Zero-Based Mobility Policy: Three Bold Strategic Directions for the Mid-21st Century

Thursday, May 19, 2022

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By John Howe, Thought Leader and Strategy Advisor, Wood

COVID-19 unleashed a series of unprecedented rapid changes to how Canadians live, work, and move around. How should transportation decision-makers keep pace with – or help shape – these major transformations? Does Canada need a transportation policy refresh or reset to evolve as a post pandemic nation that is more sustainable, resilient, and equitable than before?

Some of the leading indicators of mobility demand and preference that are setting the stage for the New Normal in transportation include:

  • Decline of the traditional AM and PM peak-period weekday commute: If employers continue to enable hybrid and remote work, commuting patterns will become more dispersed across the typical work week.
  • Accelerated out-migration to the exurbs and rural communities: Millennials in search of affordable family-friendly homes in a tightening housing market – and enabled by hybrid work – are motivated to resettle beyond the outer suburbs. 
  • Transit ridership and revenues struggle to come back: Unlike automobile travel, which returned to pre-pandemic levels as early as summer 2020, the best-performing urban transit systems in Canada have recaptured only 60% of previous ridership as of early 2022.
  • Rising popularity of walking, cycling, and micro mobility: People continue to seek socially distanced open spaces for physical activity and transportation alternatives to crowded or downgraded transit services.
  • Disruption to international supply chains and the resultant inflationary pressures, brought on by rapid resurgence of demand for consumer goods and the accelerated market shift to e-commerce.

These and other unprecedented changes to our demographic, economic, and mobility patterns underscore the importance of even stronger alignment between transportation policy and wider economic, environmental and equity outcomes. Current municipal transportation master plans typically carry a long-term planning horizon to 2030 or 2040, but most were conceptualized before the pandemic and its transformative effects.

How should decision-makers and planners transition in 2022 with greater agility, to keep pace with or lead the transformation in the mobility marketplace? A starting point is to implement a Zero-Based Transportation Policy Framework with three key strategic directions focused on:

  • Net-Zero Emissions Mobility – Decarbonization of mobility
  • Vision Zero Road Safety – No fatalities on public roads
  • No One Left Behind – Universal basic mobility

Zero-Based Transportation Policy Framework


1. Net-Zero Mobility Emissions Strategy

Many Canadian municipalities are already following the lead of the federal government and jurisdictions around the world to formally adopt variations of a net-zero emissions or decarbonization target by year 2050 or sooner. For Canada to achieve its 2050 climate action goals, a stronger transportation policy response and instruments will be required because:

  • Mobility accounts for 25% of total national greenhouse gas emissions (1).
  • Mobility-related greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector grew by 54% over the last 20 years.
  • Post-pandemic mobility could see an even greater reliance on personal mobility.

With the growing dominance of personal mobility, accelerating decarbonization of the motor vehicle fleet is crucial to achieving Canada’s 2050 Climate Action target.

In 2021, the Canadian federal government set a flagship policy goal for 100% of new passenger vehicle sales to be zero-emission by 2035. Factor in vehicle end-of-lifecycle turnover, and close to 100% of the entire nationwide passenger fleet could be battery-electric powered by 2050.   

EV sales are predicted to accelerate as automakers bring a wider selection of desirable family-friendly utility vehicles and light trucks to market, batteries continue to drop in price while delivering longer driving range, and gas prices continue to escalate.

Achieving net-zero mobility for personal and light fleet vehicles

How can Canadian governments at all three levels leverage net-zero best practices of other jurisdictions that are approaching or have exceeded the 50% EV sales threshold to achieve net-zero mobility? Common best practices include:

Federal and provincial policy

  • Offering a 50% to 100% increase in new EV purchase rebates for consumers
  • Developing a nationwide EV charging network
  • Implementing a National Industrial Policy to be a sustainable, end-to-end producer and supplier of EV’s and batteries – including recycling and reuse

Provincial policy

  • Implementing a progressive registration fee structure for fossil fuel vehicles that is escalated according to a vehicle’s performance metrics such as annual or lifecycle carbon footprint and annual vehicle km’s driven
  • Holding an EV registration fee holiday
  • Developing EV-only express/premium highway lanes

Municipal policy

  • Developing a citywide on-street EV charging network
  • Creating EV-only designated zones such as the Central Business District, urban heritage and cultural areas, and recreational attractions
  • Having EV priority parking and discount parking

2. Vision Zero Safe Mobility Strategy

More than 1,700 Canadians, including 160 children, are killed every year in motor vehicle collisions (2). In absolute, per capita and per vehicle-km terms, this trendline has progressed incrementally downward over the last four decades. However, in recent years spikes in road deaths and injuries are catching policymakers by surprise and reinforcing the alignment to a Vision Zero Safe Mobility strategy to achieve a goal of no fatalities on public roads.

