We were told that mobility is about individuals, freedom and social status. It’s not. Why we move ourselves and goods around, how we do it, who does it, and how often — all of this reflects broad societal choices that weren’t always made considering long term consequences. Now, if there’s one thing that COVID reminded us is that things can change quickly and now is the once in a generation opportunity to make our societies and our mobility more resilient. 

As a society we see mobility as something individual and related to freedom and social status — all thanks to the car, the oil and the marketing industry, as well as some politicians for thinking and living this way (this is ironic).

But let’s ask ourselves: where is the freedom when we are actually reliant on a polluting car to access a lot of services spread all over the place? Where is it when our kids can’t play outside or get to school by walking and cycling because it’s too dangerous, or when they grow up breathing unhealthy air into their lungs and bodies? Where is our individuality when everyone gets sold the same SUV model or the same low-cost airline ticket fueling the cash machine of polluting industries? Why are our holidays bound to a flying industry that shows no respect for the climate, society, or workers? What kind of “social status” do we get when higher purchase power allows us to consume more and bigger mobility that further erodes the most essential common good — our environment and a liveable climate on earth?

A woman wears a mouth and nose protection mask in public transport.
© Daniel Müller / Greenpeace

Today, we consume mobility as never before (exceptions made of the big COVID disruption) and these modern mobility consumption patterns play a big role in wreaking havoc on our planet. But not everyone moves the same. Those of us who have more purchase power move around A LOT, disproportionately impacting the climate in a negative way. Yet, the result is however the same for everyone: climate change is fuelled by exhaust pipe, air pollution keeps causing diseases and premature deaths, people die or are injured for life because of car accidents, communities are divided by roads, and we bury land and biodiversity under concrete making our environment a lot warmer (ask people spending heat waves in cities!).

More than individual changes, we want a system change!

A bike ride for the Clean Air Now campaign is organized on a highway in Berlin closed on Sunday.
© Ruben Neugebauer / Greenpeace

Greenpeace has led an active campaign on air pollution and mobility since 2017, creating a vital and often heated debate. But at the end of the day, our transport system is bigger than each of us, it’s about all of us... It’s more than individual change, we need a system change. A system change that prepares us to be more resilient and to adapt ourselves to the reality of climate change.

We want blue skies and healthy air. We want cities and villages where kids can play, with roads where they can walk and ride their bike. We want (urban) green spaces to cool down mentally and physically, heatwave or not. We want people to be autonomous, to be able to access all kinds of services (work, food, car and education services, green spaces…) by foot, by bike, by public transport without being reliant on a car. Cars should still be a tool accessible for people who need it the most but the cars left should be electric so more efficient (not as much energy lost in the combustion), less polluting and of reasonable size and power (bye bye SUVs!). For holidays, we want people to be able to opt for an affordable train ticket and not a cheap airline ticket fuelling the climate crisis. We want mobility to be a common good that is used wisely, in a sustainable manner and accessible to everyone in society. All this goes further than mobility because it questions our societal model, our spatial planning, our relationship with time and how we define progress.

Volunteers and activists are protesting in Paderborn. With a human chain and a blue carpet, they are demonstrating how a safe bike lane could look like.
© Bernd Arnold / Greenpeace

It is time to acknowledge that mobility is about society, autonomy and social cohesion. The rest is nonsense and greenwashing.

Elodie Mertz is a Clean Air & Mobility Campaigner at Greenpeace Belgium.