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Multimodal transport can jump-start a more sustainable and just future

Prioritizing climate, equity, health and safety — and the movement of people over vehicles — could reshape our transportation landscape. 

Illustration of multimodal transportation - including electric scooters, bikes, public transit, a ferry and vehicles -- against a city backdrop

Advancing a multimodal transportation strategy will require options that are safe, accessible and attractive. Shutterstock/Solveig Been

[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]

Electric vehicles (EVs) are essential for reducing carbon emissions. However, we will not meet our climate goals if we rely exclusively on EVs. Additionally, EVs don’t move the needle when it comes to reversing the disturbing trends of increasing roadway fatalities, stresses on human health and social inequity. 

It’s time for city planners, engineers and policymakers to fundamentally rethink our priorities in terms of the built environment — how space is allocated and who benefits. That means taking politically difficult but important steps to prioritize the movement of people over vehicles. 

With President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act, historic funding will help us transform our transportation infrastructure in ways we’ve never done before. That is, as long as we make the right decisions and prioritize carefully. How we use these funds can shape the lives of future generations, similar to how the interstate system played an outsize role in creating our current landscape. We must seize this opportunity to reimagine the way cities, communities and transportation systems are designed — with climate, equity, health and safety at the forefront. 

Climate: The transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, accounting for 29 percent of total GHG emissions nationally in 2020. 

Equity: The interstate highway system has played an important role in bolstering the national economy and expanding mobility for many, but it came at the expense of disadvantaged communities. Entire communities were divided, disrupted and dismantled in order to make room for new highways. As a result, marginalized communities have been cut off from access to better education, jobs and healthcare. Additionally, the death toll is higher in these communities, particularly among pedestrians and bicyclists. Why? Because basic infrastructure and safety measures are simply lacking in socially vulnerable communities relative to wealthier neighborhoods. 

Health: Studies show driving can lead to higher levels of stress indicators, including heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety. 

Safety: Nearly 40,000 Americans lost their lives in roadway crashes in 2020. On top of that, pedestrian deaths hit a four-decade high in 2021. While data for 2022 are not yet available, early numbers indicate this alarming upward trend will continue. 

To address these interrelated challenges, key strategies can be employed that simultaneously address them all. We must start planning for multimodal transport.

For many Americans, the car is their default transportation option. Let’s face it — many of us have been conditioned to jump into our car and drive ourselves, usually alone, to get from point A to point B. That’s the way we’ve done it for generations. 

But if we’re serious about bringing down carbon emissions, improving public health, reducing roadway fatalities and advancing equity, we need to encourage greater mode shift. In simple language, that means getting more people to walk, bike, ride a scooter or take a bus, light rail, subway or commuter rail. And of course, we must robustly expand these options and make sure they’re safe, accessible and attractive.  

Advancing a multimodal strategy requires strong public sentiment as well as a willingness among political leaders to make hard choices. San Francisco, for example, enacted in April 2020 a series of "slow streets" that are off-limits to vehicles during certain times of the day or week. Those who walk, bike and roll enthusiastically embrace slow streets, but the city has encountered vigorous opposition to making these changes permanent. It usually requires elected officials willing to go against vested interests in order to create more spaces for people-centered mobility. 

Multimodal transportation also depends on convenience. Think: apps and other technology solutions that seamlessly enable travelers to access multiple transit schedules, payment systems and safety protocols in one place. New options such as Mobility Marketplace and California Integrated Travel Project (Cal-ITP) will help make this happen. 

Electric bikes and scooters also enhance convenience and accessibility while promoting healthy lifestyles. And transit agencies are transitioning their bus and rail car fleets to zero emission, which will play a key role in reducing particulate emissions from fossil fuels. This is an important step in tackling the climate crisis, as well as reducing fatalities caused by harmful emissions. 

We must seize this opportunity to reimagine the way cities, communities and transportation systems are designed — with climate, equity, health and safety at the forefront.

We also need to approach safety with a sense of urgency in light of the alarming increase in fatalities among pedestrians and bicyclists. That means going all-out on implementing "road diets," and "complete streets," which include protected bike lanes, building more sidewalks and instituting colorful and easy-to-interpret crosswalks and other pedestrian signage. There are well-established models of success in cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Paris and other places where the movement of people takes priority over the movement of automobiles. 

Additionally, safety is an equity issue. In Los Angeles 70 percent of all transportation-related fatalities occur on 6 percent of the city’s streets. This is mostly happening in historically Black communities such as South Central and West Adams, which lack sufficient safety infrastructure. By investing in traffic signals and thoughtful design and crosswalks similar to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where an intersectional mural brought about a significant increase in drivers yielding to pedestrians, we can close the infrastructure equity gap and advance safety in underfunded communities. Safer still are communities that have reduced the number of cars on the road, whether EVs or internal combustion engine vehicles. 

So, how to do all of these things? There’s no single magic bullet, but one potential way forward is congestion pricing and dynamic pricing strategies. New York is on the verge of implementing "cordon" or "congestion" pricing, where drivers would be required to pay a fee to enter Manhattan at certain points. This will encourage people to consider taking transit or other modes of transportation, which in turn will reduce congestion, bring down emissions and improve safety. Cordon pricing strategies also are an important mechanism in generating new revenue for much-needed transportation investments. 

To be sure, congestion pricing is controversial. And the politics are territorial, as evidenced by the recent war of words between New Jersey and New York over who benefits and who’s harmed. But London, Stockholm, Singapore and other cities around the world have done it. We should consider deploying pricing strategies where it makes sense to do so. 

Skeptics believe reducing our collective dependence on driving is unlikely in America. But in fact, we’ve done it before. From the mid-1800s through the first half of the 20th century, rail systems were commonplace in metropolitan areas. More than a million people relied on LA’s sprawling streetcar system for their daily commutes. After World War II, these popular streetcars met their demise. It didn’t happen automatically; the rise of interstate highways and promotion of individual car ownership helped drive the change. But with the right policies and priorities, along with a healthy dose of political will, our transportation landscape can be transformed in the years ahead. 

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is in front of us to completely redesign our cities and put the needs of people and the planet first. We’ve seen it done in other parts of the world. It’s time for us to do the same.

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