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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

The role for public policy and investment in shaping future urban mobility

How can cities realise the potential of new technology – from journey planners to smart cities – to improve how we get around?

­Across the globe, accelerated urbanization and rising urban population density are causing city planners and administrators to re-examine their priorities in managing urban mobility and nurturing the critical role it plays in boosting economic growth and enhancing quality of life. Increasingly, crowded cities are battling unhealthy and hazardous air-quality, paralysing traffic congestion, and a growing number of accidents. The stakes are very high for getting our urban environments onto a sustainable trajectory. Thankfully, over the past decade, we have seen the emergence of a wide range of possibilities – shared mobility, autonomous cars, omni-present digital connectivity, electrification and alternative fuels – that can significantly re-shape urban mobility. With the right priorities, regulations and policies, these innovations can be harnessed to serve our cities in a much more sustainable manner.

Sizing the problem and defining the goals

Around 55 percent of the global population live in urban environments and contribute roughly 85 percent of global GDP. Yet orchestrating their mobility is getting expensive. The cumulative economic effect of poor air quality, traffic fatalities and injuries, fuel subsidies, and traffic congestion saps an estimated 6-10 percent of global GDP[1]. Furthermore, by 2050, as many people will inhabit urban areas as there are people in the world today[2]. But this is not a problem confined to soul-less economics alone. Even at the dawn of the twentieth century, the Scottish biologist and sociologist Patrick Geddes observed that “a city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time[3]. Since then advocates of new urbanism, including Jane Jacob[4], have underscored the human and social dimensions that must underpin urban living.

Urban form and urban mobility architecture have a symbiotic relationship and any roadmap must factor this interdependence. Road and rail corridors have historically spawned suburbs, morphing city boundaries, even as dense skyscrapers in cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo and New York demand mass transit. Attempting to transform a city’s urban mobility architecture, without paying careful attention to the city’s context is futile.

Getting the urban form right

There are compelling economic and social benefits that people derive from population agglomeration[5]. Cities that were well established before the advent of the motoring age tend to remain compact, and many have continued to adopt policies to avoid sprawl. Others that evolved since the availability of mass-produced automobiles have typically spread out, egged on by liberal investments in highways and affordable personal transport. Cities are now discovering that this sprawl is a luxury that comes with high economic and environmental cost. While mass transit dependent cities consume 5-7 percent of GDP for motorized travel, car-dependent cities with sprawl like Dallas or Melbourne may need twice that figure[6]. One may think of this as wasteful friction in a city’s economy. Furthermore, a city like Dallas allocates almost 40 percent of urban land for roads compared with 15 percent for densely populated Tokyo. Los Angeles, with its contiguous yet far flung suburbs, highlights the danger of this kind of development. It has more roads and more road surface area per capita than most large US megacities and yet suffers from the worst traffic congestion and worst air quality[7].

City boundaries often expand organically. Planning and transportation infrastructure typically lags this outward spread. As an example, large numbers of New Delhi’s residents are migrating south-west and south-east to its far-flung suburbs, a precursor to a further urban mobility disaster. Workday traffic congestion alone is estimated to cost that region almost 3 percent of its GDP[8]. On top of that, New Delhi battles dangerous levels of air pollution due in part to high dependence on personal transport. Unless cities pro-actively plan their boundaries and invest in suitable transport infrastructure, cities like New Delhi are doomed to revisit the problems of Los Angeles.

On the other hand, cities that have faced geographical limits to expansion such as New York City, Mumbai, or Hong Kong or those where policies have discouraged sprawl, like Seoul and Munich, find themselves operating with better economic and mobility efficiency. Higher population densities render mass transit investments more viable, and as an example, New York has a lower per capita carbon footprint compared to San Francisco, in spite of New York’s colder climate[9].

Invest in and encourage modal heterogeneity

Mobility needs can be as unique as the associated individuals and journeys. Thus, heterogeneous modes increase collective utility. Each journey involves costs (in terms of time, effort, price, etc.) and delivers benefits (of arriving at a desired destination, plus any utility or joy experienced during the travel). Traditionally travel modes were bucketed as either private or public, and non-motorised or motorized. Recent innovations have allowed communities to re-discover forgotten modes and harness many new solutions. In an age of iPhones and Fitbits, Berlin’s investment in dedicated walkways and pedestrian friendly infrastructure is paying off, increasing the share of pedestrian commuters from 25 percent to 31 percent between 1998 and 2013, even as motorized travel declined by 9 percent[10]. Bike-sharing has become an integral part of transportation in many major cities around the world. Further, UberPool is complementing taxis, while Chariot-like services offer app-hailed dynamically routed vans, plying low-density routes to complement municipal transit bus services. Bus Rapid Transit systems offer many cities an attractive compromise – they offer higher passenger throughput along designated corridors than conventional buses, and yet they require far less investment than underground metro systems.

For each individual and for each journey, priorities may vary. Hence, such a full smorgasbord of heterogeneous solutions allows cities to cater to a fuller spectrum of residents’ preferences in terms of route density, journey economics and user convenience.

Invest in physical and digital connectivity of the modes and nodes

The marvel of modern day internet is traceable to the power of networks and connectivity. Similarly, the utility of a wide variety of travel modes can best be leveraged when they are effectively connected. Connectivity in the 20th century meant new roads and highways linking nascent suburbs. With urbanization, intra-city travel is gaining in priority and requires fast, convenient, multi-option, efficient inter-modal connections.

