Amsterdam Creates a Low-Car City for The Future

Pandemic reduced public transport use but encouraged e-bikes

Traditionally friendly to bicycles, trams, and buses, Amsterdam announced plans in 2019 to make the city even safer and easier to navigate without a car: It would cut parking areas even further to return public space to the people. But the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a worldwide reluctance to use public transport, and even people in the area around Amsterdam started using their cars more.

In response, the city is focusing on new forms of sustainable private mobility – such as systems for the sharing of cars and e-bikes. Lizann Tjon, the City of Amsterdam’s Senior Innovation Manager for Smart Mobility, explained the city’s plans to Andreas Nienhaus, a Partner in Oliver Wyman's Automotive and Mobility team and part of the Oliver Wyman Forum’s Mobility initiative.

She said that any increase in car use during the pandemic is likely to be temporary. The downsides of cars in cities remain the same, as do the benefits of public transport, cycling, and walking. The shift will continue.

Particularly in cities, the pandemic led people to feel a need for security and private mobility, and many bought a car. Do you think they will continue to use these cars?

People think a car is safest because they are alone in it, they can plan their own route, and they are not dependent on the schedules of public transport. But now, after more than one and a half years, traffic jams are coming back. People are beginning to wonder whether it is still really necessary to have their own car because there are other costs such as taxes, insurance, and parking permits. So now they are buying e-bikes – though there aren’t enough of them. An e-bike is good for your health, and health has become a priority. City people now think that buying a car is for the suburbs.

What are Amsterdam’s plans for shifting behavior to shared mobility and away from private cars?

We have started different projects to introduce people to shared mobility. It means shared electric cars, electric mopeds, e-bikes, and cargo bikes: Many parents take their children around by cargo bike instead of car.

We did some experiments. We asked citizens to hand in their cars for one or two months in exchange for a shared-mobility budget, and we tried to intensify shared mobility in some places, for example metro and train junctions. Half of the participants decided to get rid of their private cars.

A monopoly is never the best solution for the end customer. Will Amsterdam host its own mobility platform and integrate other services? Or will you orchestrate services from other providers? 

The role of the municipality should be to coordinate platforms for mobility as a service – not to develop and maintain these itself. The city government will then orchestrate the data stream – not to own the data but to know what is happening with the data. We don’t want to know exactly where people are traveling because that would not be in line with their privacy, but public space is our responsibility. It should be safe, livable, and affordable.

The city must also be accessible because we believe it should be inclusive. Older and disabled people should be able to use new kinds of mobility, as should people who live in the suburbs. Therefore, we put some caps on the number of providers for bike sharing, e-mopeds and shared e-cars. We don’t want to have them all over the streets, as we have seen in some other cities. If all these shared bikes are on the corner, it’s a mess, and people get angry. That does not stimulate the use of shared mobility.

What are the greatest obstacles to making city mobility greener and safer?

One is people’s behavior. Another is that mobility is siloed. It’s either public transport, the bike, or a car. We are looking at all dimensions of the mobility system. Public transport shouldn’t be separate from shared bikes, shared cars, and taxis. It should be part of the same system.  If you look at Amsterdam or Hamburg, you can also envision shared or self-driving electric boats on the canals, and we are experimenting with that.

There should be some strategic hubs where you can change from the water to the streets or to the metro. We are also looking at what is possible in the air for logistics and urban air mobility. That means looking at infrastructure and how we plan buildings. It used to be impossible to have a company building without parking lots, but that has to change. Instead, perhaps there should be some landing space on building rooves for urban air mobility.

What would be your best-case scenario for five years’ time?

Our ambition is to remove 10,000 parking spaces by 2025. We want to give the public space back to people so the city will be greener, more livable, and more accessible. I hope that the use of private cars will be a lot lower.

What do you feel is the greatest risk to achieving this goal?

One challenge is to make everybody a part of it so that no groups feel they are locked out or not included. Another challenge is in logistics. If you look at restaurants, they have so many different suppliers: If they have to bring meat in cold, they cannot let it wait a few hours at a hub for another logistics partner to pick up. I think you can make a lot possible by digitizing platforms. It’s strange that sometimes for one house there are five different logistics providers. It’s possible to make it smarter, but that depends on the willingness of providers to work together, even though they have their own business models.

Amsterdam has some advantages. It’s densely populated. Historically it’s very bike friendly. And it has an image of being innovative in mobility. But most Europeans live in rural areas or suburbs. What advice do you have for areas that are not as densely populated?

It’s about what you offer. If there is no shared mobility, people don’t know that it is possible to use it. While it’s hard to cycle 20 kilometers on a normal bike, it is normal to go such a distance on an e-bike. We can also let people know that it is cheaper to have an e-bike than a private car. I believe that in 20 years it will not be possible to go to the city center by car. You will have to park your car outside and go the last mile by e-bike or public transport. However, older and disabled people, who cannot use a shared bike or public transport, should always be able to get to the city center by car.