LEIPZIG, Germany — In the center of this city of around 600,000, cars seem to be an afterthought. Some streets don’t allow them at all, and others have various lanes dedicated to mostly electric tram and bus lines stretching more than 130 miles, in every direction. Cyclists whiz by fear-free on pedestrianized streets lined with outdoor dining tables and bike racks instead of parked cars. A 49 Euro monthly transit pass works countrywide.
Boston, this is not.
If the world is going to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, cities are going to have to look more like Leipzig, a city with a similar population to Boston, according to findings from a new report released Wednesday at the International Transport Forum, an annual gathering of transportation leaders.
In the report, researchers urge governments to discourage driving and improve public transit, biking, walking, and car sharing, and to electrify all modes of transportation, including freight, as soon as possible. Instead of simply meeting existing and future transportation demand, governments are urged to make transportation investments to quicken emissions reductions.
By these standards, the Boston area is in many ways trending in the wrong direction. Instead of increasing rapid transit service to entice people away from cars, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority cut subway frequency by more than 20 percent last June and still has not restored pre-pandemic service levels. Similarly, the state agency has cut bus service repeatedly over the last year and a half and continues to routinely cancel scheduled trips because it doesn’t have enough drivers, falling behind similar large US transit agencies.
In Massachusetts, the car is still king. Around 60 percent of workers 16 or older got to work by driving alone in 2021, representing the most popular commuting mode, according to the most recent census’ American Community Survey one-year estimate.
In Boston, nearly a third of workers got to work driving solo. The next most popular mode was public transit, which around 18 percent of people used, according to the census, while around 12 percent walked to work, around 3 percent used other means, and around 30 percent were still working from home.
And most cars on the road are powered by gasoline. Massachusetts is still hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles short of its goal of getting 300,000 on the road by 2025. Limits on diesel vehicle use in cities, long ago implemented in European cities like Leipzig, and pricing measures to reduce congestion have been discussed for years in Massachusetts, but never implemented.
Transit advocates in Massachusetts have long been pushing for improved public transit service statewide and electrification of the commuter rail system in addition to personal vehicle electrification goals. So far, there are no state requirements for improved transit service or commuter rail electrification.
“Our priorities are really all screwed up to how we’re approaching the topic of decarbonization in Massachusetts,” said Jim Aloisi, a former state transportation secretary who serves on the board of the advocacy group TransitMatters. Reducing driving and increasing more sustainable modes like public transit, walking, and biking “gets you a quicker reduction of carbon emissions than keeping your fingers crossed and hoping we’re going to transition everyone to an EV.”
Transportation is responsible for roughly 23 percent of the world’s energy-related carbon emissions, the new report said, “making it a critical focus area for decarbonization.” But researchers for ITF, which is part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a forum of 38 countries, found that continuing on the transportation sector’s current path will not result in carbon emissions reductions in line with a key international climate accord. Significant reductions will only be possible by more aggressively discouraging driving, improving more sustainable modes, and electrifying, the report said.
”Without decisive action, the transport sector will continue to contribute significantly to the world’s CO2 emissions,” the report said. “The need to break the link between emissions and transport activities is increasingly urgent.”
The report reviewed a business-as-usual scenario for the transportation sector — which includes existing and soon-to-be-implemented policies like road pricing, public transit system expansions and improved service, speed limit reductions, and increased density — and a scenario representing bolder and more quickly implemented policies. The more ambitious one produces emissions reductions in line with the Paris Climate Agreement, while the status quo doesn’t.
The more ambitious scenario paints a picture similar to Leipzig, where retractable barriers keep cars off streets in the city center, which is shockingly quiet but full of life. Locals can be overheard chatting over currywurst and fries at standing tables toward the end of the workday while shoppers pick up last-minute produce items from the farmers market in a large car-free plaza nearby.
In the more ambitious scenario, car ownership worldwide decreases by as much as 8 percent, public transit service levels increase by as much as 17 percent, and by 2030, 100 percent of new bus sales in high-income regions, including the United States, are zero-emission vehicles.
Robin Chase, an international transportation policy adviser and cofounder of Zipcar, who lives in Cambridge, said she has been encouraged by Boston’s recent efforts to build more protected bike lanes, but said the state needs to do more to fund, expand, and maintain MBTA service.
“As long as we continue to encourage driving over other modes in terms of quality, it will be hard for people to switch,” she said in Leipzig. “You need to make all the other options as easy and convenient as we’ve made driving.”
The MBTA, for its part, has made riding its buses and trains more difficult amid staffing shortages and widespread slow zones.
The agency may be off track to meet its state mandate to stop buying fossil-fuel-powered buses by Dec. 31, 2030. The agency is unlikely to meet its interim bus electrification goal for 2028, requiring one-third of the fleet to be electric, as projects aimed at buying hundreds of battery-electric buses and rebuilding or retrofitting garages to charge the buses are delayed.
The T is actually further away from meeting its bus electrification goal now than it was about a year ago.
The agency replaced its electric trolley-buses operating in and around Cambridge with diesel hybrid buses in March of last year, promising to soon replace them with battery-electric buses. The T now says it expects the replacements to arrive in 2025, at least a year behind schedule.