Historically, most transport systems have centered around private car ownership. This is the standard in high-income economies, and car ownership is increasing in some developing countries as people build wealth. Many regions lack viable alternatives to car ownership, and in some areas, the car is viewed as a status symbol. Where public transport has long been neglected, the resulting traffic congestion has been addressed by expanding highways and roads. But this is only a temporary solution until congestion returns due to induced demand

Reducing the need for travel will make decarbonization easier and improve health outcomes. 

Without a fundamental shift in transport systems, there will be 2 billion cars on the road by 2050. By focusing on what makes people choose to drive in the first place, transport demand management can improve mobility and quality of life in a rapidly urbanizing world. 

The most cost-effective means of reducing transport emissions is to avoid the need for motorized travel, utilizing city planning to bring opportunities closer to residents and encouraging less carbon-intensive modes of movement, such as public transport, walking and cycling. 

Options for managing urban car use include planning for 15-minute cities, improving quality and access to shared transport, and implementing charges for private vehicle use, such as congestion pricing. These approaches can reduce congestion and inner-city pollution, and funds raised from congestion and parking fees can be reinvested in public transit improvement projects, as seen in London. Additionally, the pandemic revealed that telework for management, tech, and administrative support jobs can reduce daily transport demand, just as moving conferences to digital platforms can reduce international business travel.

Electric car sharing offers an affordable, low-emission option. In some places, longer distance trips can be shifted to rail and maritime modes, especially journeys of three to four hours. 

Already, France has become the first large economy to ban short-haul flights where a train or bus alternative of 2.5 hours or less exists, effectively reducing emissions by eliminating 12% of domestic flights. Other countries, including all the members of the EU, are taxing commercial aviation and jet fuel in an effort to encourage fewer passengers and more energy-efficient planes.

Data Insights

What targets are most important to reach in the future?

Systems Change Lab has identified 2 targets to track progress. Click a chart to explore the data.

What factors may enable and prevent change?

Systems Change Lab has identified 3 factors of change that may catalyze or impede progress. Click a chart to explore the data.

Progress toward targets

Systems Change Lab has identified 2 targets target to track progress. Explore the data below.

Share of kilometers traveled by passenger cars

The share of kilometers traveled by passenger cars increased between 2015 and 2020 — a trend that needs to be reversed if we are to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C.

For the transport sector to play a role in limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F), high-income countries — the top 10 of which contribute 53% of global transport emissions and have high rates of motorization — will have to reduce light-duty vehicle (LDV) travel. Developing economies will also need and have the opportunity to reduce or slow the growth of vehicle travel and create sustainable transport systems not dependent upon cars. 

While there is no extensive historical data available on the share of trips made by passenger cars, the data that do exist show a worrying trend. The global share of kilometers traveled by passenger cars increased from 39% in 2015 to 44% in 2020

The cause of this increase is understandable: as populations and gross domestic products (GDPs) have grown, so has the number of people who own automobiles, and therefore the share of trips made by privately-owned cars. The trend in car ownership is expected to accelerate in developing countries as GDPs continue to grow. Countries with the highest GDPs per capita are more culpable for the current state of this indicator, while countries with lower GDPs per capita bear less of a responsibility. 

By 2030, the global percentage of motor vehicle trips should decrease from its predicted 50% to between 34% and 44% (according to authors’ analysis based on BNEF scenarios). Economically developing countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America have room for modest growth in private motor trips if those in Europe and North America reduce their own private motor vehicle use.

Research shows that in the most congested cities in the United States, 48% of all car trips are less than three miles in length, and 20% are shorter than one mile. Walking, e-scooters and bikes could replace a significant portion of short trips, as could inclusive, accessible public transit for medium-length trips. 

Given that travel behavior is heavily influenced by infrastructure and the availability of convenient, affordable and safe transportation options, it is the responsibility of policymakers to create an environment where sustainable alternatives are convenient and more attractive than private motor vehicles.

Share of long-distance trips (1,000 km and above) by mode

With more people able to afford air travel, the demand for global passenger aviation is expected to grow three-fold globally between 2020 and 2050, with 60% of that growth in emerging markets and developing economies. An estimated 15% of regional flights could instead be traveled on existing high-speed rail.

With more people able to afford air travel, the demand for global passenger aviation is expected to grow three-fold globally between 2020 and 2050, with 60% of that growth in emerging markets and developing economies. 

Although aviation is the only practical option for intercontinental travel, rail, bus and electric car sharing are viable modes for many long-distance trips. 

The opportunity to shift to high-speed rail varies by geography, but in 2019 it was estimated that about 15% of regional flights could be shifted to existing rail.

There is currently no publicly available global data on the share of long-distance trips by mode. This information would need to be compiled by institutions with access to multinational data and high international trust such as the International Energy Agency or the International Transport Forum. This data would help inform policymakers about how people choose to travel long distances and how smart decisions can be made to decarbonize long-distance travel.

Enablers and barriers

We monitor momentum by tracking a set of 3 factors factor that can enable or prevent progress. Explore the data and learn about key actions driving progress.

Bus rapid transit ridership

Innovation
More information is coming soon.

More information is coming soon.

Passenger rail activity

Behavior Change
Currently, passenger rail networks are concentrated in a few regions — China, the European Union, India, Japan and Russia — that together account for 90% of global passenger rail activity.

Rail can connect people to economic, educational and social activities more safely and quickly than other modes of transport, and it can run on 100% electric power. Three-quarters of passenger rail trips already take place on electric trains. Rail is also energy efficient: while the rail sector carries 8% of the world’s passengers and 9% of global freight transport, it represents only 2% of transport energy consumption.

Currently, passenger rail networks are concentrated in a few regions — China, the European Union, India, Japan and Russia — that together account for 90% of global passenger rail activity.

In 2005, passengers traveled 2.38 trillion passenger-kilometers (pkm) by rail. By 2019, this rose to 3.94 trillion pkm. The vast majority of this growth occurred in China, where high-speed rail has expanded by 25,000 km in the last decade — more than the rest of the world combined — and passenger traffic has increased to 1.7 billion passengers a year. 

Conventional and high-speed rail network length

Innovation
In 2016, there were 1.33 million kilometers of rail systems around the world. Strategic planning and implementation of new rail networks can maximize their low-emission and congestion-alleviation benefits.

Rising incomes and populations in developing and emerging economies are set to lead to stronger demand for more efficient, faster and cleaner transportation. Many developing nations have an opportunity to grow their economies with rail, investing early and reaping the benefits of a clean, efficient and affordable means of transport for both people and freight.  

Rail systems are most cost and energy-efficient at full capacity, so strategic planning and implementation of new rail networks along the highest-traffic routes will maximize their low-emission and congestion-alleviation benefits. In 1995, there were 1.26 million km of rail around the world. By 2016, the most recent year for which we have data, this rose to 1.33 million km.

China has emerged as a global leader in high-speed rail infrastructure, with plans to double its high-speed rail network over the next 15 years and expand access to all cities with populations over 200,000. The more cities that are connected, the greater value rail will have, providing long-term economic, environmental and social benefits for citizens.