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Driving Change

These were 10 key sustainable transport trends of 2020

From bans of gasoline-powered cars to zero-emissions fleet breakthroughs to the public transit crisis, these are the developments shaping the world of clean mobility.

A Rivian van in Seattle

Rivian made headlines in September 2019 when Amazon (one of its investors) announced its plans to purchase 100,000 of the automotive startup’s all-electric delivery trucks. Photo courtesy of Rivian

Have you ever been more ready for a year to be over?

In a little over two weeks, this dumpster fire of a year will be relegated to history. And while the world will be dealing with COVID-19 for many more months into 2021, something just feels so good about leaving 2020 behind. 

Many books will be written about 2020 as a turning point in — you name it: American power. China relations. Democracy. In my corner of the universe, I think 2020 was a pivotal year for organizations, policymakers and the financial community to start to take sustainable and electric transportation more seriously as an emerging and powerful market — and as a key piece to tackle climate change.

Here are my picks for the 10 most important sustainable transportation trends of 2020:

1. Gas car bans make it big: While some cities around the world have been adopting gasoline-powered car bans and phaseouts for a couple of years, California was the first U.S. state to adopt such an important, and jarring, measure. Just three months ago, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to halt the sales of new gas cars within just 15 years. Newsom signed the order as a direct response to California's historic and tragic wildfire season and as an effort to try to ratchet up his administration's levers to decarbonize transportation in the battle against climate change.

2. Amazon remakes e-logistics: More than any other company, Amazon has been changing how the electric truck market operates. For years, slow-moving OEMs have failed to make the kinds (and volumes) of electric trucks that commercial businesses need to move goods and people. Amazon's answer to this problem was to partner at the ground level with startup Rivian and to place an order that turns heads: 100,000 EVs. Amazon Director of Global Fleet Ross Rachey told us at VERGE 20: "We realized we needed to take an active role in accelerating the products and the technology." Now Amazon is working on deploying its first Rivian electric trucks by the end of 2021.

3. Ride-hailing looks to electrify: Ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft made big pledges this year to move to all-electric vehicles. Lyft took the plunge first, announcing it would move to all EVs for both its owned vehicles and driver-owned vehicles by 2030. Uber followed that up with its own plans to move all its vehicles to electric in the U.S., Canada and Europe by 2030 and the rest of the world by 2040. The moves show the policy pressures on these companies from cities and states to clean up their emissions, as well as the changing economics that EVs can be cheaper to operate by eliminating gasoline. 

4. Fleets decarbonize with low carbon and electric: Fleet managers of public and commercial vehicle fleets are buying new electric trucks and buses and switching out diesel fleets with low-carbon fuels such as renewable diesel. These organizations are being pushed by a combination of regulations, sustainability goals and customers. While the electric truck and bus markets are young, they're becoming increasingly competitive for certain types of vehicles running certain routes, such as last-mile delivery. 

5. Tesla and Elon defy gravity: While many car companies faltered in the wake of the pandemic, Tesla continued to soar and soar. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is the second richest man in the world based on his Tesla shares, and the company plans to join the S&P on Dec. 18. The Silicon Valley-born electric car company has remade the auto industry, pushing the big car companies to chase its success into EVs, copy its online sales and promotions and mimic its over-the-air software systems. 

slow streets in San Francisco

6. Slow streets show what's possible: 2020 saw the emergence of the slow-streets trend, where U.S. cities including Oakland, California, and Seattle blocked off miles of neighborhood streets to through traffic in a response to shelter-in-place measures. The slowed streets opened up possibilities for bikes, pedestrians and micromobility devices to move more safely, and reduced vehicles and air pollution in neighborhoods. The movement also gave city planners new tools to engage with residents and showed how cities can remake public spaces away from cars and towards humans. 

7. The transport SPACs: An unusual financial tool — the Special Purpose Acquisition Company, or SPAC — emerged as the go-to choice for electric and autonomous transport companies to raise money and go public this year. It works like a reverse merger, where the company merges with a newly created entity and lists on an exchange, raising funds in the process. Why did these emerge this year? Going public via an IPO can take years, but opting for a SPAC can take mere months. Some new transport SPACs are speculative and pre-commercial, but many are legitimate companies with years of revenue and even profits.

8. Climate tech heats up: Venture capitalists and investors are increasingly interested in funding what the cool kids call "climate tech" today, and what we called cleantech in the mid-aughts. The new interest is coming from investors across the board, including old-school firms, brand-new climate funds and corporate arms (a great resource here). Entrepreneurs see growing markets, opportunities to work on world-changing solutions and more partners to buy energy, transport and carbontech. Is climate tech becoming so hot that there will be a bubble and bust? Probably. That's the way Silicon Valley works. 

9. Biden puts an end to the Trump darkness: While not strictly a transport story, the U.S. election of Joe Biden could be a major kickstart for the domestic electric vehicle and zero-emission vehicle industries. The president-elect could oversee the deployment of a massive ZEV infrastructure buildout and could quickly reverse the weakening of the auto emissions standards. His administration also will bring in new leadership that will prioritize decarbonizing transport and hopefully will set the bar even higher with new ZEV regulations. 

10. Public transit moves into a crisis:mThe most disturbing transport story of 2020 is the crisis facing public transportation with the drop in ridership over safety concerns and COVID. Transit agencies across the U.S. are pleading with the federal government for help covering budget shortfalls, but even if tens of billions of dollars of help is approved, it likely won't be enough. Many transit agencies will have to cut back on service, reduce staff and undermine the most climate-friendly source of transportation out there. 

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