Freedom from the car as the ultimate goal of urban transport
We are all familiar with the history of urbanization in the last two centuries, mainly in Europe and North America, spreading in the last 50 years to the rest of the world. Of course, each city has its own history, but it is fairly easy to identify long term continental and worldwide trends.
The overarching trend in urban transport since the 1950’s has, undoubtedly, been motorization. From America, to Europe, to Asia and Africa, some sooner some later, all large metropolises cope with congestion, scarcity of parking and pollution caused by car traffic. Even cities with old, large and developed public transport networks, the increase in motorization coincided with a long pause in the expansion of transit networks, at the same time new express ways were being built.
More recently, the dominating trend in the discourse has been around the concept of “smart and sustainable mobility”, exemplified by the recently published European Commission Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy [EC 2020]. It is often completed with other adjectives such as connected, shared and digital.
The exact meaning of smart and sustainable mobility is not entirely clear, and it does not necessarily help when other adjectives are added, like “connected”, “shared” or “digital”. It is also likely that different stakeholders interpret them differently. This becomes clear when almost all transport solutions assign themselves several or all these adjectives.
One of the meanings of “smart and sustainable mobility” translates into the concept of Mobility as a Service (MasS). Like so many corporate buzzwords, its meaning is also not entirely clear. Most often, it is used in connection with ride-sharing, car-pooling, e-bike or e-scooter-sharing mobile applications. Also like many corporate buzzwords, all players in the sector suddenly feel like they need to adopt it if they are to remain at the forefront of innovation. The truth is that most solutions that adopt the MaaS label are individual mobility solutions, even if, at the end of the day, ridesharing and car-pooling are simply glorified taxi services.
There are, of course, positive examples and true useful innovation. Bike-sharing services are a good example, as they help overcome an important barrier to initial adoption of the bicycle as a mode of transport. These services help to bring more people to cycling.
The “sustainable” part usually refers to electrification or, more generally, energy transition in transport. Combustion engines in cars and buses are gradually being exchanged for batteries and electric motors. It is still not clear if hydrogen can overcome its technical limitations and become widespread.
However, we must bear in mind that electric cars are not environmentally neutral. In fact, there are no environmentally neutral solutions, there are only better and worse solutions, from an environmental point of view. An electric car still needs energy, and needs batteries to store that energy, that needs to be produced somewhere. A railway takes up space, needs earthworks, tunnels and viaducts, it needs large quantities of concrete and steel.
The overall point is that simply shifting from combustion to electric engines will only help solve the problems with pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Shifting from privately own cars to shared cars, whatever their power source, will only partially reduce the demand for parking, while its effects on congestion may even be negative.
Generally speaking, individual motorized transport is almost always worse than either collective or individual active mobility. There will always be exceptions, but this is true for the vast majority of cases, most certainly in cities.