Iván De La Lanza
Sustainable Urban Mobility Specialist
Instituto del Sur Urbano
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Expert Contributor

Urban Mobility and Its Role In Building a Better Recovery

By Ivan de la Lanza | Fri, 02/11/2022 - 11:00

How we move in a city is an indicator of social equality. Urban mobility and access are fundamental elements in the post-pandemic effort to build a better recovery and reconstruction process, as these have the potential to increase access to services and jobs while new investments trigger new economic activity, local jobs and improved public health. All this sets cities on a long-term path to prosperity and sustainable development.

The Urban Inequality Index assesses inequality conditions in access to development opportunities and services in Mexico’s cities. The results are shocking. For example, someone who lives in one of the richest neighborhoods in Mexico City has 28 times more access to jobs within a 30-minute trip, between walking and public transport, than someone who lives in the poorest areas. Similarly, but in the case of public health access, the wealthier person has 113 times better access to a public hospital bed within a 30-minute trip, between walking and public transport, than the poorest person. That doesn’t say anything about the quality of these jobs and income or the quality of the hospital bed, but it does show the marked spatial division that exists in Mexico City between wealthy and poor people and the differences in access to basic services and opportunities, including health, public transport, education, food, recreation, and culture.

Unfortunately, this is usual in cities around the world, which is why we need to talk about access and not only urban mobility, because mobility without access or even purpose is worthless. Today, the design and development of our cities determine access and the possibilities in the present and future. Access level is based on location in the urban space and wealth, restricting or allowing opportunities and services that the city offers, presumably equally.

Moving toward more equitable cities becomes fundamental in the present, since more than half of the world's population lives in cities, and this figure is expected to grow to 70 percent in 2050. This is an unequal phenomenon by itself, since Latin America is one of the most urbanized regions in the world. In Mexico, 80 percent of the population already lives in cities and metropolitan areas, where the expansive territorial pattern that has developed through urbanization increases urban trip length, time and cost, increasing as well negative externalities, such as motorization and congestion, emissions, energy, bad air quality and socioeconomic inequality. This requires a great amount of public and private resources to achieve greater spatial connectivity  — investment and money that could be used in a more productive way. For example, the average family in Mexico spends between 18 to 25 percent of their monthly income on transport, according to the National Survey of Household Income and Expenses, México (ENIGH, 2018).

However, the COVID 19 pandemic also represents an opportunity to rebuild better cities. According to the study “The economic case for greening the global recovery through cities: 7 priorities for national governments,” clean mobility and active mobility are two of the seven priority areas to direct investments toward a sustainable, green, inclusive, and city-centric recovery (green construction, clean mobility, renewable energy, active transport, solutions based on nature, waste and resources and research and development for clean technologies). These areas ensure that investments simultaneously respond to both current priorities and the drive to build a better future, as they have the greatest potential to spark new economic activity, create local jobs, increase public health outcomes, and put cities on the path of long-term prosperity and sustainable development.

Investments in these areas are estimated to have the potential to unlock a direct economic dividend worth at least US$24 trillion by 2050, as well as supporting the equivalent of at least 87 million jobs by 2030 (mostly from building efficiency improvements) and 45 million jobs in 2050 (mainly in the transport sector).

Clean mobility promotes and invests in clean and shared transport systems for connected and accessible cities, through the promotion of electromobility, driving investment that helps the financial recovery of public transport and the transition to electric vehicles:

  • The transport sector can generate a fifth of the carbon reduction potential of cities.
  • Cities can reduce 90 percent of their emissions with measures that are technically feasible today, with 21 percent of the potential coming from the transport sector.
  • Electric vehicles (EVs) and internal combustion vehicles must have a comparative cost by 2030 to enable a 100 percent electric fleet by midcentury.
  • Investments in clean transport provide strong socio-economic benefits as public transport is an investment that can quickly create long-term jobs while reducing polluting emissions, congestion, and traffic accidents, and improving people's access to jobs and other opportunities.
  • Job growth experience from previous economic downturns shows that sustainable transportation creates more jobs than other transportation investments. In the US, economic stimulus investments after the 2009 global financial crisis generated 31 percent more jobs per dollar through mass transit than new road and bridge construction.

Active transport promotes pedestrian, bicycle, and other active mobility schemes that have a high impact on people's physical and mental health and quality of life while providing a clean and accessible means of transportation for vulnerable populations:

  • Safe and shared streets are an essential investment for urban resilience, especially by reducing the costs and negative public health impacts of road traffic accidents
  • The cost-benefit of active transport infrastructure is much higher, considering the low costs of its infrastructure and the great environmental and public health benefits it generates. A study by the University of Lund in Sweden shows that, in Copenhagen, traveling by car is six times more expensive for society than a trip by bicycle, since, for every kilometer traveled by car, society absorbs a cost of 0.15 euros, while for every kilometer traveled by bike, society earns 0.16 euros.
  • High potential for job creation. Bbus rapid transit and urban rail schemes share first place for job creation potential per million euros invested, according to the 12 priority low-carbon post-COVID stimulus measures considered for Europe. Taking France as an example, it is estimated that for every million euros of turnover in the cycling industry there are almost 10 jobs, compared to around 2.5 for every million euros of turnover in the automobile industry.
  • Long-term resilience. Cycling infrastructure helps keep cities connected during times of crisis, not only during the pandemic but in other emergencies. When mobility in Mexico City collapsed for days because of the 2017 earthquake, bicycles were the only way to move around and to supply essential goods. During the past year, more than 150 cities, from Bogota to Lisbon, have used the COVID-19 pandemic to rapidly expand bike lanes along major mobility corridors by allocating existing road space for cycling or to build new bike lanes. In many places, emergency workers and others have begun to realize that riding a bike can be the fastest and safest way to get around, as well as aiding in personal physical and mental health.
  • Mainly supports marginalized or vulnerable population groups by increasing access to services and jobs in a more affordable way.

At SUR Institute, we strengthen urban structures and mobility systems of Global South cities, providing participatory design planning processes and technical advice to improve connectivity, habitability and proximity of quality public goods and services.

Photo by:   Iván De La Lanza