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Circular Mobility For a Resilient Urban Environment

To meet future demands while developing sustainably, we need change; a shift from a linear ‘take-make-waste’ mentality, or the act of converting renewable resources into waste faster than waste can be turned back into resources, to a Circular Economy.

Cities – major players in sustainable development – have been struggling to fight the COVID-19 virus that has taken over the world. They have become the major epicentres, with a complete lockdown of economic activities and hardly any physical interaction among people. It is evident that this pandemic will force urbanists and architects to rethink how we design our urban environment. As the world struggles to recover from the pandemic, this may be a good time to explore how urban planners can help build more resilient cities and prepare citizens for potential future pandemics. One such key aspect in designing our cities concerns mobility, how people and goods move in and across cities. This article focuses primarily on circular mobility; How we can transform mobility in cities for a resilient and sustainable future.


The cycle of mobility lies between sustainable development and innovation. A circular mobility system is mainly characterised by three main features:

· An accessible, affordable, and effective mobility system

· A circular mobility system which is multi-modal, which means it offers a diverse range of mobility options to reflect the diverse needs of cities and their citizens. A multi-modal mobility structure more often incorporates public transportation in combination with on-demand services as a flexible last-mile solution. Most cities already have numerous transport options for users – for e.g. shared cars, buses, trams, trains, and shared bikes etc.

· New technologies in mobility such as Electric-powered, shared, and automated transportation – which have been trending in cities lately.[1]


Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

With rising global warming, climate change and sea levels in cities, the concept of the circular economy has been trending for quite some time now. At the same time, some other factors have led to growing interest towards circular mobility:

· The increasing growth of urban areas in both size and population is putting considerable strain on mobility systems and infrastructure in cities. The rise in personal vehicles has led to loss of 2-5% of global GDP due to road congestion every year.

· Cars have been the primary mode of transport in the developed world for over half a century, and for good reason, yet there remain numerous issues. In fact, cars are resource intensive to produce, have low utilisation rates, and are a source of noise and air pollution. 90% of air pollution in cities is caused by vehicle emission, which makes mobility a major cause of pollution in cities and there is an urgent need to address it to mitigate climate change.

· In addition to these, there is an urgent need to reconsider car-centric designs in cities, for e.g. limiting road infrastructure to serve other needs of citizens. Roads occupy a large portion of the infrastructure within our cities; therefore, it is important to reconsider the space use within the dense environment of cities and give people public spaces and options for sustainable modes of transport such as cycling and walking rather than roads which are used just for cars. One prime example is the transformation of New York’s Times Square, as shown in figure below:

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation


The increasing popularity of autonomous driving, connected vehicles, cycling, electrification, car sharing, and mass-transit systems are set to change the face of mobility at the city, national, and global levels over the next 20-30 years. The figure below shows what the mobility system of tomorrow could look like in the future.

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Rise of Walking and Cycling Cities

Walking and cycling are no longer merely a functional means to get from one point to another. Instead, they are multi-purpose and multi-sensory experiences. Cities across the world are aspiring to and launching programs that enable the city to become safe, convenient, comfortable and delightful for all to walk and cycle.

Emerging Active Mobility post COVID – 19

As cities start to reopen with business, commercial, and other daily activities, people are increasingly concerned about moving about conveniently while maintaining safety and social distancing. The Coronavirus has radically changed public and private mobility all over the world: trains, buses and MRT services have been radically changed: from reducing the maximum capacity of cars, to the creation of new cycle paths, cities have been modified to make room for safe outdoor activities and many citizens have even opted for alternative private vehicles, all to ensure social distancing and compliance with current regulations.

The COVID 19 pandemic has in fact made cycling an attractive option in cities where citizens can easily and safely cycle short distances within their neighbourhoods for essential needs. In fact, some cities such as London, New York, Dublin, Rome, Paris, Brussels, Sydney and others have announced building city-wide cycling infrastructure to promote cycling for work trips and other commutes. A convenient and pleasant infrastructure design would encourage active mobility as a popular commuting means, as well as an attractive recreational option in cities – thereby helping to reduce their carbon footprints.

Active Mobility fits well with the vision of a circular economy because it is low impact, low cost, and have many associated health and economic benefits. It is likely that cities will increasingly adopt this type of mobility.

The figure below illustrates 10 ideas for people friendly Walking & Cycling Cities, launched as part of initiatives to promote Active Mobility in Singapore to support its vision for a car-lite society and enhance the city's liveability - by making walking, cycling, and riding public transport a way of life.

Source: Centre for Livable Cities (CLC), Singapore

Circular Vehicle Design

Regardless of how vehicles are powered, or who or what drives them, we need to consider how vehicles are designed so that we can easily repair them and recover and reuse their materials at their end-of-life. Enabling repair, reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling of components and materials of a vehicle is key to circular vehicle design.

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

A lot of energy is used to create vehicle parts, and that energy is not wasted if the parts - or materials - are reused. The car manufacturer Renault is a good example. The company’s recycling scheme sees a variety of materials including copper, steel, textiles, and plastics taken from ‘end-of-life vehicles’ (ELV) being put into new vehicles with the same level of performance as virgin materials. Currently, 36% of the total mass of a newly produced Renault vehicle in Europe is made from recycled materials, and 85% of an ELV is recyclable. This approach forms a crucial part of circular mobility thus contributing to circular economy in cities. [2]

Shared Mobility

Many cities have been designed or re-designed based on private vehicles: more traffic lanes, spaces reserved for parking, public or private car parks, displacement of pedestrian areas. In contrast, a recent example from Merwede, a neighbourhood in Utrecht, and one of the fastest growing cities in the Netherlands is now undergoing a transformation process based on urban planning criteria that puts clean and shared mobility ahead of the existing prioritisation of road traffic. The neighbourhood will have networks and services in place for shared cars and bicycles, with plans for an entire public transport system that will connect the neighbourhood with the whole of the Netherlands.


1. Reduce Carbon Emissions

Moving to a circular mobility system will reduce air pollution and congestion significantly. Use of clean fuel and renewables in mobility can halve carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, relative to today’s levels. A similar analysis conducted for carbon emissions in India indicates that greenhouse gas emissions would be 44% lower in 2050 compared to the current scenario if renewables become the main source of energy production.[3]

2. Increased Liveability

Circular economy and mobility activities can influence some aspects of liveability in cities. For e.g. reducing the time lost to congestion; in Europe, for example, a circular economy path for mobility systems could reduce time lost in congestion by close to 60% by 2050, and in India, a circular development path could lead to a reduction in vehicle kilometres travelled on roads by 38% by 2050.³

3. More space for other land uses

As less space for road infrastructure and parking space will be needed, an additional benefit can be the possibility to convert this excessive infrastructure to serve other citizen needs, e.g. green space or playgrounds, hospitals or schools.

To conclude, we have looked at the different ways urban mobility is evolving and how new technologies are providing transport solutions to make mobility more sustainable. The transition to circular mobility is not only possible but inevitable and it is the responsibility of policy makers, urban planners and citizens to act soon for a resilient and sustainable urban environment.

References [1] Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Cities in the circular economy: An initial exploration (2017) [2] Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Cities in the circular economy: An initial exploration (2017) [3] Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Circular Economy in India: Rethinking growth for long-term prosperity (2016)

Attend our upcoming event on circularity in the mobility sector to hear more from Devansh:

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