Transportation is the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States, and passenger cars, SUVs, and light-duty trucks account for more than half of all transportation emissions. If you want to reduce your climate impact, this can present a dilemma. Walking, biking, and public transportation are the most climate-friendly ways to get around, but cars rule the roads in most of the nation. So ditching your car might not seem realistic.
“It’s a really entrenched problem that’s really hard to get out of. We built all of these roads and highways and then basically made them the default option,” said Alexa Sledge, the associate director of communications at Transportation Alternatives, a New York City-based nonprofit. “It’s most likely not your fault that you rely on a car and highways to get to work.”
But even if you can’t single-handedly transform the U.S. transportation system, there are many steps you can take to help build a future where walking, biking, and riding mass transit are viable — and popular — options in your own community. Though this change can’t occur overnight, it is possible to make a difference over time.
“When we make it quick, easy, cheap, fun to do these things, people will pick them over cars,” said Sledge.
Learn more about transportation opportunities and challenges in your city
As the executive director of the nonprofit National Organizations for Youth Safety, Jacob Smith works on issues of road safety with marginalized young people — a group that is particularly affected by road crashes. He believes that to make a difference on transportation, you need to start by reflecting on your own mobility patterns — how you get around and what factors influence this — and learning about those of others.
“The first step is just getting to know your community and surroundings. Where’s the nearest grocery store if someone’s walking? Where’s the nearest human services [center] where families go that are taking the bus?” he said.
Talking to people who use different forms of transportation about what works well and what doesn’t is also important, Smith believes. “We have to create a mindset of, what are the alternatives that other people are required to experience?”
These discussions can be eye-opening, according to Meg Fencil, the director of engagement and impact at Sustain Charlotte, a nonprofit focused on Charlotte, North Carolina. Her organization uses a tool called a walkability audit to gauge how pedestrian-friendly different neighborhoods are, often involving local community members in the process — and giving them the chance to learn from one another. “It’s really fascinating for the people that do mostly drive around their own neighborhood to see from the perspective of that person that doesn’t drive,” she said.
Experiment with different ways of getting around
If you typically drive to meet your daily needs, experimenting with walking, cycling, and taking public transportation is a good way to learn more about what’s working and what’s not in your local transportation system. It can also serve as a form of advocacy in and of itself, providing an example for others.
If you’re interested in testing out a cycle commute to work, Fencil advised seeking out low-hanging fruit such as trying a promising bike route on days such as Sundays, when traffic is relatively light — ideally bringing a friend who’s a confident cyclist along for support.
The same logic applies to trying out public transportation, she said. Taking a few test runs on the bus before committing to a full commute day can help calm anxieties about how to manage things like buying tickets and making transfers.
Kendra Ramsey, the executive director of CalBike, a statewide bicycle advocacy organization in California, advises the cycling-curious to seek out local groups that help people learn how to safely bike for transportation. “Where I live, the city puts on a course every few months for people that are trying to get into [bike] commuting, to help them with these skills,” she said.
At some schools, parents organize bike buses to promote cycling in their communities and help children learn to bike safely. On designated days, children from certain schools meet at a designated location and bike to school together (with adult supervision). “Making that a fun and great option for kids is a way to be that change, and also just showing people that [biking] is safe,” said Transportation Alternatives’s Sledge.
Online resources such as these urban cycling safety tips from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public can also provide helpful information for getting started on a bike.
Drive with non-drivers in mind
When driving, you can help make the roads more welcoming to non-car traffic by going slowly, choosing a small vehicle, and paying close attention to bikers and pedestrians.
Fear of cars is a major barrier to getting people out of their cars. For a study published in the journal Transport Reviews in 2022, researchers set out to understand why relatively few people in the United States and similar countries get around by bike, given the substantial health and environmental benefits of cycling. Analyzing 45 reports discussing reasons that people choose not to bike, the authors found that the top barrier to cycling was a reluctance to “[ride] on the road alongside motor vehicles.” Specifically, they cited fear of motorist aggression, perceived risk of injury, and high traffic density
These fears are justified. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, road crashes are the leading cause of death for young people globally, and more than half of the individuals killed are pedestrians, cyclists, or motorcyclists. In the US, cyclist and pedestrian fatalities have risen in recent years. And though bicycle trips make up only 1% of all journeys in the U.S., cyclists account for more than 2% of people killed in crashes.
You can minimize the risk to pedestrians and bikers in your community by considering your own driving habits. Driving slowly is part of the solution. Research has shown that when pedestrians are struck by cars, vehicle speed affects their chances of survival. One report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that at 23 miles per hour, pedestrians face a 10% risk of death, while at 42 miles per hour, this rises to 50%.
Driving a small car can also help, as large, heavy vehicles pose greater risks for walkers and cyclists. A 2021 paper in the journal Economics of Transportation estimated that pedestrian fatalities increased by 1,110 between 2000 and 2019 due to the rising popularity of SUVs.
Find and support others working on these issues locally
Plugging into local networks can provide opportunities to learn from others with deep knowledge of transportation issues and get involved in ongoing projects.
“We’re really encouraging people to figure out who else is working on [walkability] locally and seeing where they can weigh in and help,” said Mike McGinn, the executive director of national nonprofit America Walks and a former mayor of Seattle. “I will bet you there’s somebody in the community doing the work. And if there’s no one, give us a call [at America Walks] — we’ll talk to you about what you can do to get started on your own.”
McGinn noted that since transportation is closely linked to many other issues, groups focusing on topics like urban planning, housing, and equity can also offer valuable ways to contribute.
Pay attention to politics
For CalBike’s Ramsey, one of the most important things you can do to improve mobility options is vote. “Understanding what the priorities are for folks running for office, asking questions, and holding them accountable for actually investing in the transportation infrastructure for bicycling, for walking, high-quality transit … that’s a critical, critical step,” she said.
Communicating with current policymakers is also important. McGinn said that his years in the Seattle government taught him that policymakers need to hear directly from people who want to prioritize transportation options other than cars.
“A lot of elected officials seem to believe — because the voices are often quite loud — that people that are driving represent the majority sentiment in the community,” he said. “So when they hear complaints about lower speed limits or a safety redesign of a street or a bus-only lane or a bike lane, those public officials hesitate to make the change they should make. It is just critically important for the supporters to be showing up as well.”
Communicate about sustainable transportation
Not everyone has time to volunteer with local organizations or go to city council meetings — and that’s OK, McGinn said. Simple actions such as talking to neighbors about the importance of walking, biking, and public transportation or speaking up on social media about changes you’d like to see in your community’s transportation system are also important.
Even something as basic as thinking carefully about the language used to discuss different mobility options can help spread important ideas. “I actually don’t like the term ‘alternative transportation,’ because to me that suggests that walking, biking, and using public transportation are somehow outside the norm of the way that folks should get around their community,” said Sustain Charlotte’s Meg Fencil.
Being deliberate about language and messaging is particularly important in a society where people grow up surrounded by cars, making auto-centric transportation seem both natural and inevitable. At the National Organizations for Youth Safety, one of Jacob Smith’s priorities is to help people see beyond this framing.
“We have to actively build the consciousness of young people to understand that they can re-imagine what their transportation system looks like — and they can envision what a future looks like that’s not dependent upon cars,” he said.