When citizens are driving mobility, what’s the role of the city?

George Atalla

EY Global Government & Public Sector Leader

Working with governments to address complex issues and build a better working world.

Martin Cardell

EY Global Mobility Solutions Leader

Focused on business transformation. Passionate about cars and exploring the world.

8 minute read 7 May 2019

Urban mobility is transforming, and thanks to megatrends such as digitization and urbanization, citizens are at the wheel.

Urban mobility networks are traditionally the economic and social lifeblood of a city. They carry millions of people to and from work, social events and cultural amenities. They transport goods and waste. And if they’re quick, efficient and accessible to all, they positively affect the quality and equality of urban life.

As cities grow, though, so do the needs and expectations of the people who live there – and mobility networks and infrastructure are struggling to keep up. As a result, people living at the extremities of a city may not have access to the economic opportunities at its heart. And mobility systems are becoming more of a cost than a benefit.

Around the world, cities are rising to this challenge. Cars and diesel buses are giving way to connected autonomous vehicles and scooters. And services such as ride shares and electric trams are starting to improve mobility services in outlying areas. 

Cities have much more to do if they’re to deliver mobility that’s fit for the decades ahead.

But these improvements aren’t enough to meet demand. Cities have much more to do if they’re to deliver mobility that’s fit for the decades ahead.

The forces shaping urban mobility

Four factors are driving the mobility revolution in cities – and raising citizens’ expectations.

1. The rise of megacities and megaregions

In 1950, there were two cities with populations of more than 10 million in the world. According to estimates, by 2030, there will be 53.

These megacities are also merging into megaregions. The Pearl River Delta (Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou region) in China has a total population of 120 million people. And cities such as Tokyo, Istanbul, Sao Paulo, Delhi and New York City are the anchors for megaregions with populations in the tens of millions.

This growth brings challenges like urban sprawl. Outlying areas are cheaper, so the people who live there tend to be on lower incomes. But limited transport can make it hard for them to access jobs in the city center – adding to income inequality. More people also means more vehicles and pollution, which makes cities less liveable.

2. Digital connectivity

Technologies like 4G and the Internet of Things have brought a huge shift in how we move people, goods, resources and knowledge. As a result, digital connectivity now underpins our cities – and its role will only get bigger.

The next stage in this evolution will involve 5G networks, artificial intelligence and telematics (vehicle tracking and geolocation data). These will usher in connected autonomous vehicles and drone-supported logistics, all backed by smart, connected infrastructure. Some cities are already there: Shanghai is one of the first to use 5G for its intelligent-vehicle network, which will cover 100 kilometers by 2020.

This hyper-connectivity will allow residents to move seamlessly around a city (assuming they can all access the new networks).

3. The push to become sustainable

Cities consume more than two-thirds of the world's energy and account for more than 70 percent of global Co2 emissions. And as populations rise, so will these numbers.

Climate change is also making cities more vulnerable to acute shocks, such as earthquakes and floods. Mayors and city leaders are responding to these threats, along with global climate and development accords, by prioritizing mobility in their sustainability plans.

They’re also adopting zero emission targets and renewable energy goals. Copenhagen is on track to be the first carbon-neutral capital by 2025, for example. To achieve this, the Danish capital has deployed a mix of mobility initiatives, including carbon-neutral public transport and infrastructure for micro-mobility. (Think e-scooters and bikes.)

4. Green, connected, shared and autonomous vehicles

Cars and buses that run on petrol or diesel have traditionally been the mainstay of urban mobility. But technological innovation, climate change and changing consumer preferences have brought electric and low-carbon vehicles and buses to the mass market. (Mayors of 26 major cities have pledged to buy and operation full fleets of zero-emission buses from 2025, for example.)

Connected, autonomous electric vehicles are on the horizon, too. As of September 2018, 46 organizations were developing autonomous vehicles. And the sharing economy, micro-mobility and new business models for insurance have enabled people to ditch their cars for reliable alternatives. These shifts could ultimately lead to a very low or no-car future, where pedestrians reclaim the city center and parking lots become community spaces.

Mobility-as-a-service is emerging as the leading approach

The Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) approach allows citizens to view and choose from any combination of the available options, including ride-sharing, ride-hailing and micro-mobility, on demand.

Helsinki has taken this to the next level. To help make private cars obsolete by 2025, the Finnish capital has integrated all its transport options, including cheap taxis, bikes and car hire, into a single MaaS service. So as well as viewing the available options, citizens can also book and pay for the ones they want – all using the Whim app.

