Over 50% human beings are now city dwellers. Urban population growth will doubtless continue for several decades, with a concomitant multiplication of the number of cities with more than 1 M inhabitants. In the major emerging economies, questions are now being raised: will, for example, a parallel development of middle class and car driving paralyze the megacities? Advanced countries are already experimenting new solutions. How can we banish the spectre of urban immobility?

The world’s population will continue to grow, from 7 billion today to over 9 billion by 2050. At the same time, urbanization round the world is accelerating fast. Populations will be increasingly concentrated in city areas. In 2013, 51% (3.5 billion people) lived in urban settings; by 2050 the expected figure will be 70%, i.e., 6.3 billion.

Urban growth and especially development of mega-conurbation areas (or mega poles or metropolitan areas) is an opportunity for the world’s economy. Concentrating workers in cities effectively allows for gains in productivity. Major city environments offer a productive advantage that smaller cities or rural areas just cannot provide. This metropolitan effect can be explained by several factors: you can get the best match between available skills and the company’s real needs, access to common infrastructure such as airports and more efficient circulation of knowledge and know-how in and among companies that are located closer together. On average, and with similar skills, workers in major cities get a better pay.

Of course, the figures evoked here and there are theoretical. In order to fulfil potential, these workers must have the possibility to move in the metropolis freely, rapidly limiting at the same time the impact of their daily trips on the environment. And this is where the troubles start, inasmuch as the transportation offer falls far below the expectation level and unending demand for mobility. In 2013, urban mobility already represented 64% of total mobility. By 2050, the demand for urban mobility will triple with the consequence, if major efforts are not deployed for the infrastructures needed, that the time spent in transport will increase, or even explode. It is this looming spectre of urban paralysis, with its legion of economic and social drawbacks that haunts all city managers today, especially those who preside over the destiny of the tomorrow’s mega poles in the emerging countries where investments rarely follow the rhythm of demographic growth.


Urban mobility is the main challenge for governance of mega-poles and is the key to the entire county’s performance level. Certain countries are measuring up to the task, as for instance in the gigantic Chinese project to “Turn The Pearl River Delta Into One”: China is working on a plan (for 2017) to unite a urban ensemble with 42 million inhabitants, 50 times larger than New York City, with the 9 cities of Guangdong – the region that already represents 10 % of the national manufacturing output, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Foshan, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Zhuhai, Jiangmen, Huizou and Zhaoqing. There are 150 ongoing infrastructure projects, for a total cost of 300 billion dollars, a mix of transport systems, water adduction, energy grids and telecommunications networks. The hub of the project is a high speed train net, with 29 lines when the final phase is completed, covering 1 500 km and making the maximum trip time at 1 hour from point to point in the new mega pole. The pump price for fuel (petrol) will be uniform throughout the entire area. As the planners see it, it is this mobility that will “create” the future conurbation

The upsurge of informal transport forms
In other major emerging countries or in a development phase, mobility of the “urban poor” represents a multiple, highly complex challenge. Daily commuting, from home to job and back, when the cities themselves expand and develop, is becoming longer and more time-consuming. In both New Delhi and Mumbai, over 60% of the travel in this social category is by bike, on foot or in collective taxis and we are talking of millions of ‘passengers’. Their specific needs are not well cared for, in most cases and indeed may run counter to high investments that would prove inefficient. By simply extending (and not upgrading) networks that favour private car drivers, thereby excluding the more vulnerable citizens mentioned above, can only generate even more traffic congestion.

Development of public transport is obviously part, but part only of the solution; investment needed for a Metro network (or Underground) are very high and even if the network is well connected in terms of station layout, the entire area cannot be served. On the surface, necessary development of public transport in dedicated lanes (tramways, lanes reserved for buses) appears a less costly solution but if leads to a competition with private cars, deprived of these lanes. In a large city like Cairo, which is fairly well equipped for public transport, is already paralyzed on a daily basis by huge traffic jams and if in the long run, setting aside special lanes for buses could alleviate the congestion, the immediate result would be to exacerbate the current jammed situation. Other solutions must be sought. Three promising routes could be: to invest in better pedestrian facilities, to allow non-motorized vehicles on the roads, and to develop “informal transport”. The question is: how do we proceed?

