As we swiftly close the door to 2020, and look forward to 2021, I took time to look broadly at the present and future of mobility systems and sustainability. I captured three areas where change is needed and what needs to change within them for sustainable mobility to become a reality, encompassing environmental, economic and social. Those are; Unusual Partnerships & Long-term Agility; Living in Motion; and Regenerative Regulation & New Governance

The three areas were developed from insights gathered from multiple sources. The first source being the Moving Us project (in partnership with the Transit Center exploring how collaboration can make mobility systems in US cities more sustainable). We also performed a systemic analysis on how COVID-19 impacted mobility in cities, examining how major cities around the world are tackling Covid through the lens of governance, technology and funding. Thirdly, insights were sourced from Forum colleagues to the question: what are the challenges and opportunities of mobility systems adapting to systemic shocks to create regenerative cities? 

Back in March, as COVID-19 hit New York and ambulances loudly announced the arrival of greater change, I was at my apartment in Brooklyn, as the arrival of the pandemic ended  “business as usual”.

Photo by Scott Evans on Unsplash

Across the world, COVID-19 showed the fragility and unsustainability of the systems we rely on. We see it as unfairness, over-burdening the heroes that risk their lives and families to help society keep functioning, such as nurses, bus drivers and delivery people, while these same heroes do not have hero salaries. We see it in the stark contradictions, as financial markets grow at the same time as eleven million are unemployed. We see it when more than 255,000 die because of COVID, and the majority are Latin, Black, and native Americans, BIPOC beinga four times as likely to be hospitalized than others.

Source: EcoMatcher

Yet, this is just a rehearsal. Climate change is a more significant challenge than COVID-19. The world was hit by over 100 disasters during the first six months of the pandemic, and over 50 million people were affected.

“We thought this was the decisive decade for climate change. No. Forget it. This is it.

Those 10 years that we thought we had have now been shrunk into basically anywhere between three to 18 months because by the end of those 18 months all the decisions, and in fact most of the allocations of the recovery packages, will have been made.”

Christiana Figueres- Former United Nations climate chief

Any decisions made over the coming months as a result of this discontinuity will influence the decade, and this decade will influence the next 100 years on our planet. This is an opportunity for mobility systems to change, as currently these systems pollute, congest and reduce peoples health or reduce their access to opportunity. For many cities, they can now plant seeds for the changes we are imagining.


Though the challenges got bigger. Where are the blockers?

If we think of a city as a large living organism, its mobility system is the equivalent of a nervous system. Where are the acupuncture points to regenerate this organism? Where are the areas for change? As part of our diagnosis with the Moving Us project we identified many challenges and within those I selected the ones I see as nodes. Nodes are areas that intersect issues and actors, where actors are either blocking change or activating change across a specific issue or series of issues. An example of this in transportation terms is an artery, such Williamsbugh or Manhattan bridge for NYC. 

To create sustainable mobility in 2021 and beyond - addressing these node challenges is essential, these are; Insufficient funding for public transport and complex governance; Prioritization of private over public offering; and Individuals choosing cars over public transport. Let me expand on each.

Challenge Node 1: Insufficient funding for public transport and complex governance

The existing budget is generally insufficient to create attractive public transit alternatives and as some government officials told me, urban mobility has never been a profit making business. In tandem, as seen from the CARES Act (The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill passed on March 27, 2020) the priorities from the federal government favour the private sector, instead of providing access to opportunity for people in their cities.

Because the influence from city authorities is limited or tied to collaborating with the state, governance for how to manage existing budgets is more than complicated. See what happened with the L train and Governor Cuomo vs Mayor De Blasio, and how in 3 weeks Cuomo changed 3 years of work led by NYC MTA, choosing short-term gains (including political kudos and benefiting its campaign donors) over more resilient infrastructure. 

On top of all that, the top transit systems in the US have seen 70% to 90% reduction in transit ridership and accompanying farebox revenues, as commuters have been laid off, worked from home, or opted for other means of travel since March 2020. Therefore, the already precarious situation is now exacerbated as many transit systems continue to rely on dedicated funding from payroll, gas, and other taxes which are also currently lower than forecasted. In the immediate future, unless stimulus packs start to be designed for equity and long-term resilience, the lack of adequate funding for resilient transport systems will be sustained. Shouldn't public transit be a public good? Worse cuts begin.

Challenge Node 2: Prioritization of private over public offering

As a result of the above, the poor condition of public transport in cities is in a vicious loop. We have issues of frequency, reliability, cleanliness and safety associated with both public and private. In the public realm, federal and state government decision making and prioritisation continue to be subject to private interest. For example, we see American Airlines receiving 5.8 Billion USD, despite the fact that in 2019 they used their profit to buy back their stock and after benefiting from the CARES Act they announced 19,000 staff reduction. In another instance, cities like San Francisco struggle to find the support that they need, only 568 million as its transit system went down 70 percent citywide. 

The priorities for transportation are closest to the highest donor and move further from serving the common good. 

Challenge Node 3: Individuals choosing cars over public transport

There is a collective paradigm in the US society, a shared world-view that associates freedom with a car. Freedom is frequently romanticized and many fail to understand that to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. For over a century, cars have been associated with freedom. According to Forbes, it is estimated that as much as one half of a modern American city’s land area is dedicated to streets and roads, parking lots, service stations, driveways, signals and traffic signs, automobile-oriented businesses and car dealerships. 

COVID has amplified private usage for direct health-safety reasons in many cities. In contrast with the privilege of freedom is the perception of public transport being associated with BIPOC and low-income people. However, there are many sides to this, as for black women it is safer to travel by car. Therefore, Destiny Thomas suggests: "If you want to ban cars, start by banning racism."

