric efficiency”–by designing and redesigning communities to give people more amenities near where they live.

This system we need is one that is designed to first avoid the need for physical travel and next to let people frictionlessly shift to the most efficient and convenient mode for the trip. See figure for a summary of these strategies, together “avoid/shift,” in context.

Avoid-Shift-Improve Framework from SLOCAT (reference at bottom)

Four questions will shape how and when we get to the multimodal, resource-efficient system that we need–and hence whether transportation leaders will do their part in delivering a safe climate:

  1. How do we give the movements for bicycle/pedestrian and transit development the high status climate science and literature on equity say they deserve?
  2. How can transportation electrification and “avoid/shift” climate strategies work harmoniously towards a holistic transportation decarbonization agenda?
  3. What’s it going to take to get public agencies take serious climate action, which requires–according to the most authoritative science–a revolution in mobility options on top of electrification?
  4. How can resource-limited local governments rapidly take it the next level for combined transportation decarbonization, equity, and resilience?
  5. How do we overcome carbon lock-in in the transportation system making change difficult and spark new action?

There’s a lot packed in here. How we pay for things (and quietly subsidize the status quo). The role of emerging technology. Paths to diffusion of technology and solutions that already exist but at small scale. How to be more appropriately imaginative. And a lot more.

In the coming months, watch this space for materials and some perspectives to explore them. The goal is to better understand the profound untapped value mobility offers the climate movement and what we can do about it. As well as the potentially untapped popular support for initiatives that give people time, money, and freedom back once we get the flywheel really moving.


IPCC (April 2022). Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel.

Litman, Todd (2022). Evaluating Transportation Equity Guidance for Incorporating Distributional Impacts in Transport Planning. Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

SLOCAT: Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport (2021). Transport and Climate Change Global Status Report — 2nd Edition.

Unruh, Greg (2002). Escaping Carbon Lock-in. Energy Policy.

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