Sustainable Smart Mobility (Part I)

By: Marshall B. Distel

[In Part I of this two-part series, Online Master of Natural Resources student Marshall Distel explores transportation infrastructure innovations and the potential role of autonomous vehicles in sustainable development and urban mobility.]

New innovations in smart mobility and autonomous vehicle (AV) development may increase the sustainability of modern transportation systems. Smart mobility, which is a relatively new term that refers to the process of transportation infrastructure becoming more connected, intelligent and automated, is starting to be recognized as a tool that city planners and policymakers can use to support sustainable urban development. As the global population continues to grow and the world becomes more urbanized, it will be imperative to identify new mechanisms to support sustainable development.

In September 2015, the Member States of the United Nations developed a comprehensive set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to promote global action on sustainable development by 2030. One of the goals established as part of the United Nations SDGs is to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable (UCLG, 2015). The world’s surging population growth has furthered an increasing and unsustainable global demand for energy and natural resources (Hecht et al., 2012).

Moreover, rapid urbanization has also fueled demand for new and advanced modes of transportation to address issues related to congestion, environmental sustainability, economic vitality, and social equity. Following the global adoption of a fossil fuel-powered transportation system, the transportation sector has continued to increase air pollution, exacerbate climate change, negatively affect public health and provide unequal access to goods and services (Lim & Taeihagh, 2018). In order to effectively address the United Nations goal of making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, it will be essential to evaluate how new advances in smart mobility may be able to provide affordable, sustainable and accessible mobility options for all citizens.

A Brief History of Vehicle Ownership

Since the end of World War II, particularly in America, cities have become increasingly shaped by the automobile. Following the construction of a massive system of highways and expressways in the 1950s and 1960s, American communities started to embrace low-density land use patterns that were built for automobile travel. The development of car-dependent landscapes has had profound environmental and socioeconomic consequences. In addition to contributing to air pollution and climate change through tailpipe emissions, auto-oriented transportation systems can be a barrier for low-income communities, people with physical disabilities, seniors and youth populations (Cohen & Shirazi, 2017).

The direct and indirect expenses associated with vehicle ownership make driving cost-prohibitive for many low-income populations, while the physical ability that is needed to drive marginalizes segments of the population that may be too young, too old or too disabled to operate a vehicle.

It is important to recognize that this is not just an American issue, but it has also become a global problem. Cities around the world, especially those that were mainly developed after the introduction of the automobile, have become dependent on auto-oriented transportation systems. Moreover, since the vast majority of personal vehicles are powered by fossil fuels, transportation-related air pollution accounts for over 14% of all global carbon emissions (Suzuki, 2018).

Transportation and Sustainable Development

To fully understand how transportation impacts sustainable development, it’s important to recognize the significance of sustainable development. Sustainable development was first identified as a policy concept within the Brundtland Report of 1987 (Kuhlman & Farrington, 2010). In addition to advocating for the unification of the environment and development to support societal welfare, the Brundtland Report was the first to define sustainable development as environmental stewardship to support intergenerational equity (Kates et al., 2005).

In recent years, the concept of sustainable development has been presented as an all-encompassing approach to improve society, while advocates for sustainability have started to embrace the idea of finding a balance between social, economic and environmental issues (Holden et al., 2014). Transportation systems can either support or hinder the three pillars of sustainability. Sustainable communities have transportation systems that function efficiently for all members of society, regardless of age, race or socioeconomic status.

Sustainable transportation planning incorporates a planning process that recognizes the need to provide multi-modal transportation options to support walking, biking, car sharing and public transit in addition to traditional vehicular mobility. Building cities to facilitate automobile traffic contributes to a rise in congestion, discourages the use of public transport, increases air pollution, adversely affects public health and encourages urban sprawl (Gómez-Antonio et al., 2015). With this in mind, it will be imperative to evaluate how new advances in smart mobility and autonomous vehicle development will impact the sustainability of urban areas.

Smart Mobility and Autonomous Vehicles

The digital revolution has started to impact the world’s transportation systems. Smart mobility enthusiasts stress that autonomous vehicles represent a unique opportunity to fundamentally change urban mobility and lead to healthier, more economically competitive and environmentally friendly cities (UITP, 2017). The smart mobility paradigm may be able to employ intelligent transportation infrastructure to improve economic productivity, enhance the efficiency of transportation systems and support a higher quality of life for people around the world.

New transportation technologies such as Uber and Lyft for on-demand ride services or Carma and Zimride for real-time car sharing are examples of how disruptive technologies and the sharing economy are already starting to impact transportation. While these advances seem promising, one of the key features of a future that is characterized by smart mobility would be the need to electrify the world’s fleet of vehicles. If autonomous vehicles are not electrified, carbon dioxide emissions will increase, and urban air quality may continue to deteriorate (UC Davis, 2017).

[In Part II of this series, available on February 7th, Marshall continues his exploration growing urban mobility options, connected and autonomous vehicles in particular,  and the impact they may have on sustainable development.]


Marshall Distel is a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources program. He expects to receive his degree in May 2019.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: Rob Brink, b k, and Dave Pinter.