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IEA report finds “avoid, shift and improve” policies for urban transport could deliver up to $70T in savings through 2050

Expected urban private motorized travel (in passenger kilometers). Source: IEA. Click to enlarge.

Policies that improve the energy efficiency of urban transport systems could help save as much as US$70 trillion in spending on vehicles, fuel and transportation infrastructure between now and 2050, according to a recently released report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Among the three broad categories of policies recommended in the report and policy guide, “A Tale of Renewed Cities”, are those that allow travel to be avoided; those that shift travel to more efficient modes; and those that improve the efficiency of vehicle and fuel technologies. The report notes that if fully implemented across the transportation sector, this “avoid, shift and improve” approach could deliver the up to US$70 trillion in savings.

  • “Avoid” policies address transport energy use and emissions by slowing travel growth via city planning and travel demand management. “Avoid” policies also include initiatives such as virtual mobility programs (e.g. tele-working) and implementation of logistics technology.

  • Shift” policies enable and encourage movements from motorized travel to more energy efficient modes, such as public transit, walking, cycling and freight rail. For example, increases in affordable, frequent and seamless public transport can alleviate local congestion while improving access and travel time to destinations and reducing household expenses on travel.

  • “Improve” policies can reduce energy consumption and emissions of all travel modes through the introduction of efficient fuels and vehicles. “Improve” policies include tightened fuel-economy standards and increased advanced-vehicle technology sales (e.g. clean diesel trucks and hybrid and plug-in electric cars).

Transport currently accounts for half of global oil consumption and nearly 20% of world energy use, of which approximately 40% is used in urban transport alone.
More than half of the world’s population already lives in cities, many of which suffer from traffic jams and overcrowded roads that cost hundreds of billions of dollars in lost fuel and time and that harm environmental quality, health and safety.
The share of the world’s urban population is expected to grow to nearly 70% by 2050. The IEA expects urban transport energy consumption to double by 2050, despite ongoing vehicle technology and fuel-economy improvements.

The report defines urban transport energy efficiency as the maximization of travel activity with minimal energy consumption through combinations of land-use planning, transport modal share, energy intensity and fuel type.

Determining which policies to put in place to improve the energy efficiency of an urban transport system first depends on the city context and its immediate transport needs, the report says. This policy pathway outlines four categories of urban transport system contexts: developing, sprawling, congested and multi-modal cities.

  • Developing cities are experiencing increasing demand for transport services and rapid growth in private motorization. They frequently have relatively low densities, inadequate travel infrastructure and are often characterized by weak public transit services.

    Target policies include regulations that discourage or penalize sprawling development (e.g. minimum density thresholds); land-use initiatives that prioritize dense urban cores (e.g. transit-oriented development); transport infrastructure development (e.g. dedicated spaces for pedestrians and public transit networks, increased service quality and frequency of public transport); and removal of fuel subsidies and implementation of vehicle registration fees.

  • Sprawling cities tend to have low densities and high urban and suburban sprawl. They often have weakly-defined urban cores with commercial and business hubs spread intermittently throughout the urban and metropolitan areas.

    Increasing density is one approach to increasing efficiency. This generally requires years of planning and development, the report notes, with policies that discourage sprawl and encourage densification.

    These policies can include travel demand management programs, such as parking reform and road pricing, as well as tools that focus on improving transport and travel flow (e.g. advanced traffic signal control and buyer incentives for alternative vehicle technologies).

  • Congested cities have medium to high densities and strong urban cores, although urban sprawl may exist in surrounding metropolitan areas. Policies that discourage vehicle ownership (e.g. vehicle quotas and vehicle registration taxes) and private motorized travel (e.g. road pricing and parking fees) can help to reduce or stabilise increasing traffic levels.

    Improved travel management technologies, such as advance traffic signalisation and real-time travel information, can also help to improve mobility and system flow.

    Medium- to long-term policies include transport system development and an improved land-use transport interface. In the shorter term, policies and programs that respond to existing gaps in travel networks can help to improve passenger travel and encourage shifts away from private motorized vehicles.

