Transport transformation: The power of light mobility

Micro-cars, mopeds, and electric bicycles can help reduce the negative impact of private vehicles while they are still indispensable

Electrical bicylce. Credit: Reuters

Young Tae Kim is Secretary-General of the International Transport Forum

We are in a hurry to achieve transport that does not contribute to climate change and that is safe, reliable, and accessible to all. I ask you: are we going to reach that result with fossil-fuel-powered cars, vans, buses, trucks, and motorcycles that have traveled across our roads for the past 100 years? Probably not.

Yet the private vehicle will continue to be dominant in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) for some time. Even considering all the measures planned by the region’s governments to achieve a modal shift, private cars will still provide 30% of urban mobility by 2050, according to projections in the ITF Transport Outlook 2023. Worse, the number of zero-emission passenger cars will represent less than 15% of the total vehicle fleet in LAC, 27 years from now. This will impact not only the level of congestion but also the crash risk for cyclists and pedestrians with private cars.

Private vehicles have important downsides, but their users often have no alternative. We cannot simply condemn them if we have not developed other attractive mobility options. But while we are working on those, what can we do to reduce the negative impact of private vehicles while they are still indispensable? 

Here are three points you should know about why adopting light mobility can change the panorama for LAC. First of all, there is a whole spectrum of smaller and lighter vehicles that provide efficient mobility but impose lower costs on society. Such “light mobility” includes micro-cars, mopeds, electric bicycles, and scooters, among many others, that can improve city mobility. 

Lighter vehicles are more energy efficient than bigger vehicles. Consider this: only 5% of the energy of a small electric car goes to moving the occupant, compared to 95% of the energy used to carry the dead weight of the vehicle itself. The percentage of energy used to move the occupant improves depending on the type of vehicle, rising to 38% for mopeds, 73% in the case of electric bicycles, and 83% in the case of normal bicycles. 

Reducing the weight of vehicles, in conjunction with other decarbonization policies, can significantly reduce CO2 emissions due to vehicle activity. It must be noted that improving conditions for walking and cycling clearly has the greatest CO2 reduction potential. A greater diversity of vehicle types should therefore avoid coming at the expense of those who choose to walk.

Secondly, improving people’s mobility is not synonymous with more roads and large vehicles. Most trips, especially in urban settings, are less than 8 to 10 kilometers long – a distance easily traveled by bicycle or e-bike. For instance, 63% of all trips in the United States are less than 8 kilometres long, and over a quarter are less than 1.6 kilometres long, according to the US Department of Transportation. 

So why do people buy large vehicles? The main reason is that cities have been designed for cars, prioritizing large motor vehicles, as our latest report, “Towards the light: Effective light mobility policies in cities,” points out. And where large vehicles circulate, those driving smaller vehicles at some point start feeling unsafe. But if infrastructure protects smaller vehicles, speed limits reduce speed differentials, and light mobility is given priority to circulate, people will lose the feeling of insecurity with respect to the other actors on the road. 

This report also found that people buy large cars thinking about trips they value but that are rather infrequent, such as family holidays. The rest of days, these large vehicles do not represent the same utility for the person, who could equally use light vehicles in their daily lives to get around.

The third point is this: to really boost light mobility, cities need to integrate light mobility options with pedestrian infrastructure and public transport systems. Accessing important destinations in large cities often requires traveling long distances at relatively high speeds. To maintain access while still encouraging more people to opt to move lightly, urban transport systems should promote the use of collective transport for longer trips while providing the space to travel lightly for shorter distances. 

Local, national, and regional authorities should align their policies to overcome car-centric mobility. They should also move beyond the status quo and consider the range of vehicles available and suitable for urban travel that are more efficient than most of the fleets we commonly see currently. 

There is no unique answer for all countries. Each society must discuss which vehicles it wants to have in order to achieve the energy transition and all other objectives of the transport sector. For example, the city of Paris in France recently conducted a referendum on shared electric scooters. Citizens were asked to vote on the extension of concessions for three shared electric scooter operators. In the event, the vote went against keeping them on the road; those who participated felt the downsides outweighed the upsides, and shared electric scooters disappeared from the streets of the French capital in September 2023. Shared bicycles, however, continue to operate in Paris with great success. 

These are questions that are discussed — and experimented with — around the world. The countries of Latin America will profit enormously by making sure they are part of the global conversation about the great transport transformation that we are seeing. Other world regions face similar issues, and exchanging with other nations in a global dialogue for better transport on platforms like the International Transport Forum will empower the nations of this region to pursue greater ambitions and move more quickly to improve mobility for their citizens.


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