Putting Sustainability in the Driver’s Seat

As the race to net zero gains momentum, cities are moving to make their transportation networks greener and healthier

Disruption is like the proverbial crosstown bus: You wait seemingly forever for one to come along and then, bam, the next one comes right on its tail. This year, supply-chain problems have slowed the global movement of goods and slammed the brakes on the pandemic-induced boom in automotive demand. This jolt comes even as our patterns of living and working remain in flux and cities struggle to find the new normal for transit systems. Yet one thing is clear: as evidence grows about the threat of climate change, the future of mobility depends upon sustainability.

The Oliver Wyman Forum, in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley, is unveiling the 2021 edition of the Urban Mobility Readiness Index – a forward-leaning ranking of how well-positioned global cities are to lead mobility’s next chapter. We have expanded our research to include 10 new cities this year, one of which – Munich – makes it into the top 10.

The leading cities boast strong local economies, dynamic mobility innovators, and in many cases positive externalities from the continuation of remote work, which has reduced congestion and encouraged residents to adopt physically active mobility options like walking and cycling. Two cities stand out here: Stockholm, which rises two places to rank number one for the first time, and San Francisco, which jumps nine places to number two.

Around the world, governments and companies increasingly are making commitments to become net-zero carbon emitters. That has major implications for mobility given that transportation generates 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In recognition of the challenge, we are introducing a new Sustainable Mobility sub-index that measures how well cities are investing and organizing to make their transportation networks greener and healthier.

Scandinavian cities are the clear pacesetters in sustainable mobility. Oslo, often called the electric vehicle (EV) capital of the world, leads the sub-index while Helsinki and Stockholm rank in the top five. The Swedish capital has seen during the last year an increase in the number of people choosing to cycle and has continued to invest in EV charging stations and micromobility infrastructure. Other European cities and several Asian metropolises also score well on sustainable mobility. They boast strong multimodal networks and robust transit systems that contribute to lower car ownership rates; take potential natural disasters into account when developing new infrastructure, and invest actively in EV charging.    

One feature shared by many of the top performers is a trend to extend and make permanent their cycling infrastructure, much of it erected hastily during the pandemic. Berlin has expanded access to bike sharing while Boston, London, and Milan increased the number of cycling lanes. Authorities in Paris recently announced they would add 180 kilometers of cycling lanes and quadruple the number of bike parking spots, to 240,000, by 2026.

The cities that struggled most this year saw declining public transit ridership amid a shift to private vehicles or strict lockdowns during COVID-19, without any concomitant uptake in active mobility or electrification. For several, this was compounded by the decline of local businesses, especially those in travel and tourism. The consequent decline in revenue at many mobility companies has made it harder for them to invest in innovation.   

Yet the future offers plenty of opportunity, including for cities that rank lower down in our Urban Mobility Readiness Index. With little in the way of legacy systems to hold them back, Gulf cities are investing aggressively in mobility innovation, including self-driving taxis in Dubai and the soon-to-be-launched driverless metro in Riyadh. New technologies also can enable cities in rapidly developing economies to leapfrog straight to next-generation mobility. This is one reason to keep an eye on megacities like Delhi and new index entrants such as Cape Town and Quito. Unencumbered by high levels of private car ownership, these cities and others like them have the opportunity to transform their urban mobility in a more sustainable direction.