shared, intelligent mobility will transform urban life

23.01.2018 / Øystein Berge

A wave of electric, self-driving vehicles is about to change urban life. Here are some of the ways in which the digitalisation of transport will affect you, your business and society within the next few years.

Self-driving cars are about so much more than a hands-free driving experience. The autonomous era will have a profound impact on the environment, how we design our cities, and will transform urban life as we know it.

However, this might not necessarily be for the better. The emergence of autonomous vehicles (AV) could also increase urban sprawl and outcompete public transport, resulting in more traffic, less productive cities and the environmental issues that come with less dense cities.

These and many other important issues are challenging policy makers and urban planners all over the world to ensure that the development of our cities is sustainable.

Making 9 out of 10 cars redundant

Tesla already has autonomous software in its cars. Uber is challenging business models and the way we travel. However, what happens when you combine these ongoing trends – autonomous EVs and the sharing economy – in the digital age? We get an electric, on-demand car-sharing service. Combined with high-capacity public transport, this has the potential to remove 9 out of every 10 cars in a medium-sized European city, according to an OECD report.

The Nordics are among 18 European countries getting ready for the autonomous era. In 2018 Oslo will deploy a fleet of 10-50 autonomous minibuses to deliver an on-demand service fully integrated with the rest of the public transport network.

People need smarter mobility to meet their individual needs today and build a sustainable future for tomorrow. They want to move around freely and easily, and be sure they are doing good for the environment around them. We need to make this easy. – Ruter (The Public Transport Authority (PTA) of Oslo and Akershus, Norway)

Safe and accessible

Self-driving trucks, buses and cars are already on the roads all over the world. Actually, Google’s self-driving fleet of cars has driven 3.5 million miles on real-world roads since 2009. This is in addition to 1 billion miles driven in simulation in 2016 alone. Tesla, GM, Volvo and most car makers are now investing heavily in preparing for the disruptive, autonomous and electric future of the car industry.

Waymo, Google’s company for autonomous cars, states that 94 per cent of US crashes involve human error, and that there were 1.2 million deaths worldwide due to vehicle crashes in 2013. This is costing society approximately $1,000 billion per year, according to Waymo’s safety report for 2017. Research now points to results showing that technology is a much better driver than humans are. 

If technology could save thousands of lives currently lost in traffic accidents every year, and at the same time save society billions of dollars spent on injuries, for how much longer will it even be legal for you to drive yourself? And would you want to?

Are you blind, a child, disabled, drunk or lacking a driving licence? The self-driving car will take you wherever you need to go. This comfortable and increased access to cars could flood the streets with traffic.

The self-driving car will take you wherever you need to go. This comfortable and increased access to cars could flood the streets with traffic.
Øystein Berge Senior Specialist, COWI

Urban sprawl or productive cities

Europe is the only region in the world whose total population is projected to shrink by 2050. The “old continent” is also ageing faster than any other region, with the number of working-age people expected to decline steadily in relation to the elderly population.  

We need to increase our productivity in order to finance the welfare state in the future. However, European productivity growth is declining. Cities play a key role in overcoming this challenge. Cities are more productive than non-city areas. Dense cities are more productive than sprawling cities. 

Transport and land use policies are important tools for increasing productivity. But we need to understand the relationship between density and productivity in order to utilise this knowledge.

Comfort, identity and freedom

The story of the personal car is remarkable. The car is very much connected to our identity and feelings of freedom. And although car sharing is a rapidly growing trend, most adults still want to own their own cars. So how do we solve this? Let’s start by looking at three scenarios for how society can change with autonomous cars.

Scenario 1: Individually owned cars

In this scenario, mobility is similar to today, with cars being owned individually. The only difference is that they are autonomous. However, this will change the use of cars. Commuting by car will be easier, simply because you won’t have to drive yourself. You will be able to work on your way to and from work. Cars will also be available for people who cannot drive themselves, such as children and disabled people. You will even be able to take your own car after having a couple of drinks. 

The result will be an increase in car use. This scenario will make cars more attractive at the expense of other means of transport. And it will encourage urban sprawl, since commuting will be less of a burden. And as mentioned before sprawling cities do not go correlate well with productivity. Moreover, this scenario will result in increased traffic demand, more traffic jams, more pollution and more need for expensive investment in roads. Thus, we will be worse off than today.

Scenario 2: Mobility as a Service combined with individually owned cars

In this scenario, we have a combination of individually owned cars and different car sharing services. A substantial market for Mobility as a Service is developed, with car manufacturers, taxi companies and tech businesses such as Uber and Google providing a wide range of transport services. 

The market share of these services will be determined by price mechanisms and how shared mobility is facilitated through preventive measures by the authorities. 

The increase in the use of shared mobility in this scenario will lead to less traffic, and hence less pollution, less time spent using transport and less need for road investments. 

Scenario 3: Ban on individually owned cars

This is a scenario in which individually owned cars do not exist, and all transport is provided by a system that integrates all modes of transport. A typical journey will look something like this: the passenger calls for the required transport through an app, is picked up by an autonomous car or bus, taken to the nearest underground station, takes the underground arriving closest to their destination and, if necessary, is driven by another autonomous car or bus for the last part of the journey. 

This scenario may seem far-fetched. However, it is fascinating to consider because the positive impact on society is huge.

A theoretical study of the potential effects on traffic in Lisbon was carried out by the OECD’s International Transport Forum, and it showed that in this scenario you can provide a transport service equal to or better than today’s with less than 5 per cent of the number of cars. The results of this study were later confirmed by other studies in Lisbon and Helsinki. 

So in this scenario you get much less traffic, much less pollution, more effective transport and better cities with less space dedicated to roads and more to citizens. But to get this, you have to trade in the freedom of owning your own car.

What will the future look like?

The first scenario mentioned above is where we don’t want to end up. We need to move towards more shared mobility.

Dense, liveable cities are not compatible with one-person, one-vehicle solutions. And with the environmental threats we are facing, business as usual is not an option.

But how far towards scenario three can we get without challenging citizens’ freedom of choice?

This is not a technical question, but rather a question of politics and changes to our state of mind. The biggest change will perhaps be in the way we think about mobility.


  • Half of humanity – 3.5 billion people – lives in cities today
  • By 2030, almost 60 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas
  • 95 per cent of urban expansion in the next decades will take place in the developing world
  • 828 million people live in slums today and the number keeps rising
  • The world’s cities occupy just 3 per cent of the Earth’s land, but account for 60-80 per cent of energy consumption and 75 per cent of carbon emissions
  • Rapid urbanisation is exerting pressure on fresh water supplies, sewage, the living environment and public health
  • But the high density of cities can bring efficiency gains and technological innovation while reducing resource and energy consumption

Source: UN Sustainable development goals / No. 11 Sustainable cities and communities



I studied philosophy, history and social anthropology and have a master’s degree in economics from The University of Oslo. 

Since 2013, I have used my expertise in humanities and economics at COWI. This combination of skills meets a growing demand among urban planners to understand how to develop a productive city.

I am convinced that if you plan a city and reduce transportation needs, you can solve many issues related to infrastructure and the environment. Clearly, you will get a greener city, but there are other benefits too. The density of cities actually leads to higher productivity and wealth creation.

There are many people working on this agenda, pulling in the same direction. The voice calling for sustainable urban development is getting louder.

Read more about Øystein here. 

Get in contact

Øystein Berge
Senior Specialist
Spatial planning and Landscape architecture, Norway

Tel: +47 93041416