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UNECE launches handbook on sustainable urban mobility and spatial planning to help steer cities’ green recovery

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted urban mobility, and has raised fundamental questions about its future role at the heart of urban development. As cities step up efforts to make post-pandemic mobility more sustainable and efficient, UNECE has issued a new handbook to guide holistic policy approaches to mobility and spatial planning.

Urban mobility at the crossroads

Until right before the outbreak of the pandemic, new forms of shared and connected urban mobility were rapidly taking root, augmenting overburdened public-transit systems and offering convenient, eco-friendly alternatives for commuting and urban travel. Although lockdowns halted the daily movements of millions of people, shifts to active forms of mobility received a boost in many cities, such as through the establishment of “pop-up” cycle lanes.

While many cities are now seeking to capitalize on growing momentum in their sustainable mobility transition, for others, the crisis and recovery efforts present a unique chance to change course and “build back better” in the ways that populations get around.

Recognizing the strong interlinkages between the diverse dimensions of city planning, the handbook, developed in the framework  of the Transport, Health and Environment Pan European Programme (THE PEP) – administered by UNECE and WHO-Europe - will help urban policy and decision makers, including mayors, urban planners, transport infrastructure engineers, to take a multidisciplinary approach to sustainable urban mobility. This is crucial, the study argues, to meet the needs of city populations and prevent urban sprawl.

Cities on the move: a key policy challenge

While the situation varies between cities of different sizes and across the region, many urban populations currently depend on cars or other motorised vehicles. However, this comes at significant cost in terms of air and noise pollution, climate change – contributing to the transport sector’s responsibility for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU – and road safety – with an estimated 42% of the 105,000 road traffic deaths recorded annually in the UNECE region occurring in built-up areas (2017 figures).

Furthermore, the annual economic damage associated with delays in passenger transport and cargo due to traffic congestion in Europe is estimated at around €100 billion, or more than 1% of GDP of the EU. Making urban transport systems greener and more efficient can therefore unlock important benefits – for health, the climate and for cities’ prosperity – with the potential to drive a sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.

Learning from city action

The Handbook provides case studies, good practices and examples from cities covering a wide array of thematic areas, including: the future of sustainable urban mobility; spatial planning in function of sustainable urban mobility and accessibility; public transport planning; active mobility and its contribution to health and environmental objectives; and the potential of Intelligent Transport Systems in an urban context. 

Of the many examples highlighted, the analysis refers to the city-wide approach taken in Almaty, Kazakhstan, which has created a high-speed bus and trolleybus corridor which now services 26 routes that transport 140,000 passengers daily, reducing bus travel times by 20% thanks to congestion-free journeys. In 2018, over 100 km of dedicated lanes for public transport and more than 80 km of cycling paths were commissioned, an urban bike rental system was put in place and mass cycling events were held to promote sustainable forms of mobility. The city is progressing towards eliminating private-car traffic with a view to curbing emissions from motor vehicles.

A further key example identified is Copenhagen which has long been a role model for cities striving to develop cycling. All cycling routes (more than 28) going from the suburbs to the city centre are physically separated from the roadway. The capital region now boasts more than one thousand kilometres of dedicated cycling paths and several hundred kilometres of cycling lanes. Investments in cycling infrastructure can be explained not by environmental concerns, but by mere financial gains. The cost of one kilometre of a cycling path is recovered after five years thanks to the improved health of those who regularly use it. Road traffic on these segments of the road is reduced by 10%, with cycling traffic increasing by 20%. Approximately 41% of citizens travel to work or school by bicycle, saving about 235 million euros per year.

In terms of alternative solutions, car sharing was launched in Moscow in 2015 preceded by the city bike sharing system (2013) and was followed by electric scooters (2018). Now the car sharing fleet in Moscow encompasses 11,000 cars, the bike sharing network boasts 4,300 bicycles and there are 2,950 shared electric scooters. Currently, there are more than 30,000 car sharing trips and over 27,000 bicycle trips per day in Moscow.  In parallel, the Moscow regional authorities are implementing a sophisticated Intelligent Transport System (ITS) which includes road user information subsystems, automated traffic management, CCTV recording and tele-viewing systems. ITS measures contribute to harmonizing the traffic flows, as well as to ensuring a rapid response to emergency situations.

As an example of successful transport planning approach, the handbook identifies the Basel Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan, which since its development and implementation has led to significant improvements, including a reduction of car traffic on urban streets in spite of the growing population, a very high accessibility that characterizes the region, especially by public transport, a significant increase in the number of cyclists, and the noticeable improvement of road safety and air quality.

Towards systematic sustainable urban mobility planning: key conclusions

Building on city experiences, the handbook puts forward a methodology for sustainable urban transport planning and provides building blocks for the development of a transport policy cost-benefit analytical model to enable urban policy makers to assess the suitability of different policies.

The handbook calls for the use of “avoid”-“shift”-“improve” principles as the basis for integrating transport and urban planning, and implementing demand management:

  • Developing compact, dense and public transport-oriented urban areas, combined with promoting mixed land use, reduces the need to travel (“avoid”).
  • Developing public transport and active mobility-oriented urban areas supports the shift to cleaner and healthier transport modes for travel (“shift”).
  • Developing and adapting new technologies in urban areas supports the improvement of the urban transport system (“improve”).

To further guide policy makers, it outlines a series of practical recommendations:
  • Public transport being a key element of a “liveable city”, public transport improvements have to be given priority in city strategy and have sufficient funding allocated to them.
  • Achieving a more sustainable transport involves: (a) the replacement of polluting bus fleets; (b) the promotion of electro-mobility; (c) the development of modern trams and intermodal hubs; and (d) the drawing up of appropriate land management policies.
  • Active mobility is a core element of healthy cities. Walking and cycling need to be supported not just in urban cores but on a much larger scale, in combination with other modes of transport, especially public transport.
  • Cities need to develop user-friendly intermodal hubs and provide amenities that support cycling and walking. Initiatives such as the WHO healthy cities network should pay more attention to transportation and mobility as key factors.
  • Developing good quality public transport and infrastructure supporting active mobility is good practice in making cities more liveable, and in safeguarding access to markets while fostering well-being.
  • Cities can make the most of a new generation of Intelligent Transport Systems by harnessing financial and technological opportunities offered by digitization.

The handbook, prepared with the financial support of the Russian Federation, is available in English and Russian at: 

Note to editors

Mobility is a critical question for the 3.5 billion people that live in cities worldwide today, connecting them to livelihoods, services and social life. It is particularly crucial in the highly urbanized UNECE region – with urban areas concentrating over 75% of the population in Europe, 80% in North America, and close to 50% in Central Asia.


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