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Pressure is mounting to arrest climate change, so it's hardly surprising that people around the world are being urged to use public transportation. After all, an overall strategy that includes getting people to give up their trucks and cars to use electric trolley buses, tramways and rail can help make a real dent in pollution, traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. But try telling that to Australians living in the outback, long miles from the nearest bus station. Even most Japanese, who have access to some of the world's best high-speed rail links and urban mass transit, own some type of private vehicle.

Ownership of private vehicles in OECD countries ranges from around 8 vehicles per 100 people in Turkey up to 70 in Denmark. Variations within countries can be large, too. In Korea, for example, regional variations range from 16 to 66 per 100 inhabitants; in the US, the range is from 18 to 62. Most of these wide differences are attributed to the remoteness of a region and to a consequent need to own vehicles.

The examples of Australia and Japan-two countries with vastly different population densities-make one thing clear: no matter the availability of public transport, private vehicles are here to stay. The challenge is how to turn them into greener machines for the benefit of users and the environment. Biofuel-driven cars provoke a fraught debate, raising controversial issues about subsidies, true environmental effectiveness and competition with food crops. Electric cars are starting to make an appearance, but their full impact on the environment, from manufacture to disposal of batteries, for instance, is still being studied. Also, their ability to compete with conventional vehicles in cost and transport, whether for freight loads or long distance, has to be improved. This all points to the need for more innovation, as seeking out the right technology and promoting greener travel could lead to a U-turn out of the global economic slump.

©OECD Observer No. 272, April 2009