Cities are also using MaaS technologies to provide access to economic opportunity. In Los Angeles, US, the Metro has partnered with Via to offer low-income citizens and seniors affordable access to and from three major stations. Citizens access the subsidized ride-sharing service through a smartphone app, or use a free reloadable fare card if they don’t have a phone.

Four ways cities can move to next-generation mobility

To tackle the forces shaping urban mobility, we believe city leaders need to do four things.

1. Improve access and the citizen experience for all

Cities need to make mobility work to provide maximum value for citizens. As digital technologies often drive costs down, this value increasingly takes the form of a great citizen experience.

To offer it, cities need to give citizens a menu of options – all of which are speedy, safe, sustainable and personalized to them. They also need to expand access so low-income, marginalized people and seniors can get to jobs, education and activities.  

Sydney in Australia has reinvented the transit experience for riders by providing real-time information and using analytics to improve performance. The city has also used behavioral economics to improve the citizen experience – for example, by allowing commuters to pay through a smartphone app. And in Indonesia, Jakarta uses real-time data and analytics from its rapid bus transit system, TransJakarta, to work out which routes are effective. It then uses that information to improve performance and passenger satisfaction.

Meanwhile, the city of Medellin in Columbia has built cable cars to connect favelas in the hills with jobs in the city center. The cable car system integrates with other transport modes including metro lines, a light rail system and buses.

A once-radical idea – fare-free or reduced fare systems – is also becoming more common. Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, is the largest city in the world to have a fully fare-free transit system.

2. Regulate without hampering innovation

Modern urban mobility systems involve many different operators, public and private. To make the most of the options available, cities need a governance and regulatory framework that allows them to develop and pilot new business models and promising modes of transport. All while protecting public safety. The early years of ride-sharing have also taught them the need to develop regulation proactively, not reactively. This means providing regulatory “sandboxes”: flexible rules that evolve over time to help new ventures develop.

An example of how regulation might work is the Greater Washington DC Partnership in the US, where business leaders have developed a performance-based regulatory framework. This encourages participants to manage data and integrate best practices and common standards for mobility. It may not be the whole answer, but it’s a step towards sensible regulation that still allows innovation to flourish.

3. Partner with the private sector to develop the next generation of mobility systems

From connected buses to autonomous vehicles, new mobility options are emerging all the time. And no single entity, whether it’s government, a business or a transport provider, will be able to deliver them all alone.

Cities need to work closely with the private sector to explore and develop these options. In the UK, Transport for London has partnered with Bosch to run an 18-month mobility pilot. This combines data and technical expertise to help small businesses and start-ups to develop innovative transport solutions for the region.

Ultimately, the city’s role will shift from the traditional “command and control” model, where responsibility ranged from planning, funding, and operations. Instead, it will become an operations manager, focused on competition, technology, regulation and standards-setting. In response to this change, cities such as Los Angeles, Munich and Stockholm are using mobility labs to experiment with new ways of developing and managing urban mobility.

4. Integrate mobility into broader urban policies

The recent protests in Paris proved that mobility doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The government had a laudable goal – encouraging people to move away from cars by increasing taxes on diesel and carbon. But it didn’t think through the impact its policy would have on people.

To avoid this kind of scenario, cities need to coordinate mobility with other policy approaches, including inclusive growth, sustainability, work and housing. And they need to make sure those policies are socially grounded and inclusive.

That means determining how the funding for reforms will work and what impact they may have. It also means setting and measuring outcomes. For example, Bogota, Johannesburg and dozens of other cities have released sustainability plans that align reducing emissions from transport with other city priorities.

A smart choice for the future

Cities need strong mobility initiatives to overcome the challenges they face. But they also need them to avoid making a difficult situation worse. For example, failing to tackle transport “dead zones” as a city grows will add to levels of inequality.

On the other hand, cities that follow the advice above will be more likely to meet their mobility demands in a scalable, sustainable manner. Which will mean they can grow in a way that includes everyone – while becoming more attractive to people, investors and business.

Fortunately, there are many new technologies that can help. To unlock their power, cities need to experiment with the new while managing the old. And they need to move from planning and providing services to creating an environment in which smart, inclusive mobility can thrive.

Cities that keep evolving this role will keep their growing populations moving – and meet one of greatest urban challenges of the 21st century.


Urban mobility networks are struggling to keep up with the growing numbers of people who use them – and the kind of service they expect. To tackle these challenges, cities need to evolve their role and prepare for a complex future. 

About this article

George Atalla

EY Global Government & Public Sector Leader

Working with governments to address complex issues and build a better working world.

Martin Cardell

EY Global Mobility Solutions Leader

Focused on business transformation. Passionate about cars and exploring the world.