On the eve of the climate summit in Paris, mobility worries decision-makers because – contrary to other sectors – pollution emanating from modes of transport continues to climb around the world, representing today more than a quarter of total emissions. Automobile congestion and noxious pollutants are pervasive. And yet, solutions are now coming to market that were unimaginable a few years ago.
At the end of 2014, Mrs. Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, surprised the world by banning diesel vehicles in the center of France’s capital by 2020. Of the 4,500 buses in circulation around Paris, around 3,600 will be replaced by electric buses and the other 900 will be powered by biofuels. In London, Mayor Boris Johnson decided to create a perimeter of Ultra Low Emission Zones around the capital in which only hybrid and electric vehicles will be able to circulate. 3,000 hybrid buses are on their way.
After a century of hegemony in heavy transport on wheels, diesel and its fine particles will exit exponential urban areas. The overall bus system is being carried away in this direction, moving towards using rechargeable electric batteries, alternative fuels and new designs that constructors are competing to find solutions to the challenges of sustainable mobility.
A second remarkable development: the number of bike users is becoming truly significant in many cities. Even if Paris is at a modest 2% of the total mobility done by bicycle, Berlin has reached 13% while the numbers in Amsterdam (22%) and Copenhagen (27%) clearly show that when public cycling plans and coherent policies converge then citizens choose this more environmentally-friendly mode of moving. (Source: www.epomm.eu)
By extension, the electric bike is now revolutionizing personal transport for the elderly and people in less good shape who can now go up hills and cover longer distances previously too steep and too much of an effort. The electric bike only weighs 25 kg and can take a person up to 25 km/h on average without exuding strenuous efforts. In comparison, the electric car is a 1,000-2,000 kg vehicle that can carry 2-5 passengers at the speed of traffic. The energy required, the batteries needed, the electricity spent, are much more significant. In China, with more than 20 million units per year, the sale of electric bikes has surpassed generic bikes and motorbikes since a few years and is on par with car sales.
A third development: hybridization of transport modes.
What’s the difference between the metro and the train, when new lines around cities are being based on driverless technologies? What’s the difference between a tram on wheels and a trolley bus? Between a suspended metro and an urban cable car? Thanks to the development of new concepts, a continuity of possible solutions is emerging to transport people differently but each time more efficiently and in more inter-modal ways.
In parallel, the borders between private and public transport are becoming blurred: traditionally exploited by public operators, public transport is more and more becoming privatized within a public-private partnership context of concessions and trade-offs usually to everyone’s advantage. Considered too sovereign and inefficient, the national or regional monopolies continue to cede ground to international operators or smaller enterprises more specialized and with greater flexibility. Will Belgium soon be the last European country to have not introduced any form of competition in its public transport?
Fourth development: smartphones, big data and the shared economy
With Internet and smartphones, the borders between personal and collective transport are dissolving: bikes and cars are becoming shared modes of urban mobility. Taxis are also becoming shared in some cases (Collecto), as well as individual cars that are shared more and more (peer-to-peer). Uber and Blablacar, and hundreds of smaller initiatives (Caramigo, Wibee…), rely on the use of billions of pieces of data accessible in real time to match supply with demand for cars and parking. This has tremendous implications for actually using less cars and even no longer needing to own one.
Faced with the evolution of electric mobility, hybridization of modes of transport and advent of car-sharing, two important questions arise:
1. Where will the supply of energy come from as we move from fossil fuels to cleaner technologies? Between the delayed phasing out of nuclear and the reappearance of coal mining, isn’t it time to prioritize decentralized forms of production and of storage with renewable energies?
2. Public action: how to make predictions in times of turmoil? Is politics and public administration not also about setting agendas and deadlines to create results (such as curbing emissions), to offer more research funds to develop the goals and offer infrastructures on which multiple actors will develop the best possible services.