Cities and Urbanization

These outdated mindsets and regulations are holding back urban mobility: Experts

Urban mobility options like e-scooters can cut an individual's carbon emissions and ease citywide congestion.

Urban mobility options like e-scooters can cut an individual's carbon emissions and ease citywide congestion. Image: REUTERS/Nick Carey

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Cities and Urbanization

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  • Shared mobility — such as ride-sharing services and e-scooters — could be key tools in the pursuit of net-zero emissions in our cities.
  • But outdated or regressive attitudes and approaches towards the urban mobility sector too often restrict its growth — and can even endanger the safety and hold back decarbonisation.
  • Three industry experts shared with the Forum the changes that would bolster the mobility sector in cities everywhere.

More than half of the global population — 4.4 billion — live in cities. But by 2050, that figure is expected to nearly double.

This growth makes cities a key staging area for the global fight against climate change as cities account for 70% of global CO2 emissions. These emissions, in part, are fed by cars. And while the boom in shared mobility options (from ride-sharing and ride-hailing to rental e-scooters and e-bikes) could help to slash emissions, in some cases, outdated regulations are holding back the evolution of new types of climate-friendly transit.

In other cases, an unreactive or rigid policy environment could hold innovation back. Some cities, uncertain how to manage new mobility modes such as micromobility (such as e-scooters or e-bikes), are failing to update policies and regulations to deal with the adoption of these new modes. This can hinder the growth and innovation of service providers, and thus public uptake of shared mobility.

Three experts from the mobility sector spoke with the World Economic Forum recently, outlining how regulation changes could aid the fight against climate change while improving safety and the efficiency of our streets.

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Rethinking the curb

The challenge: In many cities, on-street parking is either underpriced, or there’s an over-abundance of off-street parking. On average, parking takes up around a third of city land mass and with around eight spots for every car. Spaces optimized for cars reduce the ability for cities to accommodate other types of transit, or solutions such as bike sharing or scooter sharing docking stations or vehicle charging stations, says Shin-pei Tsay, Global Head of Cities and Transportation Policy, Uber Technologies.

The solution: Cities need to maximise “performance at the curb,” says Tsay. “One potential solution is to have a net-zero pavement policy. Any additional parking you build, you must take parking away — this already happens in Switzerland as part of the climate action plan.”

“Authorities could even do away entirely with the necessity to build parking spaces. This has been tried in Buffalo, New York, and where the government abolished any kind of parking regulation for developers. Developers built 25% less parking.”

Beyond that, city leaders should consider “curb productivity” and diversity, says Tsay. Curbs should be bustling with a range of activities, from pedestrians, to people loading urban freight, or parking cycles.

“Less parking would improve the human experience of cities,” Says Tsay. “You would improve the ability of cities to be more compact, more resource efficient.”

“All of this, ultimately, ladders up to fewer carbon emissions and is part of decarbonisation.”

Reversing regulatory fragmentation

The challenge: E-scooters are growing in adoption globally. In the US alone, e-scooter docking stations grew 122% from 2018 to 2022. Despite this growth, in most countries, there is still no legal status for e-scooters. Their status is fragmented and varies greatly from market to market. Legal status can dictate a number of elements, from the traffic rules that apply to e-scooter riders to the administrative procedures required to enter a market, says Pauline Aymonier, Head of Technology & Environmental Policy, TIER Mobility. “This has a great impact on how micromobility companies can offer their services, and how citizens can interact with them. It also limits the growth of sustainable urban mobility options overall and hampers technological innovation.

The solution: “We need to define the legal status of e-scooters,” says Aymonier, as well as the peripheral legal aspects associated with them. This is particularly important when it comes to safety. Industry coalition Micro-Mobility for Europe, of which TIER is a member, recommends e-scooter riders are treated as vulnerable road users, like bicycles and pedestrians, and suggests EU-wide safety incident reporting standards — both would be possible under bloc-wide action.

Whether e-scooters are considered bikes or something entirely new, the key priority is to provide “legal certainty for cities and users,” says Aymonier — this would define, for example, where riders drive on the road, whether riders need insurance and what kind of protective equipment is recommended.

Aymonier said there is “still a lot of discussion that needs to happen” when it comes to establishing exactly how to categorise e-scooters — but that the solution must, in the EU, be bloc-wide. One major city in Belgium, for example, is waiting for the EU to define the legal status of scooters before allowing them to operate in the city at all, Aymonier said.

For markets where a legal status already exists, “the next stage is to harmonise to create more ease of operation for cities, citizens and operators.”

The European Commission is now examining its vehicle legislation with a view to update it. This presents a key opportunity to consult with providers — which it has already started to do — and set best practice globally for how micromobility is governed.

New levers for progress in urban mobility

The challenge: The fast emergence of new mobility options has not given many cities a chance to update their approaches to it. After all, mobility isn’t just a way to move residents from one place to another. Mobility operators can be a tool to help cities reach wider goals such as safety, inclusivity, emissions reduction and responsible business practice.

Cities leveraging classic practices, such as revenue share, could dampen the uptake of new more inclusive or climate-friendly modes. It can also make it harder for startups to expand into new cities. “If too high,” says Benjamin Bell, Senior Director of Public Policy & Communications, TIER Mobility, “operators then may have to make difficult decisions about whether to stick around in a market.”

A shift in approach can help leaders emphasize what matters most, notes Bell: “Namely, who can give the safest outcomes and who is the most sustainable service.”

The solution: Incentives can be designed to help scale progress towards climate goals and other pressing priorities. Additionally, where a city is determined to charge for running a service, rather than taking a slice of a provider’s revenue, says Bell, authorities could instead consider a nominal per-vehicle fee. This naturally scales with size of a fleet and allows cities to deal with additional administrative costs without hurting competitiveness, risking safety or holding back the net-zero transition.

Looking ahead

City leaders around the world are working with a range of stakeholders to ensure that mobility options can help tackle big goals. For example, over the last year, the Global New Mobility Coalition at the World Economic Forum has been collaborating with mobility operators, cities and civil society groups to deliver the Urban Mobility Scorecard Tool.

The Tool provides a benchmarking assessment for cities to assess their progress towards sustainable, inclusive mobility. Shared mobility is a crucial component of the Urban Mobility Scorecard Tool, with a range of questions on how cities are approaching issues such as space allocation, regulation and innovation to support the growth of shared mobility. Through the Urban Mobility Scorecard Tool, cities can identify actions to advance sustainable mobility and connect with the private sector and civil society to discuss new solutions to create more sustainable cities.

Work such as this will be key to helping cities craft the solutions that work best for their people and the planet.

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