Iván de la Lanza
Sustainable Urban Mobility Specialist
Instituto del Sur Urbano

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The Promise and Future of Urban Mobility

By Ivan de la Lanza | Mon, 06/27/2022 - 09:00

What comes to mind when you imagine the mobility of the future?

Do you think about autonomous, electric flying cars where people are working, reading, eating, or holding a meeting while going somewhere? Something like The Jetsons or Back to the Future? If your answer is yes, I am sorry to tell you that this fantasy is far from reality and the near future. In fact, it’s actually closer to the concept of what quality transit should be.

Moonshot” is a recent term used to describe a monumental effort or a lofty goal; in other words, a “giant leap” and yes, it also refers to the “moon shot,” as the launching of a spaceship to the moon.

The “moon shot delusion” also refers to a spaceship launching to the moon; however, it questions if those efforts and resources could have been better applied to address the real problems that were happening on Earth at the time. In another context, it also refers to giving more importance to an action that doesn’t address the problem. Although the launch of the first man to the moon was a transcendental advance for science, at that time the world was facing other important humanitarian crises, mainly caused by WWII.

Something similar has been happening with urban mobility for some years now. Apparently, we can make autonomous electrical flying vehicles or even conquer Mars but we can’t fight climate change or reduce 1.3 million fatalities because of the lack of road safety. While billionaires like Elon Musk and large companies invest millions of dollars in the technological race to launch autonomous private vehicles (and the conquest of Mars), millions are suffering, dying or surviving real problems like climate change or the lack of road safety on the streets, even when we know that these problems have feasible science-based solutions, proven results, and some even low implementation costs.

Some of these actions are included in the recent study, "The economic case for greening the global recovery through cities." The study shows that cities can reduce up to 90 percent of their emissions with actions that are technically feasible today, and 21 percent of the potential reduction comes from the transportation sector, since this sector contributes up to 70 percent of urban pollution. One action is the Vision Zero programs, originally a Road Safety program that emerged in Sweden in 1997 and currently a global movement that aims to end fatalities and serious road traffic injuries by adopting a systemic approach.

Can autonomous electric vehicles solve both problems? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Mobility issues are related to deeper problems, such as unequal access in cities and to the use of public space, not to technology. Also, autonomous vehicles are still a long way from being able to avoid serious and even fatal traffic injuries. In some cases, they have caused accidents that could have been avoided. This is because the inherent artificial intelligence relies mainly on how it can read infrastructure, equipment and rules, not just on technology. These are elements that have not been addressed in cities, not even developed cities.

Business as Usual (BAU) or Positive Change?

Based on future scenarios for urban mobility, we can expect that daily trips will increase by at least 50 to 70 percent. According to this, there’s both a positive and a negative trend (BAU) scenario.

In the BAU, we can expect an increase in the negative shift from walking and cycling trips to private, motorized vehicles, particularly cars and motorcycles. Public transport trips will increase by only 30 percent while private motorized transport will increase by 80 percent. In turn, this will increase the negative externalities of congestion, emissions, accidents, etc. This is already happening in many cities, especially in developing countries. In the positive scenario, we can expect to double the modal share of public transportation, maintaining the number of trips in private vehicles at current levels, ensuring that any extra mobility is done by sustainable modes like walking, cycling and transit.

June is Pride month but also when the UN celebrates and recognizes the importance of bicycles in urban mobility as a sustainable solution that protects the environment and improves air quality, in addition to contributing with great benefits in public health through physical well-being and a reduction in non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and even some types of cancer. Several studies show that an increase in urban cycling could save up to US$24 trillion by 2050, reduce urban CO2 emissions from passenger transport by 11 percent, and reduce the mortality rate up to 28 percent compared to the same population that travels by other modes of transport. Some companies also report that bicycle commuters take up to 50 percent fewer sick days per year compared to non-cyclists.

The UN also acknowledges that the bicycle is an affordable and sustainable means of transportation for most of the world’s population. Urban cycling reduces the consumption of natural resources, lowers the cost of transport infrastructure for cities and creates economic dynamism in urban centers by promoting flexible mobility. While only 10 percent of the world's population can buy a car, 80 percent can buy a bicycle. In the same way, the infrastructure of the streets is more profitable, since it can carry between seven to 12 times more people per rail meter/hour when compared to a car. According to Bicycle Account in Copenhagen, one mile in a car-costs society $0.20; one mile on a bike is a $0.42 economic gain, considering transport costs, security, comfort, transport times and health.

For these reasons and more, the future of mobility is not based on delusions of the future. It relies on addressing real current problems with common solutions and social and political will. It requires simple things like making walking and cycling safe for everyone.

Happy bike day!

Photo by:   Iván de la Lanza