A non-negligible fraction of the poor urban dwellers earn their living in informal transport modes: between 7% and 20% urban populations according to a study carried out by Intellecap in ten cities in Africa, South and South East Asia. Given the absence of an entry barrier and the low level of skills required, most migrants are ready to engage in this sector. It would provide a strong mobility leverage, with the planners actually implicitly integrating their own demise in the projects, reality waging its revenge! New public transport, built from sovereign guarantees and direct subsidies costs more than a poor population can afford. If the median income in the city of New Delhi as a whole is 104 $US/month, 77% of the local Metro passengers earn more than 378 $US/month. The poorer persons are ruled out of the system de facto.

The correct method, according to the Rockefeller Foundation, is to abandon the traditional reflex of repress and neglect and, on the contrary to accompany and regulate all forms of informal transport, viewing them as assets and solutions and not as sources of disturbance. In like manner, facilitate access to real time information deemed essential for precarious city dwellers, notably so that can learn when not to travel. There are numerous innovative processes now. The Kenyan MatNavi GPS (Matatus Navigation System) allows drivers and passengers of the collective Matatus taxis to discover real-time the state of the traffic on their route. In India, the Rickshaw Bank (RB) has developed Deep Bahans – motorized tricycles (20% less heavy than the traditional rickshaw) while other companies have set up rickshaw hire companies at affordable prices.

Controlled mobility for poorer urban passengers has had noteworthy effects on health and the economy. Every year, again according to the Rockefeller Foundation, some 1.3 million people die in road accidents within city boundaries. About 70% of these deaths occur in developing countries and incur a direct economic cost equivalent to between 1% and 2% of the world’s GDP! The majority are poor pedestrians or cyclists, aged 15 to 29. Their death can be a catastrophe for the families who thus lose a family support or have to pay exorbitant medical fees.

A mobility revolution?
Ever since the years 2000, solutions and technologies have existed and these can be used to alleviate a lot of the brakes that stifle urban mobility. Yet in most large cities, including in certain advanced economies, the ‘great wave’ of mobility innovation has yet to come.

Why is this so? Numerous explanations can be given but they can be summarized as “ignition retard”, a situation in which the actors are submerged and overtaken by rapidly occurring problems and also by the frantic rhythm of the innovations proposed. It transpires that management of the theatre of urban mobility takes place in an environment that is not very conducive to new actors to come on stage. Urban management rarely allows for true competition in the market. It hampers the emergence of business models that balance offer and demand suitably and naturally. Other sectors have succeeded in making the changes, such as the world of telecommunications. Over a two year span, the coupling of new devices and equipment and high level innovation in the software developed and used, together, of course, with the pervasiveness of Internet, have radically changed the ICT world.

A mobility revolution – which will be predominantly digital – should be able to draw on the new situation. The question is how? Several strategies are on the drawing board and major developed cities in Europe, in Asia have already set in motion a series of experiments.

octopus-cardThe first strategy consists of optimizing already existing public transport. Local authorities should promote what is called “one ticketing”, i.e., issuing a single ticket that gives access to all transport modes and providing information as to the best way to combine modes. In this respect, Hong Kong has proposed to 95% of its urban dwellers a multimodal card, the clear objective of which is to facilitate commuting from home to work, but also to help limit the level of CO2 emissions. In France, the Region of Brittany has also issued the KorriGo card with the same philosophy (Cf. KorriGo – in French).

In order to be fully operational, optimized public transport should also be able to provide real-time information as to traffic and availability of the various modes at a given time. The data would be in open software format and indeed could serve to make the service offer a better match to demand and why not, lead to new services, by new actors.

In order to meet the challenge of mobility issues, cities will have to implement strategies that that coherent with their degree of maturity. Mega-poles that are already efficient would be advised to integrate the entire transportation value chain, i.e., to deploy new public transports networks massively, to set up and operate the very latest traffic management systems and lastly, to provide incentives to reduce the practice of using private vehicles.

In a city such as Paris, for example, the very low cost of residential parking (2.5€/week) encourages Parisians to park constantly in the street rather than leave their vehicle in an underground parking lot, or prefer to hire a car. London chose a radically different policy: it set up expensive toll barriers to enter the central area and also to push the most polluting vehicles to the outskirts of the conurbation (Greater London). A look at modern American cities tells us that their policies largely exclude surface parking, except for short stops. Bus sizing is also an important question: given the cost of the drivers’ pay, Town halls prefer to operate very long buses, whereas, at certain times of day and in certain areas, a minibus would prove far more efficient. One day, who knows, optically guided driverless buses will become the adjunct transport mode, costing approximately three times less than electric tramways.

