by Sweekrity Goyal

With 20% of the world’s carbon emissions stemming from the mobility sector, it is crucial to consider mobility when working towards a net zero target for 2050. European decarbonisation efforts have been promising in incorporating greener, safer and more sustainable mobility options. But the nature of mobility calls for more nuanced climate action.

Among the 5Ps of sustainability, the “People” aspect takes a back seat to the “Planet” aspect in the designing of sustainable mobility practises. This has detrimental economic and social impact, especially on the vulnerable. 

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Unequal access to transport

Mobility inequality can be defined as disadvantages to individuals or groups produced by unequal access to mobility resources. It is the limitation of socially marginalised or vulnerable groups in their daily mobility and their access to necessary functions, such as work, school, health care, grocery stores, etc. Mobility inequality adds to socio-economic inequality. Moreover, without access to the labour market and educational institutions, their upward social mobility is limited. Vulnerable populations such as those with disabilities, the elderly, women from cultures that restrict their movement, and immigrants may even face fear and social exclusion due to a lack of financial ability to access mobility services.

“I can never be sure to arrive on time”, complains Kader Boucetta, a resident of Vitry-sur- Seine, a Parisian suburb. The French professional school student points out that it takes him 35 minutes to walk to the only station accessible from his home. Le Monde compared Kader’s and other banlieusards’ daily commute to an obstacle course. On average, it lasts more than an hour and a half and includes four different modes of transport to cross Paris.

Effect on income inequality

Mobility inequality further increases for vulnerable residents of rural and suburban areas. Given a considerable distance to the main lines of public transport, these populations are forced to depend on private first- and last-mile mobility solutions. Owning a car or hiring a taxi is expensive, and depending on lifts from others is usually time-consuming, and hence costly. Consequently, this population is restricted to jobs and education opportunities that are available nearby. This is where mobility inequality compounds income inequality.

Let us take Paris as a case in point. Any area outside inner-city Paris lacks reliable public transport. The population residing outside Paris becomes dependent on car-use and car- ownership in the context described above. As research shows, the mobility inequality of low- income households in these neighbourhoods is evident in the distance, speed, frequency and purpose of trips made.

Rich Parisian households make 10% more trips than poor and suburban households, suggesting mobility inequality in movement for fulfilling basic functions of life. Moreover, car- ownership among different income groups suggests mobility inequality in modes of transport, with a 60% ownership rate for the lower quartile and 90% for the upper quartile. Even though car-ownership is not widespread in Paris and cannot be used as a proxy for inequality, car-dependent areas are left with no choice.

While designing mobility strategies to reduce carbon emissions, providers of sustainable mobility should also consider the difficulties that vulnerable groups have in accessing transport services.

This gap in sustainable mobility strategies seems to have drawn the attention of the European Union. It has been a while since the EU set in place an Urban Mobility Package with Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMP) at its core for a cleaner, greener and smarter mobility transition.

New EU Urban Mobility Framework

In December 2021, as a part of this package, the commission proposed a new EU Urban Mobility Framework. Brussels officials took a jab at the over-centralization of EU capitals by presenting a simple yet ambitious strategy: making interlinkage between urban, suburban and rural areas a top priority.

What is their proposed plan of action? Nothing concrete as yet, but the emphasis on sustainable, inclusive, and efficient mobility modes is evident.

“The cities linked by EU infrastructure are our economic powerhouses, but they must also be lean cities – for inhabitants and commuters. That is why we are recommending a dedicated framework for sustainable urban mobility – to guide the faster transition to safe, accessible, inclusive, smart and zero-emission urban mobility,” explained the EU transport commissioner, Adina Vălean.

Various early adopters can be seen across the EU. Take the case of Hamburg, where the public transport services conducted an experiment in the Lokstedt and Langenhorn areas to integrate e-scooters and dock-less bikes into the urban transport infrastructure and improve accessibility for first- and last-mile commuters. Within 20 days, the usage went from zero to 5000 rides, and since the start of the project the monthly rides have tripled. This stunning response shows the demand for sustainable mobility alternatives to car ownership.

By the end of 2022, the commission should publish a recommendation to member states on strategies to better adapt SUMPs and include active, collective, and shared mobility with a focus on interlinkages of urban, rural, and suburban areas.

Upcoming vehicle access regulations could commit mobility providers not just to  zero- emission, but also to inclusive, transport services. Therefore, for commercial success it could be decisive for the providers in the field of active, collective, and shared mobility, say, e-scooter operators, to align their sustainable solutions with the objectives of the urban mobility initiative of the commission.

Balancing multiple priorities

Sustainable mobility is multi-faceted. Therefore, the new approach needs to concentrate on access and affordability as much as on zero emissions.

We need an integrated approach in addressing diverse sustainable development goals: climate action, reduced inequality, and sustainable cities and communities. This is possible through leveraging the ongoing decarbonising efforts. Access to efficient, affordable, and safe transport for diverse vulnerable groups is key in achieving environmental goals and an overall winning strategy for mobility providers and all their users.