Rapid urban growth has thrown up contrasting visions of the future. Cities could become increasingly polluted and gridlocked, damaging inhabitants’ health and making it hard for them to get around. Or they could be cleaner and smarter, offering people a variety of options for moving rapidly and in a sustainable way to their destinations.

There are a variety of ways to make cities liveable and mobile, ranging from an optimised use of infrastructure and intelligent transportation systems to a mass shift towards bikes, walking, public transport and clean cars. The questions are: which of these will work best, and how will they be paid for.

Copenhagen, the 2014 European Green Capital, is often cited as a model for clean and smart mobility. The population has grown by a fifth in the past two decades and trips have risen by a quarter. But most of this increase has come from walking and cycling – helped by wide bike lanes and good public transport connections.

Mayor Morten Kabell says this is the only way to cope. “A city has a finite space, and we can’t just tear down blocks,” he said. “You have to tell people: ‘No, you can’t bring your car. That was the era of the fifties and sixties.’”

The auto industry is trying to make cars better suited to the new, crowded environment and to cut cars’ fuel consumption and carbon footprint. Though Paris recently announced it would ban diesel cars from 2020, new ones are vastly cleaner and more efficient than old ones, said Erik Jonnaert, Secretary General of the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA). “Extreme responses will not help us,” he said. “All options are a means to an end – to reduce emissions. Vehicles will have to make serious contributions, but we need to look at it in a more integrated way.”

Higher fuel taxes are likely to be more effective than any ETS-type scheme, said Jos Dings, Director of Transport & Environment. “The fuel tax is the single most important reason why we in Europe only use half the fuel of our North American friends per head,” he said.

Clean cars are still a niche market in the world, but better infrastructure could give them an important boost. Announcing a 315 bn euro investment plan in late November, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he had a vision of commuters charging electric cars along a motorway, in the same way we fill up with petrol.

Still, there are limits to what can be done at an EU level. “You cannot force the member states to have X percent electric infrastructure, because the differences between them are really high,” said Ismail Ertug, Member of the European Parliament Committee on Transport and Tourism.

And the complexity of cities and transport systems mean that models such as Copenhagen will not necessarily work elsewhere. “There are many different elements, so you can’t take solutions from one city and copy-paste onto another,” said Magda Kopczynska, Director of Innovative and Sustainable Mobility at the European Commission Directorate General for Mobility and Transport. “What does work is to let cities learn about solutions.”

Download PDF