PARIS – City officials faced with the issues of traffic congestion and air pollution may have more influence on the shape of the auto industry in coming years than any other interest group.

By 2015, 53% of the world’s population will live in cities, with 40% residing in urban areas of more than 1 million people, says Remi Cornubert, head of the automotive practice at consultancy firm Oliver Wyman’s Paris office.

“Conceiving a car adapted to this environment requires a radically different approach” that takes into account urban conditions, he says.

Some electric-vehicle proponents have suggested if cities ban internal-combustion engines, motorists will be forced to buy EVs. Meanwhile, a lack of space in clogged cities, especially in European metropolitan areas, suggests there is an increasing need for smaller vehicles.

Changing world demographics are being driven by urban growth in China, where Beijing, for example, is experiencing problems caused by automobiles. During the 2008 Olympics, Beijing authorities imposed draconian rules limiting entry to avoid massive traffic gridlock.

In Europe, where a majority of the population already lives in metropolitan areas, some 60 cities have launched a variety of measures affecting automobile use.

London, for instance, limits traffic using a sophisticated system of charging fees to motorists, and Stockholm and Milan are among cities that have followed the example. In Bordeaux, France, low-emissions vehicles can park for free.

Meanwhile, other cities have made life difficult for traditional vehicles. Amsterdam has banned diesel trucks, while Paris has reduced traffic lanes and eliminated all free parking. Next year, the French city plans to launch the Autolib car-sharing project involving some 3,000 electric vehicles.

City officials have the power to ban internal-combustion cars and make other rules limiting vehicle use, says Anne Houtman, a representative of the European Commission in France.

Houtman says the EC soon will launch a comparative study to find out which cities have the best systems.

“One percent of the gross national product in Europe is lost because of traffic jams,” she says during a recent roundtable discussion on how communities can reduce their carbon footprint.

“We are going to see the development of toll systems (that are) more and more sophisticated to limit traffic and manage parking places,” says Cornubert, who presented a study on the megatrends affecting the auto industry.

Completely new concepts of mobility may emerge, he says, such as the EN-V, a small Segway-like personal transportation vehicle concept with a range of (40 km) developed by General Motors Co. and Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. Group.

While EVs can reduce pollution in cities, traffic congestion is a problem solved by reducing the size of vehicles as well as their numbers.

Paris’ Autolib car-sharing program aims to attack the problem on both fronts. The winning bidder will be chosen in December to not only build the necessary infrastructure but also operate the program. Organizers hope to sign up 200,000 people to use 3,000 cars, with some participants expected to give up their own vehicles.

“It’s going to be a success,” says Cornubert.

Car sharing utilizing traditional vehicles already has been established in Paris and elsewhere, on a small but growing scale.

Oliver Wyman in Paris, which has 300 employees, is embracing the trend it predicts. Last week, the consultancy signed a contract with Carbox, a 3-year-old car-sharing company. Wyman employees can ride to work on public transport, or drive to business appointments in a small car such as the low-emissions Citroen C3.

“(Oliver Wyman is) putting into practice their ideas,” says Benoit Chatelier, a co-founder of Carbox, which today has 150 self-service vehicles in various locations in France. A reduced carbon footprint is part of the company’s selling point, and Chatelier expects delivery of Carbox’s first electric car, a Citroen C-Zero, in January.

Despite the trend toward low-emissions vehicles, internal-combustion cars will continue to dominate the auto industry, says Cornubert. Even by 2025, he says, production of EVs will only total 3.5 million annually, in a global market of more than 90 million vehicles.

Although decisions by city officials will shape the future industry, changes won’t happen overnight.

“People want their work and their shopping to be close to where they live,” says Patrick Faucher, director of sustainable development in Bordeaux.

While citizens want a cleaner city, “they are not ready to accept a step backwards” in terms of limits on where they can drive, Faucher says. “We live with constraints.”