Sustainable Mobility Is About Moving People, Not Vehicles

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The accelerated growth of Asia Pacific cities has led to more people using motorized transport than ever before. This presents numerous issues, from worsening traffic congestion to injuries and fatalities from road accidents.

Then there is the region’s air pollution crisis, which is exacerbated by the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by motorized transport. Asia’s CO2 emissions is now projected to hit 43.08 billion metric tons by 2050 (up from 35.3 billion in 2018).

By designing safe, accessible and low-carbon mobility systems, cities can take steps right now to defuse this problem.

How can urban mobility help with climate change? Make it sustainable

“Sustainable mobility” refers to transporting people and goods in ways that are safe, affordable, and ecologically-friendly.

A complete shift away from polluting motorized vehicles and a commensurate embrace of sustainable, low-carbon transport options will not happen overnight – but there are still ways for cities to get started on the process now.

Cities need to pursue the right mix of sustainable mobility strategies to accommodate their growing populations and spatial footprints. However, it can be difficult to know which strategies to prioritize first.

This is where the “Avoid-Shift-Improve” (A-S-I) approach comes in.

A three-phase process to achieve sustainable mobility

A-S-I is a process that helps cities develop sustainable transport. Its avoid” measures refer to both the making of efficient and connected public transport systems and the making of compact cities by changing urban form, improving freight logistics systems, and substituting information and communication technologies to reduce travel distances.


“The current pandemic situation has vastly changed the way we live, work and play,” says CDIA Urban Development Specialist Chee Anne Roño. “It also made apparent the direct correlation between decrease in travel demand and decline in emissions.”

She points out that, according to the International Energy Agency, coronavirus-related travel restrictions brought about a 6% drop in energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions last year- which makes a strong case for “avoid” measures.

Cities can help their citizens avoid journeys whenever possible by employing smart spatial planning that keeps basic amenities – such as hospitals, schools, supermarkets, bus and tram stations, and public spaces like parks and playgrounds – reachable for people with shorter motorized trips or a larger share of public transport.

We can see this in action in cities like Singapore and Barcelona, which are “creating 15-minute neighborhoods or superblocks,” Chee says, that keeps citizens’ day-to-day needs within short commutes.

15-minute neighborhoods also generally make walking or cycling an option for residents instead of driving. “This is an example of a ‘shift’ measure made possible through transit-oriented development,” Chee says. “Non-motorized transport not only produces zero emissions, it also directly impacts air quality and health.”

After cities work to shift over to more energy efficient modes of transport, they can then ultimately “improve” their transport systems by investing in low-carbon infrastructure and selecting vehicle technology that runs on cleaner fuels or renewable energy sources. This helps cities “decarbonize” their environments and improve local air quality and public health.

Improved public transit doesn’t only benefit the cities in these ways – enhanced mobility also helps bring a city’s citizens closer together, which helps create new business models and new economic opportunities.

Chee shares that the Australian state of South Australia, where she is currently based, has announced an AU$18.3-million investment to encourage electric vehicle uptake and make them the “common choice” for motorists by 2030 and the “default choice” by 2035. This will help the state achieve its target of net zero emissions by 2050.

Mainstreaming sustainable mobility throughout Asia

Cities around Asia have already made successful shifts towards more sustainable transport options.

In 2013, CDIA supported a project preparation study for an Asian Development Bank-funded urban transport project in Peshawar, Pakistan. For years, Peshawar’s citizens relied on private transport or expensive taxi services to get across the city.

The urban transport project helped the city develop a new bus rapid transit system, called Zu Peshawar, which features low-emission electric hybrid buses that move quickly along an organized route from east to west of the city. Meanwhile, Zu Peshawar’s well-lit bus stations are handicap accessible and have dedicated facilities for women and the elderly.

And in 2020, CDIA worked in Tbilisi, Georgia to help the city implement a new strategic bus network, following successful past projects to support Tbilisi’s shift toward sustainable-transport policies. The project included working with Tbilisi’s Transport and Urban Development Agency (TUDA) to design an efficient network of bus lanes and building the city’s capacity on operational and technical matters.

As part of this project, CDIA’s urban development experts formulated and published a series of technical notes containing technical advice, international best practices and pragmatic solutions on sustainable transport and mobility they brought to the project while working with TUDA.

Shifting to sustainable mobility is challenging – but possible

Cities in Asia and the Pacific have had success with A-S-I transport-related initiatives – but others still struggle to design climate-resilient urban transport systems.

“Many decision-makers are traditionally car-centric in their view – meaning they are more interested in building more roads to reduce traffic for private motor vehicles,” says Chee. “And it is still not that popular for cities to develop urban transportation projects with the environment or climate change as the key driver.”

However, “urban transport should be primarily about moving people, not moving vehicles,” Chee remarks.

“Integrated public transport systems should be a key investment consideration for any city as part of its urban development pathway and a climate mitigation strategy.”

She also stresses that infrastructure for non-motorized transportation (walking or cycling paths) must be given equal attention to provide the poor and vulnerable with safe, inclusive and affordable mobility options.

This frames the challenge for Chee and her colleagues at CDIA as they work with more local officials to identify their cities’ mobility challenges – and integrate environment and climate factors into their urban transport strategies.

Many cities in Asia and the Pacific have already proved that a shift toward sustainable mobility is indeed possible. And today, these cities enjoy the dividends from their decisions over the past few years, and they now serve as templates for other cities with similar aspirations.

This article was developed with financial support from the European Union.

Cities can apply for CDIA’s project preparation support here.

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