Cities are leading the way in the circular economy transition. But what does it take to become a truly circular city? This series of articles explore the key services that cities need to adapt in order to become fully circular. These include energyconstruction, waterfood and mobility. This article delves in the challenges associated with designing circularity into mobility systems.

Mobility Systems: The Lifeblood of Cities

For humans to survive, they need fully functional circulatory systems that are able to efficiently transport nutrients around the body. If an artery becomes blocked or if you have low blood pressure, the circulatory system suffers and your body begins to shut down. Mobility systems in cities are akin to the circulatory system in the human body – the harder it is to move around a city the less productive or ‘healthy’ the city as a whole becomes.

Currently, most city mobility systems are similar to the circulatory system of an 80-year-old heavy smoker and drinker who is a burger away from a cardiac arrest. This is largely due to the rapid growth of urban populations combined with growing consumer dependence on personal transport vehicles, which are hugely resource inefficient and almost entirely powered by polluting fossil fuels.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, cars are parked roughly 92% of the time, and when they are being driven, they tend to only carry one person. Even worse, 86% of fuel never reaches the wheels. This addiction to cars means cities need to dedicate up to 50% of their space to parking and roads. The urban sprawl of the 1950s, as experienced most severely in America, has also led to the growth of suburban cities in which it is almost impossible to get around the city without owning your own vehicle. Emerging economies are now replicating this model, further exacerbating the problem.


The inneficiency of cars. EMF

A significant amount of natural resources are also being used in the construction of cars and the associated infrastructure supporting them, as manufacturing a car creates as much carbon emissions as driving it. What is worse, demand for cars is only set to rise. In India, demand is expected to double or even triple by 2030.

Poor mobility systems also have severe social and health implications. Air pollution in cities, predominantly caused by mobility, is killing 600,000 children per year and leads to a whole set of respiratory and lung diseases. Further to that, a recent study has suggested that 3.4 million premature births are linked to air pollution.

So what are the remedies for such a problem? What would a healthy, inclusive, circular mobility system look like? One part of the solution will depend on the experimentation and adoption of new green mobility technologies and the other is likely to come from hardline policies and urban planning.

Technology & The Transition To Circular Mobility Systems

There are a whole host of mobility technologies that are paving the way for circular mobility systems, ranging from electric and hydrogen vehicles to mobility information systems.

Electric and Hydrogen Vehicles

Previously, we looked at the many advantages electric cars offer over their fossil fuelled counterparts in powering circular cities. The past decade has seen rapid development and deployment of electric and hydrogen powered vehicles in cities. Electric cars, such as the Tesla Model S, BMWi and Nissan Leaf, are now becoming a common sight in our cities.

Although electric cars are rising in popularity, it is worth broadening the technological horizon and exploring other mobility technologies that offer solutions to the growing mobility crisis.

Riversimple, for example, is a UK-based hydrogen car manufacturer that is attempting to turn the car industry on its head by applying circular economy principles. Instead of selling cars, Riversimple provide them as a “service.” Customers pay a monthly fee that covers use, maintenance, insurance, and fuel, while Riversimple retain ownership of the car. They therefore have an economic incentive to make their cars last for as long as possible, maximizing their use of resources to extend revenue from each customer. Customers are also expected to pay much less compared to the standard retail model. The bonus is they run on hydrogen fuel cells and so have zero emissions.

In 2015, the first trial of entirely driverless pods took place in Milton Keynes, UK. These pods are very much at an early stage of development but offer promising benefits, such as greatly increased safety, material and energy efficiency, and the ability to travel in pedestrianized areas. People without driving licenses will be able to access them.

Finally, and considering that heavy duty vehicles make up one quarter of all CO2 emissions from road transport, Mercedes has launched a new range of fully electric haulage trucks which have a range of over 200 kilometers (124 miles). Tesla also announced their plans to launch a fully electric truck in 2019.


Mercedes Electric Truck. Yahoo

The biggest drawback to the growth of electric vehicles is that they currently draw energy from electric grids which are predominantly powered by fossil fuels. Therefore, until the grid is powered by renewable energies, electric vehicles are simply externalizing the pollution from cities to nearby power stations.

Mobility Information Services

In addition to having clean, efficient mobility technologies, people also need instant access to transport and travel information to help them move across the city most efficiently. Helsinki, Finland, is now attempting to revolutionize how people move through the city by developing a point to point mobility-on-demand network by 2050. This network will integrate all forms of transport such as buses, taxis, bikes, car pooling and bike sharing. All of the network will be accessible via a simple app and will inform the user of the fastest and cheapest way to travel.

A key principle of circular mobility systems is making the most efficient use of existing assets and sharing economy platforms, with the promise of unlocking efficiency gains. Uber is the well-known example of using existing vehicles to meet demand rather than buying a new fleet of taxis. However, many other examples exist where city dwellers can share each other’s vehicles. Spinlister allows you to rent other peoples bikes, while Shanghai, China, now has more than 450,000 bikes available to share. Elsewhere, GoCarShare lets you share rides together to cut costs and easyCarClub lets you rent other peoples cars.

Urban Planning and Policies for Circular Mobility System

Technological innovation is only one piece of the puzzle in transitioning to a circular mobility system. Forward thinking policy and legislation is also required to accelerate behavior change and the uptake of such technologies. A number of cities are now implementing radical initiatives to transition to more circular urban systems.

One way is to simply ban polluting vehicles. For example, by 2020, Paris plans to ban all diesel cars from entering the city; Mexico City, Madrid and Athens are aiming to follow suit. Barcelona is attempting a radical new strategy called “super blocks” which removes traffic from entire blocks of the city – thereby drastically reducing pollution and giving urban space back to citizens to rebuild communities, make room for culture and increase leisure.


Superblocks in Barcelona banning traffic. Agéncia d’Ecologia Urbana de Barcelona

The challenge with such policies is that city municipalities need to provide suitable and affordable sustainable alternative transport to fill the gap, such as increased public transport and bike lanes. This is particularly true for the urban poor who are likely to suffer the most. Hamburg is planning on addressing this issue by building a “green network” that will cover 40% of the city and will allow people to bike or walk almost anywhere.

Urban planning can also play a big role in the design of mobility systems in new cities that are cropping up in emerging economies. Cities can be designed to be much denser, thereby reducing travel times and incentivizing citizens to develop more sustainable transport habits. In China, a new eco-city near Chengdu has been designed so that citizens no longer need to drive – instead, the streets have been laid out so that any location can be reached within 15 minutes on foot.

Evidence of technological and political innovation in cities with regards to circular mobility systems offers a vision for the future. What is more, 75% of the infrastructure that will exist in 2050 – most of which will be in cities – doesn’t exist today, meaning that there is a significant opportunity to learn from past failure and build urban landscapes that support sustainable and efficient mobility systems. However, significant challenges remain for existing cities which are to some extent locked into their existing transport infrastructure – particularly the sprawling cities of the US. Only time will tell whether technological innovation and hardline policy can overcome the deep-rooted ‘artery clogging’ mobility systems of the 20th century.