  • Multi-modal cities have high densities, strong urban cores, and high public transit and non-modal transport shares. Multi-modal cities generally have strongly interconnected, well-developed travel networks, which facilitate and encourage more efficient travel.

    Travel demand management policies are particularly useful in multi-modal cities to maintain or improve travel shares by more efficient transport modes.

The report draws on examples from more than 30 cities across the globe to show how to improve transport efficiency through better urban planning and travel demand management. Extra benefits include lower greenhouse-gas emissions and higher quality of life.

The report offers three case studies—Belgrade, Seoul and New York City—to show how those cities have already improved their transport systems. It notes, for example, that within the first six months of refurbishing its urban rail system, Belgrade tripled passenger levels. When Seoul pushed through reforms that no longer rewarded bus operators for carrying more people, ridership, speed and safety all increased. And New York City shaved 11 minutes off travel times within a year of introducing express bus services, while at the same time attracting more passengers.

A Tale of Renewed Cities, which was supported by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, sets forth a pathway outlining the essential steps and milestones for policy development and implementation to transform cities by improving urban transport systems.

The IEA policy pathway also analyzes barriers to improving urban transport energy efficiency and the key polices (including interventions and measures) to overcome them. Barriers include policy and market failures; lack of access to financing; and other barriers such as political resistance, administrative and legal barriers, public opposition, physical constraints, and institutional, capacity and jurisdictional issues.

The final section of the report sets out ten detailed steps for supporting the development, financing, implementation and evaluation of policies to improve the energy efficiency of urban transport systems.

To assist planners and policy makers in addressing many common issues and challenges, the pathway also provides a list of policy references and practitioner’s guides that are noted throughout the report and on the IEA Policy Pathway Series webpage.


Trevor Carlson

Maybe I missed it, but it seems they missed a major opportunity for time and energy savings through the adoption or conversion of busy intersections into roundabouts. Less idle time, greater traffic throughput=less congestion=better fuel economy=less emissions.
They're also proven to be safer in part because the perceived danger increases drivers alertness and awareness of their surroundings while decreasing the opportunities for collisions from opposing directions.


Unfortunately, the big factor that many of these pro-transit, pro-energy-reduction, pro-savings, and often anti-sprawl/anti-car (or at least reduction) articles seem to miss is that they do not indicate whether they actually lead to the fundamental ingredients for a better society - that is highly-productive, highly-valuable, choice-positive working people and businesses. Where are the indicators of increased growth, increased consumption, increased technology, increased employment, increased opportunity, and higher levels of productivity? It is easy to say that so many $billions are lost in commutes on clogged roads - but are they? Most highly productive individual drivers often are hands-free dealing and optimizing their meeting locations when they plan their driving - often missing the worst road parts as they modify commuting hours - highly flexible and highly adaptable. It seems that the only people truly 'wasting' their time are cyclists and transit users unable to talk or work while in transit. Of course, a well-balanced society allows the widespread freedom to choose any option and hopefully each user balances their uses and optimizes their time commuting. When did 'do less, save more, and spend less' ever lead to a society or even community that was worth living in - short of a retirement community, i guess. Does anyone not wonder why these decades and even generations of energy-reduction and sustainability preaching has come to little success? Because retreating is not how you succeed in your goals or ensure fulfillment, ever. So, can we have plans that promote growth and success not reduce and conserve.



Public transport shall compete with private one by adding values not taking away from customers. Those values are departure and destination selection freedom and travel speed. I think there are answers on the ground but main problem is that public transport development is totaly in hands of city planing burocrats and politicans which are not risk takers. No risk and no reward.
May be Musk will make shift on intercity travel field by developing hyperloop which simply was abandoned for many decades. Inside towns there are long pending PRT solutions which developed enough already but simply not accepted by public and public servants.


Housing developers, in many areas have to install all 'public' services (street, sidewalks, parks, trees, underground cables, water, sewage etc) per city standards and charge their customers/buyers.

Society could go one step further and force developers to build appropriate e-trains services (or extensions) to link new developments to adjacent city core?

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