The tension I see is how the individual is set to value an idealized and unrealistic concept of freedom that consequently devalues public transport, an outcome of a white supremacist and classist dominants culture. As part of the complexity of this challenge, the car offers safety from systemic racism - and now COVID too!


The three ways to intervene below are at different levels, but all require collaboration. Additionally, I anticipate a changed operating context over the next couple of years, after waves of industry consolidation among companies. The disruption that characterized the last decade cannot be sustained financially. For example, Uber and Lyft in the US still haven’t made a profit. 

The menace of industry consolidation will affect how the private sector will evolve. Overall, big sums of money remain in the market and in investment funds. Investors are watching closely to identify the relative winners in mobility after COVID. Given the amount of funding that mobility companies need, consolidation is inevitable. Examples during the crisis include Lime’s $170 million funding round, including the acquisition of Uber’s electric bike and scooter operation Jump, Waymo raising $3 billion in venture capital, Didi (the “Uber of China”) raising $500m for autonomous mobility and Intel acquiring Moovit (MaaS solutions) for $900 million.

As we move forward decision makers within a company will grow their influence and the sustainable mobility visionaries within are key to accelerate sustainability - who are they? 

Another implication is how regulators develop relationships with the private sector to co-innovate and move away from the silicon valley ethos of moving fast and break things to a move slow and create lasting change.

Unusual Partnerships and Long-term Agility

This intervention area is about innovating together and reducing complex procurement for gaining adaptability. Because of the aforementioned lack of adequate funding for public transit and the fragility of private business models, many players have exited, and others have retrenched, such as Uber laying off 3,700 full-time employees in its core division or Bird laying off 30 percent of its workforce. 

An example of this is The Singapore Mobility Challenge, a public sector led initiative partnering with the private and third sector. It seeks solutions that can enhance the public transport system by creating a better, safer, more inclusive everyday experience for commuters, and by supporting the workers who keep our public transport system running. Another COVID response example, public transit and private operators, such as Lyft, started funding models that essentially provided Universal Basic Mobility (UBM) to front line workers, even if they didn’t name it explicitly. 

On the topic of UBM, Seleta Reynolds in LA says: "Universal basic mobility is making sure that no matter where you live in this city or how much money you make, you have access to safe, reliable, and affordable transportation to get where you need to go...It might be that we have a package of memberships to a car-sharing service, a bus pass, Uber/Lyft credits, and money for the toll lane. All of those things that can combine to give people the same access to mobility in South LA and Pacoima as they have in Century City and Venice.”

Seleta Reynolds - Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) General Manager

Regenerative regulation and New Governance 

Providing new structures for mobility to operate differently, moving from regulate after the fact, to anticipating and guiding innovation for the public good. Here the opportunity lies with policy developers and city planners working together with communities to create regenerative cities and improve systems like mobility. Together they have to create mechanisms to increase leadership accountability, one that supersedes private donors, without this we won’t see the long lasting impact that is needed.

We can see an example of this in New Zealand’s Transport Agency, Waka Kotahi, launching the Innovating Streets for People program, which included a $7 million fund to help councils rapidly create more people-centered spaces. The fund is designed for tactical urbanism pilot projects that could serve as prototypes before making any lasting changes. While projects like this taken alone will not solve all transportation needs, they can change places, get communities more actively involved, and test solutions on a small scale that may have wider application.

These projects are non-permanent, and might follow a phased testing approach that includes pop-ups, pilots, and semi-permanent projects.

Such testing enables communities to get a sense of what their streets could be like, and get community input, before committing to major investment. This allows all stakeholders to be involved in an iterative process and authorities are able to make more informed decisions while increasing accountability.

Additionally we can see Pittsburgh taking a bottom-up approach and engaging communities in new street solutions that offer to redesign the street favouring human traffic. The city of Pittsburgh, in partnership with other organizations, is supporting small business retailers, restaurant owners, artists, service workers, or someone else unable to work with this initiative.

Living in Motion 

Going back to a philosophical question. Why do we move? We move for love, health, discovery, growth, access to opportunity and change. The momentum created by cities moving from car centric to streets for the people is palpable from Milan, Bogota, to Madison Wisconsin. City officials are using this opportunity for growing hundreds of kilometers to recapture street space for the public realm, transit, bikes, and pedestrians.

I see 15-minute cities as a clear leading aspiration for mobility. Consequently, we need to build narratives that would allow residents to live in these cities. This is an example of the transformative ambitions of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who has doubled down on car-free transit and pedestrian infrastructure in the French capital. Hidalgo made the idea that Parisians should be able to meet their shopping, work, recreational and cultural needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride a centerpiece of her recent reelection campaign

Source: Caradisiac

Hidalgo’s approach is about our deep relationship with our locality. COVID has made us look deeper to what is closest to us. This connection with our closest space, neighbours and businesses can regenerate our economies and cities, there is joy in local communities. The potential benefits of this can be seen on the superblocks in Barcelona where, despite initial strong opposition to closing streets to car traffic, we can see success stories: inhabitants rate their quality of life higher than before and retail is benefiting with a 30% increase, car usage declined 5 times and if scaled, Barcelona government estimated life expectancy would grow. 

As a conclusion, because the next significant global pressure may come in the shape of a climate disaster and a social crisis, we need to act now. We must be courageous and bold on funding allocation. We can make long-term resilience and sustainable development principles as the highest priority agendas in cities. 

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Cover photo by Taylor Vick on Unsplash