In 1950, only a third of the world’s population lived in cities. Today, it’s more than half, and by 2050 it will be two-thirds. Rapid urbanization is forcing city planners to rethink how people travel from A to B.

Last year, an illuminating gif showing the impact of cars in a city environment went viral online. Depicting Seattle’s 2nd Avenue, the first frame shows the street packed with 200 people in 177 cars, then in the next frame removes the cars, revealing that inside each vehicle there is rarely more than one commuter. The space lost to cars is incredible. Placing the same number of people on bicycles or public transport would reduce the five-lane occupation down to one.

 Image 1
Image: Washington Post

As the Washington Post points out, this is the first attempt to visualize the benefits of alternative transport. As another article puts it: “In cities, urban space is the ultimate currency.”

Few cars means cleaner air, less noise, more money

Not surprisingly, reducing the amount of traffic in an urban space would also have a substantial impact on the local air and noise pollution. Early last year, Paris held a day without cars. Widely publicized, the city had in fact only banned about 30% of urban space, but the impact was enormous. Air pollution levels dropped by 40% along the Seine River, while the Place de l’Opera saw a 20% reduction. Sound levels dropped by half.

In December, Rome and Milan banned cars briefly to reduce smog levels.

For some cities, cleaning up traffic carries a financial incentive. One study has shown that, in the built-up Lima-Callao region of Peru, cost-effective investments in the transport sector could generate as much as $1.1 billion in annual energy savings.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

Banning cars altogether may not be a realistic option for major cities, but numerous initiatives around the world have begun to curb the seemingly uncontrollable numbers. Many cities have introduced congestion charges, where commuters have to pay a fee to use their vehicle within designated zones. Other cities, such as Madrid, Helsinki and Copenhagen, have introduced pedestrian zones to reduce the number of streets available for commuting.

Creating alternatives for commuters is key, however. London has introduced a series of cycle superhighways in an attempt to encourage bicycle use. Some of the most ambitious solutions are from China, including the proposed straddling bus, which would transport commuters literally over those in cars.