Most brand-new organizations start with small projects and then work their way up. But EMBARQ, a network of sustainable transportation experts founded in 2002 by energy and transportation maven Lee Schipper, went right to the top. Its debut project was in Mexico City, megalopolis home to 18 million people and a flagship example of urbanization’s problems.

As of 1992, Mexico City had the world’s dirtiest air—and that was before its automobile boom. Between 1996 and 2006, the nation’s vehicle...

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