In the case of less well developed cities, notably in emerging countries, the important thing is to have a sustainable mobility base, i.e., a system that satisfies short term demand without the need to create more motorized so called ‘structuring’ systems for which later resizing would not only be very difficult, but expensive too.

As is the case for all public collective planning, urban mobility will mobilize and coalesce numerous very differing actors. It will no longer be sufficient for the City Fathers to declare their vision and their strategy to succeed. Private companies will be required to get involved and if they will only do so if there is a ROI (return on investment) that matches the commercial risks they take. They must be reassured about the solvency of demand. They want to identify consumers before they invest massively in creation of new services; that way they could theoretically avoid what happened to Better Place, an Israeli start–up that proposed battery swaps for electric cars, and who went bankrupt recently.

Business models
There are several possible business models that would make for profitable urban mobility. The consultants Arthur D. Little, to quote one source, has identified three main categories. First of all there is the “Google Model” providing the user with a single access point not only for the mobility services but also for the complementary services such as identification, information, booking and payment. In order for this model to work satisfactorily and, because it focuses on data generation and circulation, it will be necessary – alongside the local authorities and the public transport operators – to count on the involvement of the banks, pay-on-line companies, communications operators and hi-tech equipment suppliers. The “Apple Model” is seeking to offer upmarket multimodal mobility. And last but not least, the “Dell Model” which limits the offer to simple car-share (or bike-hire).

Development of car-sharing as we observe it today falls into one of the three models. No doubt, it will take on other forms, as it meshes with other services. The coming years will bring numerous experimentations, and these will set the framework for tomorrow‘s major Models.

One thing, however, is for sure. Private individuals travelling will increasingly subscribe to systems – information systems, traffic management systems, economic and car-share systems.

Moreover, the fact is that– in the context of developed countries and with dynamic growth of the mega-poles – today’s automobile will gradually cease being a private, single owner, machine and shall become a robot, taking its place in a system of robots in the urban mobility system as a whole. Car drivers will delegate more and more control decisions to the vehicles’ independent on-board sensors and calculators, interconnected as these will be to very accurate traffic management control. The real time situation will converge to provide the most efficient use of the infrastructures and entertain the hope of attaining a zero accident objective. In a mobility optimized city, there would be no purpose in owning a personal vehicle. City dwellers will learn how to rely on a combination of possible public transport modes, running from bikes-for-hire, walking certain portions and route-sharing with other driver/passengers. And all these options will be accessible via a Smartphone – the nec plus ultra mobility tool. There are even some who predict the end of the distinction between public and private transport systems.

smart Car2GoThe fight to win the commercial battle of urban mobility is going to shake up the automobile companies. The Daimler and BMW Groups (after a few pioneers had started the ball rolling) are now engaged in the revolution of the “mobility chain”. Daimler AG’s car hire system “Car2go”, is planning to install facilities in 21 North American and European cities, relying on the Android “app” moovel (Google Play). BMW has launched iVentures which integrates car-share functions, an aid to find a parking place and various options to access other transport modes.

The International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers (OICA) has estimated that the number of city dwellers subscribing to a car-share network could increase from the 2 million today to some 26 million in 2020, and this would require a fleet of 500 000 vehicles, OICA adding that each car in the car-share system will deprive the automobile trade of 10 private sales.

The industrial business model, consequently, will itself evolve. Vehicles will become ecosystems, i.e., both a product and a service. Just like Apple who sell iPod and iPhones, but more than this and above the downloads and applications offered in the Apple Store, or again, like Nespresso who sell their brand of espresso machine but far more importantly the capsules that go with them, manufacturers will try to capture each other’s market share. In a model like this, the manufacturer could propose everything, from the body frame to the battery, to the recharge system and even to the subscription to the corresponding service. Urban mobility in this light will not only be a new city experience; it will have revolutionized the entire automobile sector.

More on paristech review

By the author

  • Agriculture and food: the rise of digital platformson February 12th, 2016
  • The education tsunami – 9 pieces to make sense of a revolutionon July 22nd, 2015
  • Energy transition Series – Smart consumption: technology to the rescueon June 26th, 2015
  • Pingback: The looming spectre of urban immobility | Persp...