Sustainable Mobility


The issue of urban mobility in developing countries has emerged over the last decade as one of the world’s most pressing development challenges – and it is one that Shell Foundation has been working to address since we were established.

75% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050

Take urban mobility. On current projections, 75% of the world's population will be living in cities by 2050, yet long traffic queues, smog, honking horns, pedestrians and traders dodging heavy traffic are already facts of life in many of today's bustling megacities. 70% of CO2 emissions come from cities and 85% of the world’s traffic fatalities occur in developing countries. For many, heavy congestion and pollution is considered a normal part of daily life, disproportionately impacting the urban poor.

In 2002, we formed a strategic partnership with the World Resources Institute (WRI) and together co-created  EMBARQ – a global network of experts that work in partnership with cities and their stakeholders (across public and private sectors as well as civil society) to identify and implement sustainable transport solutions to improve the way people move in cities. EMBARQ is now the signature initiative of the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities on mobility and urban planning.

Over 9 million people have benefited from improved transport
EMBARQ have established regional centres across the world and have helped make improved transport available to around 8 million people around the world each day. The network now influences transport policy at city, national and international level and has unlocked nearly $5.4 billion of public and private capital into sustainable mobility infrastructure to-date.

In 2011, SF started looking beyond EMBARQ to examine ways in which we could address further sustainable mobility challenges. We expanded our sustainable mobility strategy to include a second major focus area on the way in which goods are moved within and between cities by the freight industry (a major contributor to transport emissions). This work led to the co-creation in 2013 of a new catalytic institution, the Smart Freight Centre, which aims to spur the adoption of sustainable solutions to reduce emissions and improve fuel efficiency across the global freight industry.

The third pillar of our renewed sustainable mobility strategy involves finding new ways to incubate social enterprises providing private sector mobility solutions. An early example of this work is our support to three auto-rickshaw entrepreneurs in India to develop fleet models for improved services.


At the heart of any thriving and prosperous society is the ability to move efficiently, access services and transport goods between locations.

$6.2 billion is lost annually in Lima, Peru, due to commuting times of up to four hours a day

Yet look around major cities in emerging markets today and in the sprawl you will find low-income neighbourhoods with no access to public transport and central districts brought to a halt by traffic gridlock. You’ll see smog hanging over the city skyline and experience the paralysing nature of mobility problems.

c-Rickshaws-everywhere-(2).jpgMore than half the world now lives in cities. In 2007, the 220 largest cities in the developing world accounted for over 10% of global GDP, yet ironically these engines of economic development are not growing sustainably. In Lima, Peru, it is estimated that people lose an average of four hours every day in travel, leading to a loss of approximately $6.2 billion a year. In the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil, it is estimated that $2.2 billion a year of productivity is lost due to congestion alone.

  The health impact of local air pollution, road traffic crashes, high levels of greenhouse gas emissions and an inability to move effectively, are making cities “unliveable” and placing economic growth in jeopardy. Rapid population growth, urbanisation and an explosion in vehicle ownership rates underpin these challenges – and these trends are forecast to accelerate in the coming years.  

More than half the world now lives in cities

The people feeling this impact most keenly are the urban poor who are separated from employment and so are exposed to long, hazardous daily commutes. Each year nearly 1.3 million people die from road accidents with 85% of these deaths occurring in low and middle income countries.

A systemic market failure

Responsibility for urban mobility services typically rests with individual city administrations and is split across multiple departments. They rely on a complex ecosystem of private and public contractors, operators and investors to implement new systems – a disparate set of stakeholders at city, state and national level who typically favour high-cost projects that focus on moving vehicles rather than moving people.

City authorities often lack the power, finance or capacity to design and implement more sustainable solutions – even though they exist. Many of the most positive developments you see today – such as Bus Rapid Transit Systems (BRT) – have been available for decades before attaining global recognition and uptake.


If the right technology and innovation to improve mobility exists, then what stops effective solutions from being more widely applied?

Bus.jpgOur early analysis and engagement with city experts revealed that one of the root causes of mobility problems was that transport providers were focused on how to move vehicles around their cities rather than people. This leads to the creation of more road space which ultimately attracts even more vehicles and makes the problem worse not better.

City authorities responsible for transport provision have to navigate a highly complex landscape. To design, finance and implement financially viable solutions that limit social and environmental externalities, you need the commitment of many actors. Most administrations do not have the institutional capacity to foster these collaborations.

In 2002, we joined forces with the World Resources Institute (WRI), an international research organisation leading the field in environment and climate studies, to build a new intermediary to meet this need. Combining extensive global networks, mobility expertise and practical implementation experience at a city level, WRI were a perfect fit.

Addressing a systemic barrier

Together we created EMBARQ – a non-profit network of sustainable transport experts that would work in partnership with cities and their stakeholders to identify and implement sustainable mobility solutions around the world.

  EMBARQ acts as an independent adviser to cities – diagnosing key mobility problems in the city, designing sustainable solutions and convening stakeholders across government, business and civil society to implement them. Solutions include BRT systems, bus system reorganisations, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, improved public spaces and transport safety measures.  

EMBARQ works by establishing locally-run transport centres to provide practical support to cities. By demonstrating results on the ground, the network is then well placed to influence transport policy in the country as a whole to deliver measurable improvements in fuel use, air pollution, access, quality, affordability, public health and road safety.

EMBARQ have now established regional centres in Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, India and China and their teams of local experts have helped make improved transport available to around 8 million people globally each day. The network now influences transport policy at city, national and international level and has unlocked nearly $5.4 billion of public and private capital into sustainable mobility programmes to-date.


d-EMBARQ.jpgEMBARQ has delivered substantial measurable impact through city-level projects and is now influencing transport policy on a global scale through regional centres in Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, India and China. They have achieved much already but there is still a long way to go given the size of urban mobility problems.

The network is rapidly expanding but cannot work in all the cities in the world. Together we aim to identify new ways for EMBARQ to share knowledge and support the widespread replication of effective solutions through others.

We have found that the provision of mobility services can be exceptionally fragmented between city, state and national level, between public and private sectors and between different transport modes. 

  Our work has demonstrated a need for “catalytic institutions”  that can convene stakeholders, mobilise resources, share best practice, research markets and provide capacity-building services to support markets to function more efficiently.  

Beyond urban mobility

Freight movements contribute disproportionately to fuel use, CO2 emissions and air pollution
We are now incubating several new ideas to apply this learning in support of new mobility solutions in the private sector.  In 2011, for example, we started analysing the movement of goods around fast-growing cities, which account for a significant proportion of total emissions in transport. Our research suggests that while efforts are made by individual carriers and logistics companies to improve their environmental performance, and regional and sectoral initiatives are making progress in selected parts of the industry, there is a lack of coordination in these responses that prevents industry-wide change.

  We believe that a specialist non-profit intermediary may be able to catalyse significant change in the freight sector by providing the tools and incentives for collective action where the risks for a single business to step out “ahead of the market” in pursuit of greater sustainability are considered too high.  

In 2013, this work led to the co-creation of a new catalytic institution, the Smart Freight Centre, which aims to spur the adoption of sustainable solutions to reduce emissions and improve fuel efficiency across the global freight industry.



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