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The near future of urban mobility

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The world of personal mobility, long dominated by the private car, is changing fast.

With growing car use, crushing congestion, stark urban environmental effects and decreasing municipal funds, cities worldwide are struggling to enable transport options that meet the needs of the planet as well as their people.

In response, disruptive mobility technologies such as micromobility and autonomous vehicles are coming to the forefront. They’re providing alternatives to private cars that are cheaper and better for the environment – and in many cases, they are faster and equally convenient too.

These new transit modes are being stitched together by digital infrastructure that’s just as important as the bits of metal we ride in. Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) apps and connective platforms are starting to enable connected mobility options: new ways to get from A to B that are on-demand, real-time and end-to-end.

One of these is Iomob’s blockchain-based mobility marketplace.

Transport is, after all, responsible for 25 per cent of some continents’ emissions.

Many new solutions aim to contribute to saving the planet’s resources. Transport is, after all, responsible for 25 per cent of some continents’ emissions. There is an opportunity to reframe our way of thinking about mobility and foster a strong circular economy that will also benefit the environment and people.

In this, the first part of a two-part series, let’s take some time to summarise the dominant mobility trends of the next five years.

In the second part, we’ll look at how digital infrastructure will support those trends.

Micromobility

Micromobility is the fastest-growing sector in the mobility market, and showing no signs of slowing. In technical terms, micromobility covers any urban transport mode under 500kg. This includes e-scooters (such as Lime and Bird), e-bikes and shared mopeds.

Micromobility is perfect for short-distance personal movement. Roughly half of all journeys (and vehicle miles) normally performed by motor vehicles are under 15km. And of these, two-thirds are clustered under 6km. Trips at this distance are much cheaper (and frequently faster) to do in non-car modes. In fact, most short inner-city trips could be taken by micromobility, making the potential of this market enormous.

What micromobility needs to be effective

There are some caveats, though: many micro-modes will require a combination of regulatory, infrastructural and behavioural change to achieve full value.

Take e-bikes, the most efficient way to cover typical commuter distances in cities. They’re cheaper and faster than private cars at peak hours, with no parking hassle at the end. However they move quicker than regular cycles, and at scale need to have dedicated lanes to capitalise on their speed potential.

Many city councils aren’t yet willing to convert roads to cycle lanes, seeing it as a vote killer – even though it has significant potential to actually reduce congestion.

On the behavioural side, not everyone wants to cycle in the pouring rain or risk their safety on car-heavy city streets. This will change over time, as the all-weather riders of Amsterdam and Copenhagen show. In these places, cars negotiate well with cyclists and the modes are considered equal.

The shoot-first approach pioneered by Uber is wearing thin on the public, and on regulators.

Others have concerns about e-scooters littering city avenues, hence the knee-jerk reaction of many US cities to the emergence of Bird last year. The shoot-first approach pioneered by companies such as Uber is wearing thin on the public, and on regulators.

It’s time is up, and the micromobility startups will face a wave of civic resistance if they aren’t party to solving the side-effects they generate.

Despite the potential barriers, though, micromobility will continue to grow:

  • The cost per mile is already low and will only get lower
  • The market for short trips is huge and will only increase as more people move to cities
  • The electrification of bikes and scooters will combine with new design features and improved infrastructure to reduce behavioural barriers
  • Many cities looking to cut emissions are likely to try to accelerate micromobility uptake by instigating regulatory changes.

Autonomy and electrification

Micromobility is exciting, but cars are still king of our mobility world. In many markets, more than 90 per cent of journeys are done in single-occupancy private cars. Thankfully two big game-changers are currently transforming the car space: autonomy and electrification.

Combined, these two technologies offer huge potential in terms of time-savings, congestion- cutting and smoother urban mobility.

Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that they’ll deliver the kind of mobility future we want: faster, cheaper and more sustainable transit.

The ‘driverless car hell’ scenario

Robin Chase succinctly summarises the challenges in her video The Future of Autonomous Vehicles.

In the worst case, Chase identifies that the two trends could actually increase the congestion problems caused by the way we prioritise private vehicle ownership.

By allowing everyone to travel seamlessly in their own autonomous vehicle (AV), individuals could buy their own AV and instead of paying for parking, they might send their empty AV around the block or send it home until they are ready to be picked up, instantly doubling car miles and thus congestion.

If the development and introduction of autonomy and electrification are not well-managed by national and local governments, many cities could become less liveable than they are now.

Shops may even do away with renting store space and simply send loaded AVs to their customers, increasing vehicle movements.

In this ‘mobility hell’ scenario, energy usage and socioeconomic inequalities are likely to rise.

If the development and introduction of autonomy and electrification are not well-managed by national and local governments, many cities could become less liveable than they are now.

The ‘shared heaven” scenario

In the best case, autonomy and electrification will play a leading role in the transition to a ‘mobility heaven’ of more sustainable, efficient and equitable urban mobility systems.

Autonomy could also bring widespread benefits if it is introduced within a mobility system founded upon the principles of sharing. Sharing has two meanings: shared within a fleet model but for individual riders (like Uber) or pooled, meaning several riders need to share a vehicle (like Waze).

If shared and pooled models are used within a city-wide framework, autonomous cars could allow people to access door-to-door transport, with the convenience of a private vehicle for the same cost as public transport. If this happens, they will cut energy usage, reduce congestion and improve quality of life for city-dwellers.

It’s possible.

Non-owned, fleet-based car networks exist today – one example is Zipcar. If they proliferated, replacing most private vehicles and offering pooling we would need just 10 per cent of the cars we have in cities today, even at peak times.

Electrification will force electronic road-user pricing

The impact of electrification will become more obvious around 2030, when the technologies reach a tipping point and become more advanced, cheaper and therefore more widespread.

The biggest impact of electrification for nations is not better air quality and lower operating costs, although those will be great.

It has created a looming policy cliff that will force governments into change: the need to recuperate lost fuel tax income. As electric vehicles take over the fleet, many existing fuel taxes will cease to work. Dynamic electronic road pricing (ERP) systems need to be introduced to replace fuel taxes.

The impact of electrification will become more obvious around 2030.

This is an opportunity, as a new digitally enabled system can also incentivise the transition to a green car fleet, maintain and improve road networks, and encourage more people to “pool-share”.

Dynamic ERP systems will do more than simply replace fuel taxes, they’ll charge us based on a range of factors including carbon emissions and congestion effects. This will affect behaviour at a much more granular level.

There are some great policy indications. The work of Paul Buchanan (Volterra) and Stelios Rodoulis (Jacobs) in their Wolfson Economics Prize 2017 finalist entry “Pricing for Prosperity” is some of the best thinking on the subject.

The team clearly identify the challenges facing us, and make clear and implementable recommendations on how a new system should be designed.

What do countries need to do?

If we want to make our cities more equitable and liveable places for all, waiting to see how these new technologies will pan out, laissez-faire-style, will not work. Simply drifting on with our private-ownership-first mobility models into the AV and EV future will result in more vehicles, unmaintained roads and reduced quality of life.

To transition from private-first to shared-first behaviour, a staged approach with a level of government intervention is needed. They’ll need to make brave decisions now, about road charging and private vehicle ownership, if we want to see effective change by 2030.

The critical steps cities and policymakers need to take are:

  • Support the re-assignment of road space for micromobility options, particularly ebikes
  • Pilot ERP using on-board devices (not gantries) before 2021
  • Support the development of open MaaS marketplaces which all mobility providers have equal access to (to be covered in part two of this article)
  • Consider how ERP will integrate with MaaS

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