Innovation and urban mobility: a European perspective

An article by Dr. Maria Tsavachidis, CEO of EIT Urban Mobility (This is the courtesy translation of an editorial originally published in the French review “Mobily-Cités”, on 21 June 2021. The review is in open access (editorial on pages 6 and 7).

While the overall European Union’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 22% between 1990 and 2018, with a 23.1% increase over the same period, the transport sector appears as an exception. In addition, poor air quality causes the premature death of more than 400,000 European citizens each year, and congestion represents an annual cost to society of 100 billion euros.

Therefore, urban mobility is at the crossroads of local and global challenges. The European political and legislative agenda for the next 18 months, coupled with unprecedented resources for the recovery and resilience of Europe, could be a game-changer.

From this perspective, the challenges around urban mobility represent a tremendous opportunity for its innovation ecosystem, which EIT Urban Mobility supports by accelerating the transformation towards more sustainable forms of mobility across Europe.

The European Green Deal: an innovation catalyst

Since the arrival of President Ursula von der Leyen at the head of the European Union’s executive, the political priority is crystal clear: to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Set in motion by the European Green Deal presented in December 2019, this is the new growth strategy of the Union. While the pandemic could have overshadowed this vision, the European Commission doubled down. With a minimum objective of 37% of investment for the ecological transition in the recovery and resilience plans of the Member States, the European Green Deal is a pillar of the European recovery effort.

This ambition requires the profound transformation of our socio-technical-economic structures, in a holistic and systemic manner, and constitutes a tremendous catalyst for innovation. Conversely, the European Green Deal will only be possible with technological innovation (incremental and breakthrough), as well as social and behavioral innovation. Thus, EIT Urban Mobility intends to fully contribute to the achievement of this ambition.

In July 2021, the Commission will propose the revision of most of the European legislation related to energy and climate issue, in the “Fit-for-55” package. This should enable a 55% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990, and put Europe on the path to climate neutrality by 2050. Hopefully, this will also send a strong signal to market players, contributing to create a demand shock for innovative solutions.

Among the numerous files that will be revised, we can notably highlight the directive on the deployment of alternative fuels infrastructure, and the regulation, setting CO2 emission performance standards for new passenger cars and for new light commercial vehicles.

Urban mobility: a European matter as well

Beyond the “Fit-for-55” package, mobility has also been at the heart of the sustainable and smart mobility strategy published in December 2020 by the Commission. This strategy sets the policy framework paving the way to align the transport sector with the European Green Deal ambition, which notably implies a 90% reduction of the transport related GHG emissions by 2050. In particular, the Commission presents an action plan made of ten flagship initiatives representing 82 measures (legislative and non-legislative) to be implemented by the end of the mandate of the current Commission (2024).

One of the ten flagship initiatives is to make interurban and urban mobility more sustainable and healthy, which notably includes the revision of the Urban Mobility Package of 2013, expected by the end of 2021. Although urban mobility is mainly a competence of local authorities, the European Union is also active on this front, especially by developing a methodology and facilitating the exchange of good practices around Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMPs).

In addition, the European Union is playing a growing role for cities through its Research and Innovation (R&I) policy. With a budget of 95.5 billion euros over the period 2021-2027, Horizon Europe is its cornerstone, and constitutes the largest transnational R&I programme in the world, made of instruments ranging from the support to basic research to breeding of future European “unicorns”.

More specifically, among the main novelties of Horizon Europe is the concept of the Missions, inspired by the Apollo mission: to use a bold, inspiring, clear, easy to relate for citizens, time-bound, measurable and impactful objective, to lead R&I efforts. The Commission will decide in the coming weeks which one(s) of the five proposed Missions will be implemented as part of Horizon Europe’s programming, one of which being to have 100 climate neutral cities by 2030 in Europe.

Beyond the possible Mission for cities, EIT Urban Mobility is one of Horizon Europe’s European instruments available to cities to innovate in terms of mobility.

EIT Urban Mobility: a European initiative for innovation in urban mobility

Launched by 48 organisations in 2019, EIT Urban Mobility is founded on the concept of accelerating innovation by integrating the knowledge triangle (research centers – universities – companies) and cities.

Our role is to strengthen the European innovation ecosystem of urban mobility to support cities towards more liveable urban spaces for all. This involves reskilling and upskilling academic and professional staff to bolster the entrepreneurial mindset, accelerating and incubating start-ups and scale-ups (more than 80 start-ups in 2020, such as Fluctuo or Vianova), supporting pilots and the market uptake of new mobility solutions (more than 30 projects in 2020), and the scaling up of innovative solutions.

Thanks to the support of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) of approximately 350 million euros by 2027 and supported by an ecosystem of more than 260 players to date, EIT Urban Mobility intends to become the largest innovation community for urban mobility.

Creating urban spaces that are more liveable for all citizens and enabling cities to reclaim public space from cars, this is our mission.