A Framework For Building a Sustainable Mobility System

By James Aloisi

James Aloisi is a Boston-based strategic consultant who specializes in transportation and urban policy. As a partner at two prominent Boston law firms, Hill & Barlow and Goulston & Storrs, Jim was a central figure in the establishment of Boston’s Metropolitan Highway System and the creation of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, and served as a member of the Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission.

An Auto-Centric Century Gives Way to A Sustainable Mobility Paradigm

When the ground breaking Ford Model T first appeared in late 1908, it marked the beginning of what would quickly become a global auto-centric society. Advances in technology and manufacturing mass production techniques, combined with relatively plentiful and low-cost fuel, meant that automobiles were available to people across many income strata in every corner of the globe with a market economy. A post-World War 2 suburban diaspora in many developed nations marked the beginning of decades of urban struggle and decline, as those with means moved out and demanded public investment in highway systems that responded to their needs. What followed was an era of transportation planning that placed disproportionate emphasis on funding and building a network of highways, tunnels and bridges. We have learned that in an era of rapid and unprecedented urban growth, such a system cannot scale easily, not without significant damage to the air we breathe, the open space we cherish, or the quality of life we seek in urban environments that are truly livable.

Times have changed. The focus on vehicular mobility at the expense of other modes began to degrade quality of life in ways that were increasingly unacceptable to many people. The tendency of citizens in the early twentieth century to accept a transportation planning paradigm that too often leveled neighborhoods, disregarded historic legibility markers, and separated communities from one another and from natural resources like waterfronts and rivers, gave way to an era of citizen activism that rejected the notion that modernity required the diminution of their quality of life. That citizen activism has itself changed character. Today, many urban dwellers understand innately the connections between their mobility systems and their overall quality of life, as measured by such factors as economic health, clean air, complete streets and safe cycling lanes.

When people talk about these issues today, they tend to use the word “Sustainable” to describe the foundational principle for what a high quality of life transportation system would look like. Sustainable is a term frequently used, but it bears the burden of having multiple definitions and interpretations applied to it, so much so that the full force and specific, comprehensive meaning of sustainability often gets lost.

This article is meant to provide both a definition and a working framework for how to think about, and act upon, the goal of Sustainable Mobility. It is structured to have global applicability, regardless of city or district geography, size or governance. If we have a common language and common understanding of the elements that comprise Sustainable Mobility, it will (i) ensure that transportation activists and planners are all aligned in their thinking, (ii) enable cities to establish meaningful performance metrics and goals in their journey toward sustainability, and (iii) foster the kind of city-to-city collaboration and action that is urgently required.[1]

The Three Components of a Sustainable Mobility System

A Sustainable Mobility System is Green, Agile & Resilient, and Egalitarian.

1. Green means –

a. Less reliant on fossil fuels.

Sustainable Mobility promotes the use of new energy vehicles and energy storage systems that support such vehicles. It also promotes transit, cycling and walking as low (or lower) carbon impact modes.

b. Designed to reduce traffic, and traffic congestion, by addressing the Built Domain, the design (scope and range) of the mobility network, and urban functions.

Sustainable Mobility requires a Built Domain that responds to a multi-modal, more transit/cycling/walking oriented spatial environment. Put differently, Sustainable Mobility depends in large part upon urban design and planning decisions that enable, sustain or promote mobility through alternatives to the privately owned vehicle.

c. Designed to reduce traffic, and traffic congestion, through data-driven traffic management tools.

Sustainable Mobility promotes the use of data to support widespread dissemination of real time information that informs people of current and historic (retrospective real time) conditions, and empowers people to make informed mobility decisions.

d. Provides meaningful modal choices and uses dynamic toll & user fee pricing policies (and retrospective real time information) to encourage modal shift away from single occupancy vehicular travel.

Sustainable Mobility provides people with modal choices that are reasonably equivalent in terms of affordability, convenience and reliability. It is supported by a funding system that encourages modal shift by technology-based systems that establish fair and transparent pricing regimes designed to price highway use to reflect impacts on congestion, capacity, air quality.

e. Places funding emphasis on non-vehicular modes (transit, cycling, walking).

Sustainable Mobility increases the allocation of transportation funding to improve non-vehicular modes. It adopts approaches like congestion pricing, and dedicates the “delta” between a base price, and a congestion premium price, to transit. It also adopts a carbon impact fee on non-residential parking over certain thresholds and dedicates that revenue to cycling, complete streets and mobility hubs.

f. Synergistic with land use & planning policies that encourage density and help resolve the “last mile” conundrum.

