Cities, cars and setting greener standards

+ Cities with green goals should incentivise the move from car ownership to car-as-a-service.

In an era characterised by ever more flexible access to personal transport, I believe cities should set key performance indicators (KPI) and economic incentives to reduce the total number of cars within their municipal territory. This would make space for public use and improve cities’ green areas in general.

I live in Copenhagen and I don’t own a car, as I mostly move around the city by bike or public transport. When I need a car, I either rent one from a private car sharing platform such as SnappCar or GoMore, or I use one of the new car-as-a-service (CaaS) companies such as Car2go or DriveNow. It is clearly more cost-effective for my family to adopt CaaS and not continue with the car ownership model.

This transition would create the possibility of communal green benefits. As more cars are shared, fewer will be needed overall and the less city space they will occupy. Google calculated recently that in the US, if the use of cars could be optimised in this way the population’s driving needs could be served by just ten million self-driving cars. In this scenario cities will gain opportunities to convert urban spaces currently used for car parking into hard landscaped areas or public parks for the whole community. 

The city of Frederiksberg, located within the municipality of Copenhagen, has adopted a policy that everybody must be able to see at least one tree from wherever they live. If other municipalities were to commit to meet this requirement, one KPI they could give themselves is to reduce the total number of privately owned cars, every year, freeing up space for trees.

Financial inducements will be key to achieving this, but cities make strategic investments and divestments all the time. The city of Copenhagen has recently sold its stake in shipping giant Maersk due to concerns about the company’s environmental impact. If municipalities are allowed to invest or partner with private companies, shouldn’t they actively partner and support organisations that can better help them meet their environmental goals? 

In the past national governments have often introduced incentives for purchasing new cars. Sometimes this is aimed at lowering the average age of the fleet, so as to reduce pollution; in other cases purchaser incentives are there to support the growth of the car industry and protect jobs. These interventions give a consumer a direct financial inducement to buy and own another vehicle. 

But forward-looking cities could just as easily offer incentives for car owners to get rid of their cars, provided they undertook not to buy a replacement. Incentives could take the form of credit with one of the many CaaS companies or free/cheaper travel cards for public transit networks. 

Of course personal logistical needs vary greatly, but I would argue that setting a lowering-car-ownership KPI and targeting incentives to encourage use of CaaS and public transport could greatly reduce the number of cars on our streets, promote car and ride sharing and allow cities’ green areas and public spaces to flourish.