Rethinking sustainable mobility and land planning in the light of current transformations

Published : Thursday 26 January 2017
Jean-Louis Guigou

This article includes the elements presented by Jean-Louis Guigou during the First Conference on Sustainable Mobility organised by ONCF in Morocco, on 3rd November 2016.


  1. Mobility factors have never been stronger.


Malraux said “Any civilisation is an exchange”. With the rise of the digital economy, we thought that information exchange would, or could, decrease and replace the exchange of goods and people’s mobility. Nothing of the sort happened. As digital tools facilitate access to education, health, leisure, sport, work, etc., the reasons that encourage people and goods’ mobility have never been stronger.

This is why, following this mobility “boom” due to the digital revolution, the Silicon Valley “GAFA” (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) are now going after a new market: autonomous mobility, with self-managed objects.

To compete with this “GAFA” offensive, car manufacturers (Renault, Peugeot, Volvo, etc.) are starting to design new mobility uses. In a recent interview with La Tribune, Carlos Tavares, PSA’s President of the Executive Board, asserted that “car manufacturers have years of experience, they have made mistakes and corrected them, and they have combined a significant knowledge that Apple and Google don’t have1”.  

Another consequence of these increased needs in terms of mobility regards the environment. In France, for instance, the transport sector contributed to 27.6% of French greenhouse gas emissions in 20132; hence the necessity to study and promote new models of sustainable mobility.


  1. “Sustainable mobility” is a multidimensional concept claimed by road and railway transport.


All experts agree on the three dimensions or characteristics of sustainable mobility:

- The social dimension, with emphasis put on passengers’ comfort and safety. This dimension requires an easier access to mobility, more frequent means of transport, with a low accident rate, but also access to complementary services (“zen” space, Internet, catering, etc.);

- The economic dimension;

- The ecological dimension, with the growing consideration of the environmental footprint as regards transport choices, etc.

Between road or railway transport, which one can offer the most innovative solutions in terms of sustainable mobility? The current digital revolution is reviving competition between railway and road transports, and this is why car manufacturers are proposing new offers.

On the one hand, the “GAFA” launched the concept of autonomous mobility, with cars looking like automated, radio- and remote-controlled circulating objects. Use will prevail over ownership. Car fleets managers will rent these “objects” individually or collectively. These wheeled vehicles are full of sensors, GPS receivers, robots, etc. They should be available by 2020. They will favour autonomy, freedom and individualism, but they will be reserved to an elite and will be hazardous.

On the other hand, railway transport must react to this conceptual offensive. The strength of the railway sector, besides security and comfort, is its capacity to add complementary services to mobility. As opposed to a “dry” mobility (without services), railway transport can offer mobility along with an “on-board service platform”. Besides catering, these services could include meeting rooms, fitness rooms, family compartments, language classes, administrative services, etc.

To conclude, in this “conceptual war” to get closer to the sustainable mobility ideal:

- Road transport offers “autonomous mobility”, which favours freedom, autonomy, individualism and use rather than ownership;

- Railway transport must react by offering “mobility combined with an on-board service platform”, which favours security, collectivism, conviviality, encounters and exchange.

Nevertheless, in this battle of railway against road transport, complementarities and intermodalities could be found. States and territorial communities could guide this competition between railway and road transport by defining a common objective to build sustainable cities.


  1. “The sustainable city” should be the objective of “sustainable mobility”.


Obviously, goods and people’s sustainable mobility is impossible without an adapted territorial framework. Such is the relation between the framework (geographic location, land planning) and its contents (population, transport and mobility). If the geographic framework is not defined beforehand with strict planning (new city) or if it is not strictly and regularly restructured (Haussmann), numerous and quick individual decisions lead to anarchical agglomerations and unmanageable metropolises (Cairo, Lagos), where the notion of sustainable mobility makes no sense or is reduced to the minimum.

In terms of land planning, sustainable cities can be defined by two characteristics:

- The geographic, hydrologic, life or employment area must serve as a basis for administrative repartitions;

- Polycentric bunch-like cities are economically, ecologically and socially preferable to monocentric ones. A polycentric city is an alternative to a one-million inhabitant agglomeration and offers the possibility to have four cities of 250,000 inhabitants separated by nature, forests or natural spaces, connected to one another via quick public transport (train, tram) or motorways. German cities are a good example of polycentric cities.

At a decentralised local level, sustainable mobility is part of sustainable cities and it seems that railway and road transports are complementary rather than competitors to offer medium-distance services.

Yet, generally speaking, in all countries road transport prevails over railway transport. Therefore, States and local communities, that must defend sustainable mobility and sustainable cities, are led to encourage railway modernisation and, if necessary, to penalise road transport.


  1. Favouring and modernising public and railway transport.


The railway sector has been protected for too long, which led to economic rents for equipment manufacturers (Alstom) and operators (SNCF). These economic rents can no longer be maintained for they paralyse the railway sector. A brave double action must now be carried out:

- Modernising the railway network with high-speed trains equipped with on-board service platforms, with improved railway freight and the promotion of local intermodality. But most importantly, status and mentalities need to change.

- Penalising the road network to remove its “economic rents” which consists in not taxing it on budgeted equipment. To do so, here are a few examples of actions that could be implemented: establishing an environmental tax on long-distance goods transport, establishing a “time budget” for professional individual transport and taxing it, reinstating the car tax for ecological purposes, or thinking of innovative funding mechanisms.




Making mobility sustainable is a local, national but also international goal.

On an international scale, sustainable mobility is increasingly considered at the regional level, like the European Union, the NAFTA (ASA, Canada, Mexico) or Asean +6 (Japan, China, Dragons and Tigers).

For Europe, which has already developed eastward with the CEECs, the future lies in the South of the Mediterranean and in Africa. With the increased mobility of people, goods and information, the interconnection or the anchorage of Europe and Africa is slowly taking shape. Tomorrow’s international sustainable mobility will have to be designed in the growing relevant space “Africa-Mediterranean-Europe”.


(1) « "Les besoins de mobilité n'ont jamais été aussi forts" [Mobility needs have never been stronger] Carlos Tavares (PSA) », Nabil Bourassi, La Tribune, 29/09/2016


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