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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: EcoMobility – the new paradigm for urban transport

The way we move people and goods in urban areas has received new attention beyond attention by city planners or transport experts. Strategies to combat climate change have identified cities as a major source of CO2 emissions, and the transport sector is among the three major areas of energy consumption, besides buildings and power production. Therefore, local climate change mitigation strategies put a focus on urban transport, among others.

While “urban transport”, “urban transportation” and “urban mobility” are long established technical terms, there is recent talk about “green transport” and “EcoMobility”.

What is EcoMobility?

Mobility describes the way in which we are being mobile, i.e. how we move around and transport goods. When we chose to be mobile in an eco-fashion, this means in an ecologically and economically sound way, it is called EcoMobility.

The concept of EcoMobility establishes a clear priority order in the use of modes of urban transport. This applies the Subsidiarity Principle known from discussions on public governance to urban transport, thus postulating “transport subsidiarity”: In short, EcoMobility means: “walking-cycling-wheeling-‘passenging’-carsharing”.

Why EcoMobility?

With the human population on our planet growing from today’s 7 billion to 9 billion by the year 2050 while the world’s resource basis is shrinking, our future on this planet demands extremely efficient solutions.

Let us be aware that we are facing a 1:100 challenge. Over the next 40 years we need to build once more the same urban capacity (i.e. houses, streets, schools, kindergartens, shops, cinemas, theaters, sports grounds etc.) that we have built over the past 4,000 years.[1] We do not know if we can achieve this. We may neither have the energy nor the natural and financial resources available. However, we can safely say that building a resource-efficient urban transport system will always be right, and never be wrong. Efficiency includes efficient use of energy, materials and space, while minimizing waste and pollution.

But what is efficient urban transport? Is the car an efficient means of transport? Not at all. Think of a mid-class car. It weighs 20 times more than the passenger it carries. In order to transport a person of maybe 50 or 60 kilograms of weight, we move 1 to 1.5 tons of steel, aluminum and plastic. A bicycle only weighs a fifth of the person it carries; that’s efficient. And while a sitting person requires 0.5 square meters of space, we move vehicles with a size of 5-10 square meters through our cities; a bicycle requires around 1 square meter. “Eighteen bikes can be parked in the place of one car, thirty of them can move along in the space devoured by a single automobile. It takes three lanes of a given size to move 40,000 people across a bridge in one hour by using automated trains, four to move them on buses, twelve to move them in their cars, and only two lanes for them to pedal across on bicycles.”[2]

Similarly, the energy use. While the usual car burns 5-12 liter of gasoline per hundred kilometers, the bicycle is propelled by the rider’s energy, and the energy input per person/kilometer is actually lower when riding a bike than when walking. And is the car faster? Ivan Illich calculated that the actual average speed of a car is 6km/h when we consider the time we work in order to earn the money we need to pay for the car and its use and relate this to the distance s traveled.

While the motor car is utmost inefficient, the bicycle has surpassed human evolution and is a truly genial invention[3]  in the sense that, according to Hans-Erhatrd Lessing, every vehicle that humans have created (cars, trains, airplanes) require more energy input to carry a man than a man would need for walking the same distance.  The bicycle is an exception to this rule.

Making the vision of EcoMobility come alive

Urban decision makers often do not have the imagination to envisage a city that is a pedestrians’ paradise; an Eldorado for cyclists; an inviting place for users of wheelchairs, mobility scooters, push- and pull-carts; giving space to light electric vehicles; offering car-sharing services and a convenient public transport system.

Proponents of EcoMobility cannot point to any city in the world that is an ecomobile city throughout. There are excellent examples of large pedestrian zones, car-restricted zones, traffic calming, bicycle streets, bicycle parking facilities, car-sharing services, bus rapid transport, P+R stations, bike/bus/rail transfer stations, etc., prevailingly in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, USA, and also in Korea, Japan and China. Usually, experts speaking at conferences present a potpourri of solutions from various cities in the world. Such pictures can at best form a collage of elements an ecomobile city.

How can we get to a real-life example of an ecomobile city, which is not only a narrative, not only fictive, and not only a collage?

One way would be to create a model city. However, those who have ever worked on ‘model city’ projects know that it will take 5 to 15 years to change the built infrastructure, including planning, citizens’ participation, obtaining approval, securing finance, and finally construction.

The other way is to stage a temporary mise-en-scène in a real city, with real people, in real time. Instead of an entire city, a neighborhood would be subject to transformation. Instead of reconstructing streets, street space would be redecorated. Instead of buying a fleet of buses, environmentally friendly buses would be borrowed from other cities. Instead of abandoning their car forever, residents would temporarily move their car out of the neighborhood. Instead of the city having to buy EcoMobility vehicles for the residents, companies would be asked to provide vehicles. As a result, the neighborhood would present a real-life image of an ecomobile city during the period of the happening. At the same time, residents could make a unique experience of urban life without dependency on the private car.

This is the approach of the EcoMobility World Festival, a mise-en-scène project idea developed by the author[4]. The project is framed as a Festival in order to stage it as a positive, friendly, attractive event that will be fun to experience for all: residents of the neighborhood, citizens of the whole city, and visitors from all over the world.

[1] This statement considers (a) the backlog we have in building decent housing for current slum dwellers; b) the continued global population growth; and (c) the continuous trend of urbanization.

[2] Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity. First published 1974. Source:

[3]This phrase is in relation to the fact that bicycles have overtaken what humans can do in terms of traveling.

According to Hans-Erhatrd Lessing, every vehicle that humans have created (cars,
trains, airplanes) require more energy input to carry a man than a man would need
for walking the same distance.

Bicycling, however, requires less energy per person/kilometer than walking. The
reason is simple: the wheel allows for a continuous, even movement while with every
step a man goes, the body is being lifted up and moved down again.

Cylcing requires even lesser energy per kilogram body weight than a bird or salmon



Editors Note re Mr. Zimmerman:

Konrad Otto-Zimmermann
Creative Director, EcoMobility World Festival 2013
Chairman, ICLEI Urban Agendas

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