What is Vision Zero?

Vision Zero global best practices target improvement in and aim for greater safety in road design, vehicle design, speed limits, post-crash medical care and human behavior – with the end goal of zero deaths or serious injuries from road crashes.

The City of Edmonton, recognizing the need to reduce traffic-related fatalities, serious injuries, and the related societal costs, was the first Canadian municipality to formally adopt a Vision Zero strategy in 2015. Since then, at least 14 Canadian municipal and two provincial jurisdictions have adopted a Vision Zero or comparable foundational pillar into their transportation master plans. A next step implementation challenge is transparent high-visibility performance dashboard to communicate progress and underscore the collision hotspots that require the right combination of education, enforcement and engineering counter measures.

Government support

Many municipalities welcome leadership from the Canadian federal government to implement Vision Zero policy initiatives, as a major policy platform.

A stronger degree of urgency will be required if Canada is to keep pace with the US national-level road safety policy and resource mobilization – and let alone with the trendsetting jurisdictions such as Sweden, France, Netherlands, Norway, Scotland, and New Zealand who have set a Vision Zero target for 2050 or earlier.

Best practices to Vision Zero, as outlined in Edmonton’s plan include establishing a 10-year strategic plan that will identify dangerous streets and intersections and establish with appropriate counter measures to eliminate or reduce the contributing causes of crashes.

Advancing thriving cities for our future will require ambitious Vision Zero safe mobility targets that provincial and municipal progress towards a road mobility system free of death and serious injuries through a shared mission, and supporting research collaboration and investments.

3. “No One Left Behind” Universal Basic Mobility Strategy

A third starting point for a new direction is the mobility consumer or customer. In this approach, mobility begins with the principle of equitable access to opportunity as a personal financial issue. Universal Basic Mobility (UBM) is a new concept that guarantees everyone, regardless of ability, age and income, access to a baseline level of non-car ownership alternatives, chiefly public transit, ride hail and bike share services.

With approximately 30% of Canadians who by personal choice or economic circumstances do not have access to personal vehicles, UBM can be enshrined in a Mobility Charter or Mobility Bill of Rights guidance document, and operationalized in a prepaid mobility fare card, debit card or payment app issued to eligible customers. UMB policies provide benefits to urban populations who are more likely to not own a personal vehicle in addition to reducing higher vehicle expenses for rural Canadians who travel longer distances.

The scope and financial cost of UBM, which would be piloted or implemented at a community, municipal or regional scale, require continued evaluation against the benefits of mobility freedom brings by unlocking previously inaccessible jobs and wider economic, social, and personal well-being benefits.

Final thoughts

A Zero-Based Mobility Policy Framework, consisting of net-zero emission mobility, vision zero road safety and no one left behind, is a good start for transforming mobility for Canadians. There is still a long way to go to complete mobility sustainability and resilience, but policy change and stakeholder onboarding is a marathon, not a sprint.

Our rapid transition from fossil fuel to electric vehicles over the next 15 years is key to achieving the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, but it perpetuates our antiquated last-century growth model of car centric, land consumptive, suburban and exurban sprawl. In addition, there is still work to be done to improve the safety and accessibility of our roads for all Canadians.

This introduces a fourth 21st century “zero” strategy which Wood will continue to investigate: mobility policy, plans and investment aimed at accommodating population and economic growth tackling these goals of achieving reduced transport emissions, increased safety and mobility strategies that are inclusive and affordable to all Canadians. This policy brings together the complete circle of sustainable mobility for Canadians and is key in unlocking transformation in all areas of zero-based mobility, leaving a more sustainable, livable world for all.

(1) Environment and Climate Change Canada data
(2) Transport Canada data

John Howe is Thought Leader and Strategy Advisor for Integrated Mobility Solutions at Wood. For a deeper dive into Zero-Based Mobility Policy and its four strategic directions, please contact John at

Wood is a global leader in consulting and engineering across energy and the built environment, helping to unlock solutions to some of the world’s most critical challenges. It provides consulting, projects and operations solutions in more than 60 countries, employing around 40,000 people.

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