Sustainable Mobility fosters approaches to land use planning that respond to a new emphasis on a more multi-modal, transit centric transportation system. This begins with traditional “transit oriented development” and expands to include Mobility Hubs that are designed to offer meaningful mobility choices and real-time information, enabling people to resolve the “last mile conundrum”.

2. Agile & Resilient means –

a. Responsive to changing demographics and mobility preferences.

This means, among other things, providing people with public transportation and private sector TNC and micro transit options that are coordinated in order to ensure maximum customer convenience and affordability. Such coordination will require an agile and fair regulatory framework that responds to new and emerging business models and paradigms, and treats all modes as connected parts of a mobility ecosystem (as opposed to a balkanized system where public and private sector systems remain disconnected from one another).

b. A well maintained transportation system.

This means a system that is maintained through (1) an intelligent, instrumented asset management system, and (2) an appropriately funded routine and programmed maintenance protocol. This last point is critically important. The “secret sauce” of many successful independent public authorities and Public Private Partnerships is the requirement (under trust agreements or contracts) that an ample maintenance fund be reserved and available for use in routine and programmed maintenance.

c. Able to keep pace w/innovation via open platforms.

Sustainable Mobility requires that the public sector establish procurement processes that put an end to “hardware and software lock” – the frequent outcome of traditional “low bid” procurement processes. A Sustainable system is one that is agile and relatively low cost. This requires solutions that are more software based (rather than hardware based), and it requires solutions that are not so customized that they place the public sector at the mercy of one vendor.

d. Able to recover quickly from unanticipated events.

This is the most commonly understood definition of resilience – the ability to bounce back and recover from setbacks caused by natural disasters and other unpredictable, external events. Historic data that enable predictive analytics, a well-maintained transportation system, and a system that is able to communicate accurately and in real time both internally (across government agencies) and externally, are essential components of a resilient system.

3. Egalitarian means –

a. Accessible/Convenient. This means, among other things:

i. enabling people to have access to some form of public transportation (bus, trolley, subway) within a half mile of their place of work and their primary residence, and

ii. providing transit services on schedules that effectively respond to customer needs, overlaying a traditional fixed route system with a more agile and responsive approach to determining origins and destinations based upon data-driven analytics. This also means providing overnight service that is reliable for those who work late night or early morning shifts.

b. Affordable. An affordable transportation system is one that provides services at a fair cost to customer that neither prices low income people out nor pushes higher income people to abandon public transportation systems for TNC or micro transit alternatives.

c. Equitable. An equitable transportation system is one that is based on funding equity, where all modes receive a fair allocation of funding resources, and where generally equal opportunities for affordable mobility are available to residents across neighborhood and districts.

This definition of Sustainable Mobility can be considered as an integrated set of components that interact with one another. For example, it includes and encompasses

(i) Service delivery components: mobility systems that provide safe, affordable, convenient travel from origin to destination; (ii) Quality of Life/Impact components: mobility systems that (i) do not degrade air quality; (ii) support and facilitate land use consistent with environmental and economic imperatives; (iii) reduce congestion and delay and therefore are mindful of the “cost of time”; (iv) provide the largest number of people with the highest level of service without diminishing the quality of life or negative impacts to any single individual or group (employing pareto optimality); and (v) support existing jobs and jobs growth; and (iii) Cost Components: affordability; resilience.

Sustainability as an Ecosystem

If there is an overarching point to this attempt to comprehensively define the various elements comprising Sustainable Mobility, it is that true sustainable mobility is an ecosystem – a set of multidisciplinary elements that are synergistic and complementary. A mobility system that only responds to a handful of these elements may be on its way to sustainability, but isn’t really sustainable.

True Sustainable Mobility is an objective not easily obtained, and not easily maintained. It takes the collective efforts of many different agencies, and most important a determination to break down and overcome regulatory and service delivery silos which are all too common in public sector governance structures, to make many sustainability initiatives happen. A common, comprehensive definition of Sustainable Mobility can be the platform that fosters effective cross-city knowledge share, and that begins to break down barriers to intra-city cooperation and collaboration.


[1] The City Protocol Society (“CPS”) has developed and proposed a systems-based approach to considering the question of city transformation in the 21st Century, and taking action to begin that work. The CPS has published a number of guides for cities seeking to transform into more efficient and sustainable environments. See, e.g., City Anatomy: A Framework to support City Governance, Evaluation and Transformation; Livable Districts and Cities.   This article has been written in expanded form to conform to the CPS Anatomy, Indicators and Ontology construct. See: Sustainable Mobility.

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