Over the last ten years, many cities in the United States have been experiencing a "back to the city" movement.  Younger and older generations alike are recognizing value in the diversity of social and cultural experiences, economic opportunities and increased quality of life that cities offer. As a result, more and more people across demographic lines are choosing to relocate to urban areas.  To accommodate this movement, local governments across the country are increasing service provision - be it infrastructure services, housing, public safety or recreational amenities - in order to meet increasing demands from a diverse group of constituents. As populations shift towards urban centers, many local governments are reexamining current transportation systems to determine how to accommodate a growing and socioeconomically diverse population, while seeking to minimize environmental pollution and urban congestion.   Within this context, sustainable transportation approaches, such as public transit and comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian networks, become a critical part of a city's growth strategy and its ability to effectively meet the needs of its residents.  

Sustainable transportation options can serve to attract and accommodate the varied needs and desires of urban residents, and are often part of a long-term strategy that includes the integration of various systems, both across geographies and modes of travel. A sustainable transportation system is one that allows the basic access and mobility needs of all individuals to be met safely; is affordable; provides multiple transport options and supports both public health and a vibrant economy; limits emissions; and minimizes consumption of non-renewable resources. Although personal vehicles can be part of a sustainable transportation system, there is an increased emphasis on public, non-motorized, and multi-modal transportation options.  

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This overview will discuss some of the opportunities and challenges associated with creating a sustainable, multi-modal transportation system.  It will provide a brief summary of sustainable transportation approaches within the global context as a means to understand how local governments across the world are thinking holistically about the environmental, economic, and social challenges of implementing transportation projects. The overview will also frame sustainable transportation within a local context, describing common elements of a sustainable transportation system, sustainability principles to keep in mind when planning for multi-modal, connected transportation systems and various strategies that local governments across the country are utilizing in order to ensure that they are meeting these sustainability principles.  Finally, the overview describes the local elected official's role in enabling a sustainable transportation system.  

Common Elements describes the main elements of municipal transportation systems:

  1. Streets
  2. Sidewalks/ Pedestrian Networks
  3. Transit
  4. Bicycle Routes
  5. Private Fleets
  6. Public Fleets

Transportation Challenges describes environmental, social and economic challenges associated with establishing a sustianable transportation network such as:

  1. Greenhouse gas emissions
  2. Fossil fuels
  3. Renewable energy
  4. Funding 
  5. Demand management
  6. Spatial mismatch
  7. Commuting costs
  8. Human health 
  9. Public safety and education

 Sustainability Principles include:

  1. Holistic transportation and land use planning
  2. Planning with the environment in mind
  3. Accessibility
  4. Affordability
  5. Connectivity

Sustainable Strategies include:

  1. Development around transit hubs
  2. Demand management
  3. Traffic calming
  4. High efficiency vehicles


Transportation is an arena where good local policy can achieve multiple goals simultaneously including lower household cost of living, lower traffic congestion, improved air quality, lower greenhouse gas emissions, compliance with federal clean air laws, and lower municipal service costs.

From an economic development perspective, the increased population density that can be directly associated with good transportation options promotes a more vital economy and interesting downtown serves existing residents, new jobs and the younger, educated workers to fill them. 

From a community development perspective, transportation options can both improve the quality life of residents and lower their cost of living. From a city budget perspective, innovative fleet management, public transit that reduces the number of vehicles on local roads, and other similar measures, can cut expenses while improving environmental performance.


In both developed and rapidly urbanizing countries, transportation exists at the foundation of any functioning city, providing mobility and access to jobs, amenities and resources.  As a result, transportation systems are a vital component of building sustainable cities, both domestically and globally. They also have a profound impact on both the global and local environment.

In the United States, motor vehicle transportation accounts for more than 27 percent of oil consumption, and produces one-third of all carbon dioxide emissions. The negative effects are well known:

  • Increased traffic congestion and commute times
  • Increased air pollution resulting in health problems such as asthma
  • Increased fuel consumption and greater reliance on foreign oil
  • Increased stormwater runoff from streets, bridges and parking areas

Globally, automobile use is on an upward trajectory.  According to the World Resource Institute, in 1950, 70 million cars, trucks and buses made up the global fleet; by 1994, 630 million vehicles (roughly 9 times the number in 1950) were on the roads.  If the rate of increase in motor vehicles remains consistent with the rates since 1970 (roughly 16 million vehicles/year), then we can expect that by the year 2025, there will be over 1 billion vehicles on the worlds' roads. The number of motor vehicles and car ownership per capita varies drastically by country; however, the United States still has one of the highest rates of motor vehicles per person (802 cars per 1,000 people as of 2009) in the world.  

Within this context, however, cities both within and outside of the United States are recognizing the need to provide a menu of transportation options to meet the varied needs of residents, while intentionally decreasing the environmental impact of transportation systems.  Using technology and innovation, cities are developing alternative solutions to increase transit use, improving mobility and accessibility for residents.  For example, bus rapid transit systems, first tested in Curitiba, Brazil, are gaining popularity in cities around the world, including the United States, China and India.  Bike share programs are not only popular in small and large cities across the United States, but also in Spain, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Mexico, China and the United Arab Emirates to name a few.  Similarly, cities in the United States, Europe, and Japan are utilizing intelligent transportation system technologies to improve travel efficiency and effectiveness through increased safety and decreased congestion.  For example, real-time bus and train information; variable speed limits based on congestion; and data integration of multiple transportation systems between jurisdictions are some examples of technologies meant to enhance user experience of multi-modal systems.

While local contexts vary and cities must determine for themselves how best to design and deliver transportation programs, cities across the world are sharing and learning from others' best practices. Given that the environmental impacts of transportation use are global, there is an increased recognition that providing smarter and more varied transportation options can reduce human impact on the environment while actively meeting the needs of city residents. 



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