Listening to last week’s UN Climate Summit call for stepped up action on climate change got me thinking about the urban mobility slice of the emissions pie. I took inspiration from the successes of three megacities (New York, London, and Paris) in persuading their urban populations to shift from private vehicles to transit, bike, and foot.These stories(external link) demonstrate quite different combinations of market forces, new infrastructure, regulations and urban planning to propel a shift to less congestion and fewer emissions.


New York, the host city of climate talks last week has introduced time of day parking pricing to alter parking behavior, reduce traffic circling and double parking. A Select Bus Service now reduces passenger loads on the subway system by improving above-ground bus service, and bus times are now 20% faster with a 9% increase in ridership. Road space has been re-allocated to pedestrians with expanded sidewalks, pedestrian-only zones, and conversion of curbside parking into public seating areas. Several hundred miles of new bike lanes and thousands of new bike racks have increased the number of bike commuters while reducing bike fatalities by over half. Lastly, over 20% of the city has been rezoned with the goal of increasing population density around areas well-served by transit.


London, England, is a pioneer in the use of market forces to transform transportation habits. A central city congestion charge, implemented in 2003, discourages driving in the city center during rush hour, encourages mass transit and funds it. With the bulk of the profits used to fund improvements in the public transport, the policy led to a 21% decrease in overall traffic, a decrease in congestion of 30% in the first year, while bus transportation increased 45%, and bike use 43%. A Low Emission Zone, imposing strict financial penalties for all vehicles not meeting pollution standards for operating in the zone, is spurring the adoption of cleaner, fuel-efficient vehicles. On-street parking fees differentiated by time of day and vehicle emissions have also helped reduce congestion and clean the air.


I grew up in Paris, and carry childhood memories of hours in gridlock, and air pollution that choked the pleasure out of street side cafes. How times have changed! With London-style congestion pricing considered politically unfeasible, Paris’ strategy has been to reallocate road space away from private cars and towards alternative modes of transportation and focus on improving the availability, quality, and frequency of public transit services. A Bus Rapid Transit system, dedicated lanes for buses, taxis and bikes, and ambitious bike and electric car-sharing services make alternative modes of transportation readily available. Every Sunday, large sections of the downtown are converted to pedestrian-only zones. One fifth of the City is now zoned “Quartiers Verts”, neighbourhoods with measures such as speed bumps and wider sidewalks to slow traffic and increase pedestrian safety and comfort. Parking supply has been reduced by almost 10% and free on-street parking has been eliminated. These actions are correlated with an 11% decline in traffic, a 17% in bus trips, and 48% increase in cycling.

Here in Canada, while the costs associated with transportation-generated GHGs are difficult to quantify, The Council of Ministers’ Urban Transportation Task Force believes traffic congestion alone costs Canadian cities between $3.1 billion and $4.6 billion annually. But these three megacities demonstrate that better urban mobility is achievable, with perseverance and a delicate balance of urban planning and leveraging of market forces. A recent World Bank research working paper(external link) by UCLA professor Matthew Kahn—who presented at SP’s April 2014 Big Ideas Conference — echoes this, finding that urban areas can make sharp environmental progress in just a few decades.

With municipal elections just around the corner, Canadian policy makers have an opportunity to follow the transportation precedents set by the three cities. While there may not be one silver bullet to apply to the Canadian context, these case studies show us that combining different tools can be a way to move forward.

With thanks to David Gordon, University of Toronto, and Pomme Arros, Sustainable Prosperity, for background research. Read our academic research(external link) or our policy brief(external link) on policy bundling in the transportation sector