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Today’s Mobility Challenges: A Young Professional’s Perspective

A conversation with Vladislav Kaim, Expert Consultant to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

September 28, 2023

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During the Freedom of Mobility Forum’s 2023 live debate, panelist Temilade Salami, Founder of EcoChampions and Member of the UNESCO SDG4Youth Network, highlighted the different behavior and trend patterns of the younger generation when it comes to car ownership and the importance of eco-responsible transport choices.

To get a young person’s perspective, we spoke with Vladislav Kaim who is an Expert Consultant to the UNDP on Youth Engagement in the Paris Agreement’s processes. 

How would you describe young people’s relationship with mobility today? What opportunities and challenges do they face?

The answer to this question hugely depends on which region we are talking about. From the perspective of a young person from Eastern Europe, mobility represents the opportunity to benefit from high quality education in Western Europe for example, combined with the possibility of returning to apply the acquired skills in Central and Eastern Europe, where economies are currently booming.

More generally, European youth benefit from a much higher level of mobility compared to their peers from North African countries, the Middle East, or the Americas. European countries have a high population density, which has allowed for train travel to flourish. The share of public transport and train together is more than 30% higher in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe, enabling younger generations to rely heavily on these forms of transport to be able to move. However, these transportation means are highly impacted by geopolitical situations. For example, the war in Ukraine has led to the closure of many airlines and trains in Moldova, making it more difficult for young people to travel.

How does living in either rural or urban areas impact young people’s mobility options? What can we do about it?

In Central and Eastern Europe, it is well understood that there is a need to connect the countryside to more urban areas. Some EU (European Union) structural funds, such as the NextGenerationEU fund that was implemented after Covid, were designed to make sure that the required connective infrastructure is improved. These investments must take into account sustainability and climate impact – 37% of recovery funds will be allocated to solutions designed to fight climate change.

A primary objective should be to restore the train stations that were previously closed on the grounds of lack of profitability. Conducting these actions has both a climate and a social impact: it has a direct impact on people’s quality of life and their ability to make choices when it comes to the places where they need or want to go to study, work, shop, etc. Secondly, where possible, we need to supplement the local bus networks in areas where there are no train stations, ideally with transport options that can function on a fossil-free basis. Investing in such a bus network can serve several purposes: in northern Sweden for instance, which is a sparsely populated territory, buses often also have the double function of transporting goods with them, thereby opening up various isolated rural areas. 

Are the expectations of young people towards mobility different from those of previous generations?

Expectations of the youth today are higher in terms of availability of mobility, by virtue of having a different horizon. Young people of my generation are children of a digital, information era. When it comes to mobility, there have been dramatic changes within the past 70 years. During the era of our grandparents, cars started being produced and bought on a mass scale. Then, during our parents’ generation, we saw the advent of low-cost airlines that significantly impacted night trains. The modal share of rail freight has decreased from a dominant 60% in the 1950s, to 30% in the 1970s, to as little as 15% in the 1990s. And now in our generation we see the reversal of that, motivated by demand from young people who are aware of the environmental impact of transportation(1). Unfortunately, train travel is not an option available to everyone, mainly because of the lack of connections and the high prices(2).

How are young generations using digital technology for their mobility?

In a sense, digital technology is an accelerator of mobility. With the penetration of smartphones, we see very high rates of adoption of digital apps even in regions where we would not have expected the very fast adoption of this kind of technology. In countries like Moldova and Ukraine, the agility and adoption of digital for various uses, including mobility, is not far from those of Scandinavian countries. Having a startup ecosystem that can complement public transportation, with car-pooling or car-sharing, is certainly an interesting supplement to public transportation, but countries should not rely on it as the backbone of a transportation system. I believe that there is no greater mobility solution than public transportation, because public investment done at scale delivers the best cumulative result with the highest individual benefits at the least possible cost for taxpayers.

To what extent can appropriate mobility infrastructures support access to decent jobs for youth?

As we see with the rise of work from home, young people want to live outside of big cities but still know that there is a train or a bus to get them to dense urban centers. A recent survey conducted by the World Economic Forum showed that 73% of Generation Z (people born from the late 90s to early 2010s) employees want permanent flexible work alternatives. The availability of effective mobility solutions is extremely important because it will directly impact, among other things, the availability and affordability of housing. In big city centers, it will impact the choices of commercial real estate developers and we see that right now in the global economy, for example, one of the main concerns is that commercial real estate borrowers are defaulting. We are realizing that vast office spaces are no longer needed if we can work in a more distributed way, so it is not only important for the sake of today’s youth, but it is also important for the sake of triggering certain changes in our economic structure that will ensure more sustainable development of cities themselves.

To what extent do countries and cities in Central and Eastern Europe encourage use of active, carbon-free mobility (walking and biking)?

I don’t think there is a month that passes by, at least in Moldova, without the news of a tragic accident involving a bike rider being swept off the road by a car. What prevents people from walking and biking is mainly the lack of safety and dedicated infrastructure – such as bike lanes. It is striking to note that for instance in 2017, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary had no national walking or cycling strategy. The lack of infrastructure can be explained from a historical perspective. Western Europe was fascinated with car-focused mobility as a symbol of status, particularly between 1945 and the 1970s. In Central and Eastern Europe, communism meant having fewer cars, although after the reforms of the 1990s, incomes in this geographic area started to increase and car adoption with it. There was simply no demand for bike lanes to the same extent as we see in Western Europe. However, this is a situation that is in the process of rapid change and urban planners and policymakers are currently facing increasing pressure to remedy this issue, especially from young people.