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Reversing automobile dominance in cities

Read about four categories of emission and pollution reduction strategies aimed at road transport.
Front of view of man and woman linking arms holding shopping bags smiling with houses in background
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According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), transport was responsible for 27% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. The majority of these emissions are caused by road transport, in particular private vehicles and trucks.

Emission and pollution reduction strategies in the transport sector are therefore mainly aimed at road transport and policy makers have identified four categories of interventions.

Avoiding travel

This is achieved by managing urban growth and redevelopment to enable shorter journeys, and/or encourage transport users to choose destinations closer to their homes, work from home or via e-commerce etc.

Shifting travel to non-car modes

This involves investing in public transport infrastructure and services to make them more competitive with the car, and to make active transport (walking and cycling) safer and more convenient. It also involves putting in place financial and regulatory incentives to encourage the desired mode shift:

  • cheaper public transport tickets
  • developer contributions towards the cost of public transport
  • parking restrictions and pricing
  • making space on roads for uses other than cars.

Sharing travel

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This is aimed at reducing the emissions impact of each vehicle or each vehicle journey by increasing their efficiency. Shared rather than individual ownership of cars (or bicycles, scooters etc) can reduce the number of vehicles in a city while putting each vehicle to greater use. Pooling rides in shared vehicles can increase the number of persons per trip. Innovative logistics concepts can reduce the number of truck journeys relative to the goods they carry.

Improving vehicle technology

This is aimed at reducing the emission intensity of the remaining car journeys. In the 2020s, the primary action here is in gradually converting the car, bus and truck fleet to battery-electric (and for some larger vehicles, hydrogen) propulsion. This transition is supported by providing necessary infrastructure:

  • charging stations powered by clean, decentralised energy
  • financial or regulatory incentives, including tax breaks for electric vehicles or percentage targets of total vehicle sales.


Professor Kim Dovey (2016) talks about the ‘urban DMA’ as a guiding principle for the creation of the walkable city. The acronym stands for Density, Mix and Access

  • Density: How close together can we place origins and destinations, and how many of them can we put in a small space? Since walking is a low-speed form of movement, being close is critical.
  • Mix: How attractive is an area for different people and functions? The variety of land uses in a small space must work together to encourage both planned and spontaneous connections between people and to enable walking.
  • Access: How do we get around in an urban space? This relates to how permeable a neighbourhood is, i.e. how many options do pedestrians have when choosing a route between places, and how well these connect to faster modes of transport (cycling, public transport and car).

Public transport

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The following characteristics of a transport system can be considered critical components of a useful public transport service:

  • The location of stops and stations affects the transition between walking and the public transport network (and to some extent also the car and bicycle network): Are public transport facilities easy to reach from homes and destinations, without barriers such as heavily trafficked roads or stairs?
  • Connectivity relates to the way the public transport nodes and corridors work together as a network: Is it possible to travel between them without having to make unreasonable detours? And if a transfer is required, how convenient (or ‘seamless’) is the interchange point in terms of finding the way, waiting times, comfort and safety?
  • Service frequency determines whether or not users need to consult a timetable prior to travel: If a train or bus runs every 10 minutes or more often, we call that a ‘turn-up-and-go’ service. If a service runs less frequently, good public transport networks will attempt to coordinate arrival and departure times at key interchanges.
  • Service span refers to the hours of the day and week that a service operates: Does it run on weekends as well as weekdays? How late into the night? This is critical ifor users to be able to rely on public transport for non-work journeys (or work journeys at irregular hours).
  • Service speed or delay relates to the transport mode used: a train or metro on its own separate track will usually travel much faster than a bus or tram that shares the road with general traffic, including pedestrians. Good public transport networks will create a hierarchy of modes with different speeds and capacities so that each can perform to its strengths and ensure that transferring between them is easy.

Ultimately, the goal of good public transport network planning is to create a system that covers as much of the urban area as possible and maximises users’ freedom to move, matching if not exceeding the convenience of the private car.

Further resources

If you would like to explore some of the concepts we have covered in more detail, the following resources are optional.

12 best ways to get cars out of cities – ranked by new research

End of the car age: how cities are outgrowing the automobile

Low carbon urban mobility

© RMIT Europe and EIT Urban Mobility
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Urban dynamics: Spatial Accessibility and Real estate

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