Investment in physical infrastructure allows an international visitor to the Frankfurt airport hub, for example, to access a wide variety of modes to complete the next segment of travel whether it be long-distance train, local metro, bus or taxi. As with internet routers moving information packets through a communications network, the key function is to facilitate quick transfers to the next journey segment. As another example, London’s promotion of the Oyster card and contact-less payment has been successful in fostering fast, convenient and efficient transfers between modes and journey segments. Such systems promote multi-modal travel and hence efficient journeys.

With the widespread use of smartphones, travellers have another powerful tool to enhance connectivity. The modern suite of tools and apps available to travellers, serve a multitude of functions including planning travel, hailing a ride, authentication of service provider and user, and payment portal. Leveraging data from cities and mobility services, smartphone apps are now capable of aggregating travel information to synthesize a journey uniquely for each traveller for each context.

Reform governance to achieve tighter operational coordination

Too often cities find that diverse services are operated under separate entities, resulting in poor coordination. Analogously, isolated pools of rich data are often poorly aggregated or accessed to deliver maximum benefits for travellers and travel facilitating apps. London’s integration of services under the umbrella of Transport for London (TfL) is a model that has many admirers. London and many other cities are beginning to demand open access to data from the many mobility service providers. Artificial intelligence tools and travel-advisor apps, supported by higher quality analytics, will help each traveller better optimise his or her travel.

Link to “smart city” investments

Cities have the opportunity to take another big leap forward. Worldwide, cities are now planning investments in infrastructure and hardware to render their cities “smart”. The sensors they will deploy and the data that they will collect can greatly augment operation of that city’s mobility architecture. When this additional quantum of relevant city data is fed into the larger database that can be used to plan and optimise each journey, we can get closer to the goal of allowing each traveller to configure each journey to deliver better personalized “return on mobility”[11]. On-demand, personally configured journeys are a reality in a growing list of cities.

Regulations and policies to nudge user behaviour

In most countries, the policies, regulations, and fees that govern urban mobility are outdated. In re-aligning these regulations and policies to contemporary context, it is useful to start by defining the basic tenets that are aligned to societal goals. Most societies would agree that mobility is a basic right, and that mobility must be accessible to users across economic and demographic sections. Similarly, most societies have come to accept the principle that a user ought to pay a full and fair share of the cost of mobility they choose.

In most societies, public transit has been criticized for being dependent on state subsidies. However, many cities are finding that, even after factoring taxes levied on fuel, motorists enjoy considerable invisible subsidies based on cost of urban real-estate and impact on air quality. This has prompted cities like Copenhagen to discourage use of personal cars and encourage bicycles. They have estimated that the city saves 23 cents for every bike kilometre and loses 16 cents for every car kilometre[12]. Similarly, the city of Talinn has made travel on public transit free in an effort to wean commuters away from their cars after estimating that this was a cheaper option for the city. Other cities promote electric vehicles to curb tail-pipe emissions, with a combination of rebates or privileges, such as use of restricted access lanes and parking.

Increasingly financial tools such as road use fees, and non-financial tools such as regulating the quantum and distribution of public parking, are also serving as valuable tools as societies seek to nudge user behaviour and choice of modes that are more favourable to societal goals.

Bringing it all together

Most industry observers agree that the auto industry is at a cusp in its evolution. The convergence of innovations in electrification, connectivity, shared mobility, and the advent of partial or full autonomy will usher in a world of new possibilities. These developments are conducive to breaking out of the boundaries of the auto industry to think more broadly of personal mobility and the system that it will operate within. Those cities that intelligently align their policies and regulations will ride this new wave of innovation to deliver to their residents mobility that will be faster, smarter and greener.


Venkat Sumantran, Charles Fine and David Gonsalvez are authors of Faster, Smarter, Greener: The future of the Car and Urban Mobility, published by the MIT Press.



[1] United Nations Division for Sustainable Development, “Creating Universal Access to Safe, Clean, and Affordable Transport: Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport, 2013,” June 20, 2013,

[2] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, “World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision” (New York: United Nations, 2015).

[3] Geddes, P. The Science of Cities. Papers published in 1905.

[4] Jacob, J. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House. 1961.

[5] Florida, R.  Cities and the Creative Class. John Wiley, 2003

[6] Suzuki, H., Cervero, R., Iuchi, K. Transforming Cities with Transit: Transit and Land-Use Integration for Sustainable Urban Development. Washington, DC: World Bank. 2013.

[7] INRIX, “Los Angeles tops INRIX global congestion ranking,”,

[8] Dash, D, “Delhi traffic chaos costs Rs 60,000 crore annually,” The Times of India, February 5, 2017.

[9] D. Moore, “Ecological Footprint Analysis: San Francisco, Oakland, Fremont, CA Metropolitan Statistical Area,” June 30, 2011,

[10]  P. Rode, C. Hoffmann, J. Kandt, D. Smith, and A. Graff, “Towards New Urban Mobility: The Case of London and

Berlin,” LSE Cities at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Innovation Centre for Mobility and Societal Change, London, 2015.

[11] J. Hagel, “Navigating a Shifting Landscape: Capturing Value in the Evolving Mobility Ecosystem” (Westlake, TX: Deloitte University Press, 2016).

[12] “The 20 most bike-friendly cities on the planet,” Wired, March 22, 2016.