By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities

I am regularly asked “what is the single most important thing that mayors can do to tackle climate change?” It is a difficult question to answer, but if we broaden the question to include reducing inequality and poverty, then few interventions can match the transformative power of prioritising the needs of pedestrians and cyclists over space for cars.

In fact, any city where a private vehicle is necessary to get around is likely to be fundamentally unequal. Data from cities across the world show that men are more likely to drive cars, while women are more likely to rely on public transport and non-motorised modes like walking and cycling. Research carried out in the UK and US found rates of car ownership that were significantly higher among white people compared to other ethnic groups. We also know that, while wealthier households are more likely to own cars, they are less likely to be living in areas with the highest levels of traffic and traffic-related pollution. Another study found that car users took up 3.5 times more public space than non-car users. A city that is designed around the car is not an equitable one. 

Car-centric cities are also centres of pollution and ill-health. We know that we must start rapidly cutting carbon emissions – the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms yet again that emissions need to fall immediately. Meanwhile, public health is diminished by poor air quality, death and injury from road traffic collisions, along with the physical inactivity that results from car-dependent lifestyles. Car-centric urban design also imposes significant economic costs at both the city and individual level – traffic congestion in Nairobi alone costs the city USD $1 billion a year, while cities across Southeast Asia lose an estimated 2-5% of GDP due to heavy traffic. In some cities, fewer than one in ten people live in locations where they can easily reach most jobs. Mobility poverty means that some people are spending a large proportion of their income to get to school or work, while those without a car can often be excluded altogether from social and economic opportunities.

A global shift away from cars to more active forms of travel is exactly what the world needs right now. Replacing a trip by car with active travel is a highly effective way to cut emissions quickly. The City of Copenhagen has calculated that each kilometre driven incurs a net loss of €0.71 when the impacts on individual wellbeing and the environment are accounted for, while each kilometre cycled benefits society by €0.64. Investing in walking and cycling also means that those who do not own cars will see an improved quality of life and greater access to economic opportunities. 

Barcelona cityscape with La Rambla
© Brzozowska / Getty Images

It is for all these reasons that, since 2017, 36 global cities have signed up to the C40 Green and Healthy Streets Declaration, putting people and planet at the heart of urban transport planning. These cities have committed, among other things, to reducing the number of polluting vehicles on their streets and increasing rates of walking and cycling. Five years on, their achievements in working towards meeting these goals are outlined in a new report. It reveals a remarkable degree of ambition – Barcelona is implementing more than 300 measures to ensure that, by 2024, more than 80% of all trips in the city will be made by walking, cycling or public transport. Some of the measures Barcelona is taking to reach that target include additional bike lanes and a project to convert 1 million square metres of pavement and road space into places that can support more sustainable and healthy neighbourhoods. Of the signatory cities, 14 have restrictions in place on high-polluting vehicles that cover a significant part of the city, while 15 cities are actively reallocating road space from cars to active and sustainable modes of transport, reducing car use, and making alternatives safer and more appealing.  

It is also clear that equity is at the centre of city policies. Jakarta is creating 2,600 kilometres of sidewalks with a minimum width of 5 metres to allow all people to walk comfortably, while Austin, Texas, is completing its All Ages and Abilities Bikeway Network, a 400-mile connected network that will enable all Austinites to travel around the city regardless of age or ability. Bogotá is expanding its 590-kilometre cycling network and has specifically designed its cycling policy to include greater participation by women, as well as modifying crosswalks to make them more accessible. 

Now that global cities are transforming the urban experience for everyone by making active travel an easy and accessible option for more people, my answer to the question “what is the single most important thing that mayors can do to tackle climate change?” is simple: Invest in walking and cycling. There is no other policy that is as effective at rapidly reducing carbon emissions, improving public health, and achieving greater equity and prosperity for all urban residents.

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