Cities have a car dependency problem. Here’s how they can solve it

September 21, 2022

car dependency

The car is arguably the most successful consumer product in history. 

An affordable status symbol that allows owners to move around over long and short distances quickly and independently, worldwide sales have increased every decade for over a century. BloombergNEF estimates this trend will peak in 2036, at which point there will be just over 1.5 billion cars globally, including over 250 million in the EU alone.

It’s no surprise then that for the past hundred years or so, cities have been designed to accommodate cars, rather than the people living in them.

As a result, car dependency is one of the biggest issues facing urban areas across the globe.

Less space and time, more money and pollution

In Paris, only a fraction of people use cars but each vehicle is granted over 100m2 – up to 80% of the urban area – so everyone has less space. In Lagos, the prevalence of cars means that people can waste over six hours commuting to and from work every day, while in Berlin €4.2 billion is spent on automotive infrastructure every year. That equates to €270 per month per car, so every Berliner has less money in their pocket. It doesn’t stop there though – road accidents are one of the biggest causes of death globally, while road transport creates over 20% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

 CO2 emissions

So what’s the alternative to private cars dominating our cities? Is there an alternative? 

Looking around Europe, we see that there is. Amsterdam and Copenhagen have been leading the way for years and today, bikes account for over 50% of total trips in both city centres. Indeed across the Netherlands over 2 million people live in ‘woonerfs’, or living streets, where the needs of people are prioritised over drivers and their vehicles.

The move away from cars is starting to pervade some of Europe’s biggest cities as well. Paris has a 15-minute city plan that aims to create self-sufficient communities where everything you need is within a 15-minute walk or cycle, while Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has moved to extend the ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zone) to cover the entire city. 

Cities need to adapt their transport infrastructure

In most cities, about half of trips continue to be done using private cars. We envision that over the next five years, this number will go down by about a quarter, but in order for that to happen, cities need to ensure they have the infrastructure for other modes of transport to take a large share of trips. This includes light vehicles (bikes, e-bikes, scooters) and shared mobility options like ride-hailing and carsharing, which offer more affordable alternatives for almost every purpose a private car serves. 

Light vehicles require bike lanes and organised parking, while ride-hailing and carsharing need to have free parking available. Cities could support converting current car parking to exclusive light and shared vehicle parking, encouraging people to ditch private vehicles and use light and shared ones, which consume significantly less space. The regulation also needs to find a good balance between creating an environment where these alternative modes of transport can be used safely while still being accessible, and without sacrificing the market competition that fosters innovation and drives down the cost of transportation.

Building cities for people, not cars

All the evidence we have demonstrates people living in Europe’s biggest cities are ready to move away from private cars. In research conducted by Norway’s Institute of Transport Economics (Transportøkonomisk institutt, TØI), we nudged Bolt customers in ten European cities to use a scooter, rather than ride-hailing, for city trips of up to 3 km. The study showed that in-app encouragement led up to 60% of users to shift from ride-hailing to scooters for shorter trips, meaning fewer cars on the road and lower CO2 emissions. 

electric scooter in city

Cities around the world have been built for cars, rather than the people living in them for decades. Removing even 25% of the cars from the streets will result in urban areas that are kinder to the environment and provide a better experience for people living in them. That means fewer accidents, less time spent in traffic jams, fewer emissions and cleaner air. 

The people in cities are ready – now it’s time for city authorities to optimise for them, not cars.

The article was written by Jevgeni Kabanov, Chief Product Officer and President of Bolt.


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