Circular economy in mobility

How circular do we organise our mobility?

A circular economy in mobility comes down to meeting our mobility needs by consuming as few materials as possible and with minimal impacts. To this end, vehicles must be designed and used as optimally as possible. There are several ways to achieve this: by acting on the types and numbers of vehicles, the business models for using them and/or the materials consumed during production and use or released at the end of their lifespan.

The dominance of cars remains a fact for the time being, with at least two-thirds of the kilometers traveled in passenger cars. As a result, there are enormous amounts of materials in the mobility system, and these amounts have increased over time, with growing numbers of vehicles that are used less intensively and efficiently. The Flemish Mobility Vision includes a reduction of the materials footprint by 60% by 2050 as an objective. However, in recent years we have seen that the vehicle fleet has stabilized in relation to the population. The reason for this may lie in the profound changes in the supply of and resulting purchasing behavior regarding new vehicles.

A modal shift to public transport or cycling is a way to use (much) fewer materials in relation to the number of people transported. A newcomer in this area is the share of kilometers traveled by electric bicycle: in 2020, this share had already increased to one percent. Car use can be organized differently by focusing on carpooling and car sharing. The popularity of car sharing continues to increase significantly. Recently, figures on effective use in addition to the number of memberships have also become available: the increase is also visible here.

A striking figure is the mass of new passenger cars entering the Flemish market. After having remained fairly constant around 1450 kilograms for many years, we have seen this mass increase sharply by tens of kilos per year from 2019; the average increase per vehicle between 2022 and 2023 is no less than 90 kilos. Even though the environmental performance of these cars is steadily improving, the increase illustrates that electrification of our mobility system results in new materials issues, which will require targeted data collection.

Valorisation of used tires mainly comes down to downcycling, with decreasing shares of reuse and retreading. Valorization of scrapped cars via the official route has greatly improved: the quantities of burned or dumped material are now minimal, and there is more reuse. Cars remain in use longer; when scrapped, they have an average of 190,000 kilometers on the odometer.

The above analyzes are an update of study work from 2020 on mapping the progress of the circular economy in our mobility system. The conclusions from then are largely still valid, and we see some shifts in emphasis, such as the rise of electric bicycles and vehicles. The entire system is still far from circular: with regard to passenger transport, the conclusion remains that we are mainly moving around a large mass of materials. In terms of data collection, vehicles and their accessories are relatively easy to monitor because a lot of data is publicly available and many actions on vehicles and phases in their life cycle are accompanied by administrative formalities, such as the registration of odometer readings via Carpass. However, attention to data management in collaboration with various authorities remains essential: for example, a unique data source for the exact kilometers traveled by Flemish vehicles has no longer been available since 2018.