With a population of around 4.9 billion people, the Asia-Pacific region is home to 63 per cent of the world’s inhabitants. As of 2021, the region accounts for around 37 per cent of global GDP (USD 35 trillion), which is expected to rise to around 42 per cent by 2040. Concurrently, the region’s urban population has expanded to more than 2.2 billion people (54 per cent of the global urban population), with a projection for an additional 1.2 billion people in urban areas by 2050.
Paradoxically, the primary appeal of greater urban opportunities and benefits after initially relocating is effectively weakened from social, economic and environmental pressures, associated with rising urban populations. For many countries, the boosts to economic growth from transport sector expansion is also prioritized over its severe traffic problems and increasing urban inequality. In 2019, the Asia-Pacific region produced 57 per cent of global emissions from fuel combustion, and the transport sector consumed more than 19 per cent of the region’s total energy, which directly correlates to an increase in CO2 emissions.
Various notable attempts have been made to address such concerns and provide cost-effective transport options across the region through smart transport systems. The demand for cutting-edge technology to improve municipal operations, alleviate urban traffic flows and increase a city’s liveability has been increasing. Concurrently, there has been a paradigm change from the traditional concept of “transport” to “mobility” with technology responding to traveller needs. “Mobility” generally refers to the ability to move freely and easily, whereas “transport” means the movement of people and goods with a vehicle.
In this situation, smart mobility is introduced as a new concept captured within smart transport systems. Smart mobility shifts traditional paradigms by disrupting the legacy of private transport, public transport, and paratransit with customized, user-oriented services to suit individual traveller behaviours. Smart mobility is defined as “an advanced form of mobility that is an agglomeration of diverse transport technologies, services and modes”.
The previously far-fetched notion of smart mobility is now a global reality, spanning our cities to enhance our travel experiences through its integration into existing urban infrastructure. Various forms of smart mobility have been introduced regionally, including e-scooter sharing, demand-responsive transport, Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) and ride sharing/ride hailing services.
Although it is a new concept, relevant initiatives have already been started by some Asia-Pacific countries including the “Mobility Innovation Roadmap” in the Republic of Korea and "Smart Mobility 2030" in Singapore. Importantly, rising smart mobility in the region positively impacts the daily lives of travellers through actively reconsidering traditional modes of transport and introducing new alternative ones. For example, in Singapore, new mobility options including electric car sharing have eliminated 480 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. A trial service of demand-responsive transport in Australia powerfully demonstrated its value for those with limited access to a private vehicle in areas where public transport is inconveniently located. More than half of the users for that service had no driver’s license or regular access to a car.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated this paradigm change leading to a fundamental shift in the mobility landscape. The pandemic revealed that much of the necessary city infrastructure and capability already exists worldwide, and the transition from conventional transport to smart mobility is no longer a need but an imperative. According to the study, almost 90 per cent of travellers were not dissuaded from e-scooter sharing by concerns of virus infection, and around 20 per cent of travellers replaced public transport with e-scooter sharing during the pandemic period.
The flame has been lit for the paradigm change to smart mobility. The need for the region to further explore its smart mobility potential as a path to realising sustainable development has never been greater. As the smart mobility sector expands, the Asia-Pacific region is expected to see an inflow of new and innovative efforts striving to deliver practical solutions for the general public. Naturally, this ambition will create a market entry for the private sector which may significantly influence how smart mobility evolves. Given that the region still faces diverse roadblocks for sustainable development, there is a need for timely intervention through policies that promote smart mobility with the maximum potential to achieve the 2030 Agenda. The clock is ticking, and opportunity is knocking. This unique, once-in-a-lifetime chance at the most valuable transport paradigm shift since the invention of the internal combustion engine is surely not to be missed.
To benefit from this chance, ESCAP is developing a regional roadmap to support regional cooperation for sustainable smart transport systems, and providing policy guidance for the wider use of smart mobility. Recent publications also offer policy options to move towards sustainable mobility in Asia and the Pacific.