Hundreds of cars stuck in long traffic jams, drivers losing time, and vehicles emitting without covering distance. Overcrowded busses and trains that are seldom on time and do not offer much comfort, sometimes even breaking down and not moving at all anymore.
Worldwide, this is what rush hour in a big city typically looks like: “It is not a good sight,” says mobility expert Thomas Deloison. “Considering human wellbeing, it is shocking what can be seen on our streets nowadays.” He believes the current mobility situation leads “to congestion on the streets and produces emissions, noise, and particles in the air, putting our health at risk.”
He adds: “Mobility is not accessible to all and is – all things considered – a risk for people and for the planet. If people and planet are to thrive, we need to change the way we think and use mobility at once!”
Deloison explains that measures need to be taken in several different fields of mobility: “Let’s have a look at the individual cars,” he says. “Right now, most people use their own cars for transport, resulting in these private vehicles making up 82 percent of traffic and pollution.”
To reduce that high percentage and the accompanying pollution, Deloison advocates that people need to get out of their cars: “If people stop driving individually and start sharing cars instead, estimations show that it could reduce the overall traffic by up to 35 percent, which would also help reduce CO₂ emissions immensely.”
According to him, this new car-sharing culture would also need to be encouraged by politicians. “Governments could make sharing much more attractive by introducing some restrictions and policies on individual driving – and also by working on public transport services.”
Thus, the second big field of mobility that needs to be improved is the public transport sector. “Right now, people often choose their own cars over public transportation options such as busses or trains because using their own vehicles is more convenient and much more comfortable.”
According to him, “more people would accept busses and trains as a true alternative, if they offered more convenience, became more pleasant, and were less crowded.” That could be done by better matching the demand of travelers and the capacity of public transport over time or by having vehicle designs that could adapt to different traveler capacity needs throughout the day.
Also, if users could buy a public transport ticket over several modes that would cover their trip to the bus or train station, that would make public transport more agreeable. “We already see mobility applications allowing trip planning and ticketing over private and public transport modes,” says Deloison. “Making mobility seamless across modes greatly improves public transport’s ridership.”
He adds that while cheaper tickets for public transport could also be useful, reducing the cost is not the silver bullet: “Studies have indeed shown that less expensive tickets do lead to an increase of public transportation usage but plateau at a level, which shows that cost isn’t the only mean to increase public transport usage.”
Deloison explains a third measure that should be taken: “If we want to promote sharing vehicles and increase their usage from the current average of 5 percent, these vehicles need to be more durable. While busses and trains are already designed for that, cars are not.”
Better durability could be reached by using robust materials. “Right now, the materials used in vehicle manufacturing are polymers and plastics, which are quite durable. At the scale of an industry, though, this is not sustainable.” This is because each car manufacturer uses their own variations of polymers and plastics, differing only in degrees.
Manufacturers insist on using them anyway because – according to them – these are an integral part of their specific brand. “Unfortunately, this has led to an insane variety of plastics specifications,” says Deloison. “We need to reduce this number of variations.” He suggests an urgent need for standardization, leading to only a set of a few hundred of kinds of plastic that could be shared for common automotive applications.
And this is not enough: He insists that these standardized variations of different plastics must be recyclable: “We need materials that are designed to be circular, that can be re-used again, ideally for the same application. Only if materials are recyclable, can we save more of our valuable resources and reduce the amount of energy we employ to extract them. Only then can we reduce the carbon dioxide emissions and protect our climate.”
Finally, the right technology could also help to improve mobility: “Obviously, electric mobility is already a reality,” says Deloison. “Both battery and hydrogen technologies can make our driving more sustainable.” He also thinks that autonomous cars would be a great help to influence the way people move.
“Autonomous driving makes our cars safer and helps them to be used more efficiently. If vehicles are autonomous, then a vehicle can be used for longer hours and transport more people or goods.”
He adds that “all of these changes might seem quite a lot to ask.” Nevertheless, there is just no other option for him: “This is the only way forward. Only if we collectively decide to change our products, our materials, our technology – and our mindset, really – can and will our mobility change for the better.”
Being an urbanist and futurist Greg Lindsay focusses on „the city of tomorrow“ and talks frequently about globalization, innovation and urbanization. The journalist and speaker is the director of applied research at NewCities, a global nonprofit committed to shaping a better urban future.