Transportation is now the nation's largest contributor to climate change, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And with 253 million vehicles on the road, epic highway traffic jams are taking the fun out of driving.
Are people ready for a change? Is the single-occupancy, gasoline-powered vehicle on its way out? And can a multi-modal, fully electric, and eco-friendly transit system take its place? Are e-bikes, scooters, and ride-sharing here to stay?
A group of clean tech pioneers on Wednesday said "yes" -- and posited that dollars and cents, innovation, and the human desire for comfort and convenience will drive the transformation.
"Make it easy, make it ubiquitous, and make it affordable," said Corey Ershow, transportation policy manager at Lyft, the popular ride-sharing program.
"A fair amount of the population can't drive, don't want to drive, or shouldn't drive," said Jacqueline DeWolf, director of sustainable transportation for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
Jed Dorsheimer, managing director of Cannacord Genuity, said asking people to sacrifice doesn't always work, and that transportation options have to make financial sense.
"There's a little saying I have: Greed always trumps green," said Dorsheimer. "While we like to take an altruistic view of things, economics play a heavy role."
The panel discussion took place at Horizon18, a two-day event at the Hynes Convention Center that drew clean energy innovators, investors, and thought leaders from around the world.
Dorsheimer, a venture capitalist, LED lighting expert, and former advisor to the Obama administration, said the transportation sector is ripe for economic disruption.
"Autos are your number one or number two asset, with a utilization rate of less than 5 percent, and a modality that's being upset by the Ubers and Lyfts of the world," he said.
Dorsheimer painted a futuristic vision where fleets of driverless electric cars would be hailed for rides by all people, in all neighborhoods, and at all hours.
"When you look at ride sharing, that's 75 to 90 cents per mile," he said. "When you go to an automated vehicle, that's less than 5 cents per mile. Economics is the driver."
The private and public sectors must work together, said Susanne Rasmussen, director of environment and transport policy for Cambridge -- a city which has been working to reduce vehicle trips since 1992.
Rasmussen said that in China, cities are running large fleets of electric buses. In the U.S., Walmart ordered Tesla Semi trucks, and DHL is investing in electric delivery vans.
However, in the U.S., the speed and availability of charging stations remains an impediment. Many car owners don't own garages, so can't set up their own chargers. As for commercial fleets, if they "return to the barn" in the middle of the day to charge up, they could be hit with high peak demand costs from utilities.
Despite such challenges, "we are definitely on the path to a fully electrified transportation system," Rasmussen said.
Battery-powered cars generate half the emissions of comparable gasoline cars, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Conservation Law Foundation has called for deep financial incentives for electric car purchases.
Andre Schneider, CEO of the Geneva Airport in Switzerland, said transformation of the aviation sector is moving more slowly. "If there were mass production of biofuel, that would help," he said. "But it is quite more costly."
While the aviation sector did not sign on to the Paris Climate Accord, the industry did agree to a separate standard that would cap emissions and commit to innovation.
"Yes, there are discussions about electric transportation planes," Schneider said. "In the earliest, ten years. Then the question is, how do you charge them."
On the policy side, Ershow said governments should make it "less easy to drive," with parking spots at a premium, to encourage people to abandon the single-occupancy-vehicle lifestyle.
Others suggested that carrots are better than sticks.
"It's a complete mind-shift," said DeWolfe. "How do we make it so people want to? We're not in the business of social engineering, lecturing people, telling them they should be walking or biking wherever they go."
DeWolfe said Massachusetts is working to support its "351 independent cities and towns" in developing appropriate, sustainable, multi-modal transportation.
"It's really about safety and comfort," she said. "And we have a long way to go to make it safe, comfortable, and also convenient for people."