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How improving road safety can help tackle climate change

The "Lively Sidewalks" project in Fortaleza, Brazil encourages pedestrians to avoid walking on the roads.

The "Lively Sidewalks" project in Fortaleza, Brazil encourages pedestrians to avoid walking on the roads. Image: Global Designing Cities Initiative.

Young Tae Kim
Secretary-General, International Transport Forum (ITF)
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Society and Equity

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Promoting active mobility is a core element of decarbonizing urban mobility.
  • But with more pedestrians and cyclists, we need to improve road safety.
  • There is a clear link between zero-emissions transport and zero-fatalities traffic.

Traffic is one of the worst killers known to humankind. Road crashes wipe out the equivalent of the population of Dallas, Prague or Tangier every year: over 1.3 million people. In low-income countries, they kill more people than tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS.

Climate change is a similarly underrated threat to human lives. Scientists predict with “high confidence” that its impacts “will significantly increase ill health and premature deaths”. The World Health Organization estimates that between 2030 and 2050, around 5 million people will lose their lives to climate-related health impacts. That does not even include future victims of floods, wildfires, storms and other effects of global warming.

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Transport produces around 25% of man-made carbon emissions. Three-quarters of those come from cars, vans, trucks and buses ‒ road traffic. Motorisation continues unabated: car registrations broke the 1 billion mark in 2017, and some projections see 2 billion cars on our roads by 2030. In China alone, 26 million cars were sold last year, up from 2 million in 2002. Electric vehicles (EVs) are selling well, but so are gas-guzzling SUVs, and they are eating up all the emissions reductions from EVs.

Tackling emissions from road vehicles

Without decarbonizing transport, there is no way we can keep global warming down to below 1.5C. Tackling emissions from road vehicles is a top task on the path to emissions-free mobility. Cars offer fantastic flexibility – they will long remain irreplaceable for many uses and users. Yet we have made ourselves overly dependent on them – and we haven’t fully confronted the negative costs of motorised individual mobility, including millions of road deaths and transport’s contribution to climate change.

Cities provide the test cases for moving in less carbon-intensive ways. Ideas like the “15-minute city” are gaining ground: avoid car trips by ensuring jobs, schools, shops, clinics, and other needs and opportunities are reachable on foot or by bicycle.

Increasing urban density is good for decarbonization because it means fewer and shorter trips. But high density can also make life more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. In the six cities of the ITF’s Safer City Streets network with more than 10,000 inhabitants per square kilometre, 81% of road fatalities between 2010-19 were vulnerable road users like pedestrians, cyclists or motorcyclists.

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How is the World Economic Forum promoting sustainable and inclusive mobility systems?

Behavioural shifts are linked to risk

The gigantic, involuntary mobility experiment unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic proved that city dwellers can be motivated to walk and cycle – but people play it safe. Parents will drive their kids if it is difficult or dangerous to walk to school. Commuters will not take a bicycle when the ride to work is risky and nerve-racking. Similarly, people took to sidewalks and pop-up cycle lanes en masse in 2020/21 primarily out of concern for their health, to avoid viruses.

This is an important lesson for policy-makers: you can shift trips from private cars to active mobility (walking and cycling) by making it a safe, stress-free experience.

Yet the numbers clearly show it is not. Where road safety has improved in past years, car occupants have benefited disproportionally. In 34 countries for which the International Transport Forum (ITF) has validated data, the number of people killed in crashes inside a car fell by 19% on average over the 2010-19 decade. Pedestrian deaths dropped by a mere 3% and cycling fatalities by a paltry 1%.

No trade-off between carbon-free and safe mobility

Tackling transport’s carbon dependency must go along with creating safe spaces for those travelling in low- and no-carbon ways. The good news is that there is no trade-off between carbon-free and safe mobility.

A new road safety indicator developed by ITF to assess how the crash risk for vulnerable road users evolves under different transport policies suggests that ambitious decarbonization efforts also benefit road safety: they mean fewer cars on the roads, lower speed limits, more public transport and better infrastructure for active mobility. So, roads would be much safer in, say, 2030 or 2040 than if today's policies remained in place – witness the large delta between the two trends in the chart.

What different decarbonization policies mean for traffic crash risk. Source: ITF.
What different decarbonization policies mean for traffic crash risk. Source: ITF

Yet our indicator (due to making its first appearance in the ITF Transport Outlook 2023) also flags that even with a strong push towards zero-carbon transport, the risk of collisions will still rise, simply because of the ever-increasing competition for road space in ever more populous cities. By 2030, exposure will be 60% higher than today on average globally; by 2040, it will have doubled.

Safer sustainable mobility

Climate action throughout the transport sector should ensure that sustainable mobility will be safer than today, not less so. There are terrific examples of how that can be done. In Brazil, the city of Fortaleza's "Lively Sidewalk" programme used cheap, standard materials – paint, benches, bollards and planters – to create pedestrian spaces where previously there were not even sidewalks. As a result, walking on the road fell by 92%.

Poland’s capital Warsaw halved traffic fatalities in the decade to 2020 with a strategic combination of national and local policy initiatives – reaching a target set by the United Nations. And with their own policy mix, Helsinki and Oslo reduced traffic fatalities among pedestrians or cyclists to zero in 2019 – thus proving that the goal to eliminate road deaths, known as “Vision Zero”, is not just a pipe dream but a realistic ambition.

Neither climate change nor the continuing carnage on the world’s roads will be easy to stop. But my dream is that the twin vision of zero-emissions mobility and zero-fatalities traffic will come true. We can get there quicker if we understand that both go together – and act on it, now.

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Institutional update

World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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