Cars have been such a key part of our everyday and work lives for so long that it's hard to imagine a future where carless cities are the norm rather than the exception. But that future is fast approaching.

Over the past two years, COVID-19 has changed the way we work and live. That has given us an opportunity to re-think the way we move around our cities. This means choosing to prioritise public transport, walking, cycling, carpooling or ridesharing, and using cars only when it's really essential.

What's happening around the globe

The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns that emptied our roads and streets offered a unique glimpse into carless cities around the world.

Rush hour disappeared in Los Angeles, according to NRIX, a firm that analyses global traffic data, and 2020 saw the largest annual decline in global carbon dioxide emissions. In New Zealand, we had the second-largest drop in carbon dioxide emissions in the world, at 41% lower than in 20191.

Now, cities worldwide are reimagining how people get around, restricting where cars can go and redesigning streets to prioritise other uses, including public transport, shared spaces, and parks.

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In Barcelona, intersections are being replaced with playgrounds and road lanes are being converted to bicycle corridors. Amsterdam plans to remove over 11,000 parking spots by 2025, using the space for wider sidewalks, bike lanes, trees and bike parking. In Oslo, more than 1,000 car parking spaces are being replaced with parking lots for bikes. Brussels and Paris implemented a city-wide 30km speed limit in 2021.

Also in Paris, 50km of car lanes were turned into cycle lanes when COVID-19 hit — it was initially temporary but is now permanent. In London, 200 low-traffic neighbourhoods were introduced to make it safer to walk, cycle, or use public transport. And Portland created 100 miles of Slow Streets that are closed to pass-through traffic and open to people walking, playing, and biking.

1Nature Climate Change: Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement

The New Zealand context

In New Zealand, transport is the single biggest contributor to our individual carbon footprints. Since 1990, our emissions from transport have doubled. By shifting our focus to cleaner ways to move, we could significantly reduce our impact on the climate.

Cities in Aotearoa have been built largely with the private vehicle in mind. As those cities have grown, our roads and motorways have become increasingly congested. According to a report commissioned for the Employers and Manufacturers Association(external link) (EMA), traffic congestion in Auckland could be costing nearly $2 billion a year.

Research by Waka Kotahi shows that 78% of all commutes in New Zealand are by car and most of those have just one person in the car. Pollution from cars is linked to hundreds of thousands of deaths globally each year. And driving isn't great for our mental health either, with car commuters reporting(external link) the highest levels of stress.

There is work underway to create more space for people in our cities, starting with how we travel in, out, and around them.

In Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, the 2021 transport package(external link) is set to reduce emissions by 13% and increase public transport trips by 91%, thanks to initiatives like extending the Northern Busway and putting in more bus lanes, investment in walking and cycleways, and reduced fares for community services card holders.

The city is also trialling more shared spaces for the community, like the new Britomart plaza in downtown Auckland. And good progress is being made on the City Rail Link(external link) which, when it's fully operational in 2024, will double Auckland's rail capacity and transport 54,000 passengers an hour at peak times.

In Ōtautahi Christchurch, Waka Kotahi are working on adding bus lanes on highways and safer shared paths for walking and cycling. Over the past few years, 13 new cycleways have been built or are being built(external link) in the city, and the number of people who cycle to work has been growing steadily.

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A dedicated walking and cycling path in Christchurch

In Wellington, more than 30% of commutes(external link) are done by public transport, walking or cycling — the highest proportion in the country — and Wellington City Council has plans for that to grow. The Council recently released its bike network plan, Paneke Pōneke, which will create 166km of connections across the city for people riding bikes, scooters and skateboards. Work is also underway to improve rail links to the Wairarapa and Palmerston North, to give people easier, less stressful, and cleaner ways to get to town.

Queenstown has had a flat fee of $2 for local bus fares since 2017 to encourage public transport use. More recently, 80kms of cycleways have been announced(external link) to connect key communities across Queenstown and make it easier for people to walk, bike or scooter to work.

New Zealand's first Emissions Reduction Plan is set to be released in May 2022, which will set the direction for climate action for the next 15 years. That plan will include projects to reduce our emissions from transport and promote cleaner ways to travel around our cities, and country.

Looking to the future

More and more, we're realising the impact that our cars have on climate change, but sometimes it's hard to make the changes we need to. Choosing a cleaner way of getting to work is a great place to start. It's a trip most of us take several times a week, often alone, and mostly in petrol or diesel fuelled cars — which can be slow-going, stressful, and expensive.

With our population growing all the time, re-thinking the way we design urban spaces and the ways we travel within them is the only way we can have a really significant impact on our transport emissions. Forget car-centric cities – instead prioritise people, green spaces, and clean transport modes to build communities that are connected and resilient to climate change.

Choose a cleaner trip

Transport makes up nearly half of Aotearoa New Zealand's energy-related emissions, and transport emissions have doubled since 1990.

Our latest campaign calls on Kiwis to use clean transport — a huge opportunity in tackling climate change.

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