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4 ways cities can make commutes greener — and easier

As world leaders look to mitigate the effects of climate change, how can cities reduce carbon emissions by improving transportation?

This article originally appeared in 100 resilient cities.

It is estimated that by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. Denser cities and shrinking suburbs promise concrete benefits to the economy, the environment and urbanites’ quality of life — but only if cities can support their growing populations with appropriate transportation.

Transportation nourishes and shapes urban centers, and insofar as it helps cities continue functioning and recover in the face of a shock, directly affects their resilience.

From ancient Rome to contemporary Tulsa, cities’ survival has always depended on transportation. As they densify, cities’ futures depend on smarter, faster and greener transportation that fits their unique geographies, cultures and histories. To do that, transport networks should integrate the varied modes necessary to help a city become more resilient. 

Although every city faces different transportation challenges, these examples of successful urban strategies offer useful lessons:

1. Spanning elevations

Some cities — Medellin, Colombia, and Istanbul, Turkey, for example — have to build transportation that accommodates dramatic elevation changes to connect existing and new infrastructure. 

Monorailsgondolas, escalators and trolleys may not seem cutting-edge, but applied in an innovative way in these cities, they address essential needs in flexible ways that, in the case of Medellin, helped foster connection, equity and economic assets that contributed to a community transformation

2. Empowering bikes

After decades of ignoring and downplaying pedestrian transport such as bikes, numerous cities have begun to champion it as an alternative to cars. Although many younger cities were designed without bikes in mind, cycle commuting and bike-share programs are now common in cities and urban planning and health initiatives. 

More than 600 cities on five continents now offer bike-share programs, helping reduce reliance on cars and make each city's transport network more robust.

Here are bike-share-program stats from major cities as of December 2013:

  • Barcelona averages 10.8 trips per bike and 67.9 trips per 1,000 residents
  • Mexico City averages 5.5 trips per bike and 158.2 trips per 1,000 residents
  • Montreal averages 6.8 trips per bike and 113.8 trips per 1,000 residents
  • New York City averages 8.3 trips per bike and 42.7 trips per 1,000 residents
  • Paris averages 6.7 trips per bike and 38.4 trips per 1,000 residents
  • Rio de Janeiro averages 6.9 trips per bike and 44.2 trips per 1,000 residents

3. Bettering buses

Bus rapid transit (BRT) uses dedicated lanes and high-tech signaling to make public busses especially efficient. New York City’s electric-battery buses have shifted per-mile fuel costs from $1.30 to $0.20–$0.30. 

Chicago's “bus on shoulders” program increased ridership 226 percent. Around the globe, from Toyama, Japan, to Phonm Penh, Cambodia, to Santiago, Chile, better busses are connecting urban centers with outer communities, improving quality of life in and outside cities.

4. Moving with data

Commuters in many cities have access to up-to-the-minute data to avoid delays and plan their routes accordingly. Mobile apps offer real-time bus and train schedules, digital maps and carpool and ride-share connections. Many transportation networks let people send SMS messages for status updates.

New York City has improved commutes via App Quest, a crowd-sourced tech competition. Portland, Ore., released a mobile-ticket phone app that lets people pay their bus fares ahead of time, and it proved instantly popular

The world’s leading cities cities — from Rio to Rotterdam — are pursuing comprehensive, integrated approaches to transportation innovation. These alternative transportation options stand to decrease travel time and improve quality of life for commuters and cities as a whole.

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