Bikes in a city.

How do cars fit in the sustainable city of the future?

Future Cities Insight #26 - How do cars fit in the sustainable city of the future?

Electrification, self-driving technology, new mobility models; the realm of car design is going through groundbreaking transformations. Fueled by emerging technology, we are continuously enchanted by car concepts that show the beautiful opportunities ahead of us. Especially removing the driver from the car begs us to wonder if the future vehicles should still be called a car at all. From changing the way we spend our time in the car, to rethinking the car as a space on wheels, to a self-driving room clinic coming to you for an appointment. And what about those flying cars we we’re promised decades ago? Is the sky finally the limit?

Looking ahead toward 2050, the possibilities that technology offers us seem to be endless. The complexity of predicting the future can be overwhelming - one might even say it is unpredictable. Embarking on a journey to explore the unknown, looking for the purpose is a wise starting point. Just as a carpenter doesn’t ask a hammer what to make, we shouldn’t look at technological trends and extrapolate the future from it. We should ask what it is we want to achieve. For AFRY the purpose is clear: we want to accelerate the transition to a sustainable society. And looking at the sustainability goals we have set together, there is work to do. Can the automotive world be an asset to the sustainable future city?

Technology as the driver of sustainable mobility

In many ways upcoming technology can be a strong ally in reaching our sustainability goals.

  • Electrification is a vital step in reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Removing exhaust gases from the streets will be a strong improvement for air quality in our cities.
  • Self-driving technology will boost road safety as soon as it has reached maturity. With 360 view, the ability to speak to other vehicles and its surroundings real-time and countless other superhuman abilities, AI drivers are destined to help us attain the goal of Vision Zero.
  • Autonomous vehicles won’t need parking space in the city centers, opening up space for things that make a city more pleasant place to live in.
  • Autonomous vehicles open the door for people with mobility barriers, including the elderly (a growing demographic), people with disabilities and marginalised groups.
  • Mobility as a service is projected to bring the cost of a ride down below the cost for public transport, which could help bring down the barriers of social inequality.

Does a sustainable city need cars?

In the meantime, urban planners aren’t overwhelmingly enthusiastic about welcoming the new generation of cars into their cities. As our future cities survey reflects, a liveable city should be safe, clean and provide plentiful green areas. The car as we know it has a negative impact on all of these aspects. Whether the future car can make the city a better place to live in has yet to be seen. One example that is often mentioned is that more affordable and accessible options to take the car instead of walking or cycling have the potential of skyrocketing congestion issues. To quote Björn Siesjö, City Architect of the City of Gothenburg: “any concept that increases traffic is inherently unsustainable.”

To better understand what the future sustainable city needs, let’s consider the perspective of urban planners on future urban mobility. Urban planning is by its nature long term focused. Mobility is not considered a goal on itself, but rather a means to provide access to basic amenities.


A good example to illustrate how urban planners are looking to transform the urban environment is the ’15 minute city’ - a contemporary concept in which all of the citizens should have access to essential services within a 15 minute timespan by foot, cycle or public transport. Note that cars have no role in this concept – especially not private owned ones.

It is clear that putting technology in the driver’s seat isn’t necessarily going to solve all the challenges we face to make the city a better place to live in. In some ways it might even make it exponentially worse. This isn’t a reason to abandon new technology altogether, but it calls for a more holistic view when we design new solutions for our cities.

Leading by example

There is a significant disconnect between where the automotive industry is heading towards and what the cities are looking for. There is however a good case to be made that the sustainable city can benefit from a better cooperation between the two. First off, the city will still need cars in 2050. Although there is compelling evidence that says the 15 minute city is working for densely built cities such as Paris, in cities such as Gothenburg with a notably stronger urban sprawl it is likely that cars remain a key mode of transport. On the other side, the automotive industry needs the cooperation from cities too. The adoption rate of new technology depends largely on policies and the willingness of cities to facilitate it.

There is a huge opportunity for the automotive industry to take the lead. The sustainable city needs to have transport systems that are safe, affordable and accessible for all. The first step toward this goal is to envision solutions that we can aspire to. The automotive industry has always been exceptionally good at envisioning their version of the future. It is up to them to show that the future car can be an asset to make the city a better place to live in.

The opinions expressed in this text are those of the author.


Marijn Molenaar - Industrial Designer

Marijn Molenaar

Industrial Designer

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