The Urban Mobility Observatory, ELTIS, presents the Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan case study of Sofia, Bulgaria.
Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, is experiencing rapid growth which is contributing towards a strained transport system, and unappealing livability. Despite being a desirable place to live and work, increased congestion and air pollution challenges this. To combat these issues, Sofia is taking action to transition towards a more sustainable mobility system, a complex task given the population’s persistent perception of cars as essential and/or prestigious. The city employs a collaborative approach, focusing on information sharing and cooperation to gradually foster sustainable transport solutions and behaviors.
Sofia, the country’s economic hub, produces around 43% of Bulgaria’s GDP. Officially, it has about 1.3 million inhabitants, but estimates put the actual number between 1.6 and 1.8 million due to unregistered residents and commuters from nearby cities. Many commuters travel by car to the city center, where much of the economic activity is centered. High traffic has led to daily congestion and increased levels of air pollution. Car ownership has surged over the past three decades, with 663 cars per 1,000 inhabitants. The number of vehicles registered per capita in Sofia is one of the highest in Europe. A large proportion of the vehicles in use are older and therefore more polluting, the area has significant air pollution issues. It is estimated according to recent studies, that the health and economic costs of air pollution are equivalent to more than 10% of the city’s GDP.
To address these challenges, Sofia adopted a Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan (SUMP) in 2019. The SUMP aims to achieve 5 main objectives by 2035:
To reduce the negative consequences of transport development for the population and the environment.
To enhance the attractiveness of the urban environment and increase the living standards of the population.
To implement transport innovations to strengthen local mobility and economic development.
To foster the safety of the population in the city’s transport system.
To build an integrated and accessible-to-all transport network.
Residents can also contribute to the development of the SUMP through an interactive platform designed to allow people to submit their suggestions for projects or activities, in addition to providing feedback for planned actions.
To achieve these objectives, the plan recognizes that there need to be attractive alternatives in place to persuade people to make more sustainable mobility choices, including the development of existing walking and cycling networks.
The Plan In Action
Several initiatives were launched including, expanding cycling infrastructure from a 55.5km bicycle network in 2019 to 160km by 2025, introducing on-demand green public transport, and constructing a ‘Green Ring’ cycling path encircling the city center, thus improving mobility to over 30 neighborhoods. Currently, 5 major cycle lanes are under construction.
Sofia has also adopted a programme for pavement renovations, as well as stricter parking enforcement throughout the city. The parking policy in the city’s new SUMP employs the idea that parking is a service that uses public resources and should therefore not be free, in 2021 controlled parking zones were significantly extended, and it is planned that the increased revenues from this will be used to fund pavement renewal, and public transport investments.
Improving public transport is a key requirement to increase its usage. Sofia plans to gradually invest in transport services including buses, trams, and a metro. Over the past decade, Sofia’s metro network has extended significantly, with the latest extension opening in 2020. The network currently consists of 4 lines and 47 stations.
Additionally, the Bulgarian capital is pioneering toward a green public transport fleet, in addition to the development of an integrated ticketing system. Special tickets have been introduced giving the public free access to the city by public transport when air pollution is either high or extremely high in an attempt to further discourage car usage. A unique initiative is the ‘Sofia Coin’ mobile app, which encourages active transport by rewarding users for choosing eco-friendly modes including, cycling, walking, and scooters. The data collected from the app is fed into mainstream mobility infrastructure planning.
To further curb increasing car ownership, shared mobility services are also encouraged. Sofia is part of European projects like SUSMO to promote shared mobility deployment and public-private sector cooperation. The city’s Digital Transformation Strategy supports mobility management, including the development of platforms for car-pooling, flexible pricing models, and real-time data-driven transport planning.
Looking to the Future
While the long-term impact of the SUMP is still unfolding, Sofia’s approach to data-driven cooperation, and sustainable infrastructure development, provides valuable insights for other cities grappling with similar mobility challenges. Achieving sustainable mobility is a work in progress and there is no doubt more can be done. Previous actions may help with future actions including the introduction of a Low Emission Zone (LEZ). Previous attempts to implement this have failed in the past, but in 2023 a decision to try again and create a LEZ zone was approved.
There has been improved awareness amongst the public and stakeholders due to the actions of the STUMP regarding the importance of taking action to reduce traffic and the air pollution it causes. Simaltanously, a start has been made in developing transport alternatives. Providing drivers with high quality sustainable mobility options will help reduce how dependent the public are on cars.
Sofias STUMP has created a vision of alternatives for its residents, with each implemented action the alternatives improve, and people have more sustainable options.
Challenges, Opportunities, and Transferability
While every city is unique, attempts to replicate strategies do not necessarily guarantee success, Sofia offers valuable insights that could benefit other locations. Sofia’s method of collecting and sharing data has not only furnished vital information for planning and decision-making, but has also fostered better collaboration among stakeholders from diverse policy domains, and the private sector. Engaging with the private sector can stimulate the creation of novel mobility innovations, which should be evaluated based on their alignment with public policy objectives.
Digital tools for mobility services also play a crucial role in driving behavioral change. These innovative applications have garnered substantial media attention and heightened awareness about viable mobility solutions. Nonetheless, in the absence of basic mobility infrastructure, and effective policies to deter excessive car use, it is unlikely that a large shift in transport modes will occur. The SUMP does however, set the course for an integrated approach. Starting with its development, each progressive step outlined within the SUMP moves the city closer to implementing measures for enhanced sustainable mobility.