Urban Mobility: is Europe too timid?

The take-away

  • Urban mobility is one of the major challenges of the 21st century.
  • Internet and smart apps could play an important role in making it easier to move around cities.

Contrary to their counterparts in many developing nations, European urbanites have it good. The massive influx from the countryside is history, having occurred mostly in the 19th and 20th centuries, and as a result European infrastructures are not struggling to keep up with population growth. London and Paris may have their traffic problems, but they are not Mexico City or Jakarta or Cairo.

Even so, there is hardly a country in Europe in which urban mobility does not pose a major challenge in the 21st century. Traffic congestion, even if it is not at São Paulo levels, represents a huge waste of time and therefore money for European economies. Air pollution, despite the much-vaunted automotive Euro standards, continues to make people ill and in some cases kill them. Not to mention the stress induced by noise, crowding and the constant uncertainty as to whether you’ll reach your destination on time.

As our Urban Mobility feature illustrates, European planners and researchers – in both the public and private sectors – are working on highly creative concepts that should make it easier to move around our cities in the decades ahead. Not surprisingly, much of the innovation rests on the Internet and smart apps – such as driverless buses or traffic lights programmed to keep trucks from obstructing the overall flow. Electric power will also be a major factor as bicycles, motorbikes, autos and buses become green.

These innovations are nice to have in the lab, but they will be even nicer on our streets. That’s where politicians and other decision-makers come into the picture. Yes, Paris has its Vélib bike-sharing program (imitated by numerous cities) and London has its Congestion Charge (not imitated by numerous cities). But which political leaders are promoting the next generation of ideas? Which powerful lobbies are fighting for safe, dedicated bicycle lanes (far from motor traffic); for widespread availability of electric charging stations; for major improvements in public transportation?

This is not only a matter of Europe’s quality of life, although it is definitely about that. It’s also about Europe’s reputation as an innovator, as a problem-solver, as the corner of the world that places the highest value on the wellbeing of its citizens. Unless something changes, European cities in 2030 risk looking much like European cities in 2016 – despite all the good ideas churning out of university labs and dynamic start-ups.



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