A step change in mobility is required but it won’t be easy to deliver. It should deliver a multiplicity of transport modes and solutions with a clear focus on sustainable choices for a range of trip purposes and types

In many ways the history of the 20th century has been the recreation of a modal monoculture of choice. This is the personal car!

The Paris Climate Agreement of 2016 lays out the needs for decarbonising sectors of human activity in the coming years in order to meet the goal of limiting the most damaging effects of climate change. Specifically: “..the Paris Agreement’s long-term temperature goal is to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels; and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C, recognising that this would substantially reduce the risks and impacts of climate change. This should be done by reducing emissions as soon as possible…”

Transport within Europe remains a sector with persistently high carbon emissions and has not yet demonstrated a clear trajectory of emissions reductions. This is unlike most other sectors in the economy.

Countries around the world have laid out plans, most of which will require huge amounts of public, corporate and eventually personal investment, to deal with the decarbonisation of the transport systems. Many of these plans include promotion and improvement of public transport and particularly the electrification of personal cars, public transport – bus as well as rail, and freight vehicles. Other alternative low carbon emission technologies are also being pursued in some sectors and some countries such as hydrogen and fuel cells. All of this may deliver the ambitious needs in the 2016 Paris Agreement.

Why is transport so resistant to fundamental changes in behaviour?

However, a broader question about the transformation of the transport sector regarding carbon and more generally with respect to sustainability is the ‘level of change’ that may be required, expected or delivered by existing users of transport – almost everyone – and the needs of the future? How does this ‘level of change’ compare to the change we have seen in other sectors of modern life and more generally, and why is transport so resistant to fundamental changes in behaviour? How does transport deliver a ‘step change’ in behaviour and what does this look like in contemporary society? This was a question actually posed in an online forum that I attended last autumn by a non-transport industry professional who had examined decarbonisation performance in many industries.

Let’s consider other sectors in consumer life that have experienced substantial service changes over the last few decades. A number come to mind, but specifically personal communications and retailing.

Inter-personal communication was been transformed in the twentieth century. Communication moved from something between local neighbours to being enabled by national and international postal services; to being supported by ubiquitous land phone lines in homes, offices and public places; to being enabled by personal mobile devices; to being a low cost global service from a range of messaging apps. Most importantly, and particularly in the last 30 years, personal communication has moved from being a time consuming, relatively expensive, location restricted service to an almost free to the user, personal service that has redefined how humans consider and communicate with each other. It has also allowed the development of a range of new personal services from fitness apps, social expression services, delivery services, location based transport services, etc.

From a market introduction 35 years ago, there are now more than 80 million mobile phones in the UK, the vast majority smartphones. It was only in 2011 that mobile phone use surpassed that of land lines in the UK!

Retailing has been through a period of increasing transition for a number of years and this has been amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic. Small family shops on the high street have become dominated by the consolidation into larger high street chains. On-street shopping has been moved into small shopping centres followed by larger in town and out of town shopping centres. The trend to out of town shopping has led to larger ‘big box’ stores that are dominated by the need for expansive and low cost parking as well as car accessibility. In the latter part of this trend, the internet and low cost personal communication has enabled the birth of online shopping. At first an oddity to support a few limited shopping user cases, online has increasingly recreated the experience for each category of shopping need. From groceries, to fast clothing, to holiday planning, to homeware, to meal delivery, to now almost any retail need, the internet has become the default – even now for an impromptu coffee and lunch from Pret a Manger!

36% percent of total retail sales in the UK are currently via the internet. A year ago this figure was 22%. A decade ago the figure was only 9%.

The retailing transition has redefined retailers. While high street chains have fought for survival via online channels, pure play online retailers have arisen which have much lower cost bases, more nimble supply chains and a wider customer base.

While some form of retailing will survive in the high street, this will likely be more experiential and entertainment based. However, for much of the retail experience a step change in the business model is underway.

It should be noted, that in each case we are considering diffuse consumer industries with many intermediaries and personal decisions about behaviour and use. In more concentrated industries, such as for example electricity production (prior to the rollout of household solar power and domestic storage batteries), delivering a step change in production methods was easier to consider as there were fundamentally a few large (electricity) power stations generating much of the production for an economy. These may historically have been supplied with coal, or oil, but a step change in terms of carbon production would see these facilities replaced by nuclear, hydro, or eventually wind and other renewables. However, fundamentally and critically, there are relatively few actors required to make the industrial change!

A step change in terms of how people use transport is much more complicated to deliver and is in practice proving harder to achieve!

Transport, and particularly personal transport, is a very diffuse individual experience. The reasons for the need for mobility, the timing of that need, how that need may be combined with other daily chores, let alone modal choice can be highly interrelated and personal and reflect a myriad of life choices.

That is, if “choice” is incorporated into the decision process. For many people in the world mobility is not about choice, but about “pre-designated” modal expectations. 150 years ago for most people the only mobility choice would have been their personal ability to walk. With the exception of using domesticated animals for transport or waterways, mobility was a simple option.

In many ways the history of the 20th century has been the recreation of a modal monoculture of choice. This is the personal car! Almost two-thirds of all trips in the UK are made by private motorised transport, with a quarter by walking. The private motorised transport modal share is higher in markets such as the US. As historic societies were designed around the need for walking, modern society has so often been around the need for driving at the expense of most other modal options. There are clearly exceptions in larger metropolitan cities with extensive public transport networks, and the now common long distance travel via planes and trains – but again for most there is one default for mobility.

A step change in mobility that delivers fundamentally different outcomes needs to consider challenging the monoculture of transport in order to break down existing habits

Thus, a step change in mobility that delivers fundamentally different outcomes needs to consider challenging the monoculture of transport in order to break down existing habits.

We also need to be aware that the pending and hugely investment heavy transformation of the car industry from fossil fuel propulsion to electric batteries while impressive, may simply replicate many of the problems in the monoculture of car use, but with a cleaner fuel source! Many of the proposals for autonomous vehicles are also heading in the same direction of replicating existing models of car use and ownership, but with reduced responsibility for the driver.

A step change in mobility use needs to deliver a fundamentally new model of mobility that addresses the context of the need for change. One positive outcome of Covid-19 crisis has been the re-evaluation of the use of the existing (public) transport system. Long daily commutes via high capacity trunk systems will likely return to some degree, but more shorter trips as a result of working more locally to existing residential areas and as more people relocate to be closer to the diversity of attractions in central areas – but without the commute – will increase.

A step change in mobility should deliver a multiplicity of transport modes and solutions with a clear focus on sustainable choices for a range of trip purposes and types. Many of these choices will be ‘classic’ public transport, others shared, some personal and some not involving travel at all. One mode is unlikely to dominate as in a complex modern society the needs and desires will be so varied. Thus, the use of public space will need to be carefully regulated to ensure priority for the cleanest, most sustainable and ‘most worthy’ modes. A step change in effect delivers a multiplicity of slices onto the modal pie-chart.

This step change should be measured in its ability to deliver low carbon transport options, but also in its ability to generate high sustainability transport choice to citizens.

What is a step change in mobility? In a contemporary world it has not yet been delivered in terms of environmental sustainability. The transformation of the car industry via electrification is presenting a version of a step change in propulsion and consequently carbon production. A step change in mobility requires a broader view in terms of how we prioritise and deliver transport systems and decisions that move society away from monoculture solutions towards an eco-system of transport choice that truly enables people to consider a range of options and where society prioritises those options offering the highest sustainability credentials.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Giles K Bailey is a Director at Stratageeb, a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation. Previously, he had spent nine years as Head of Marketing Strategy at Transport for London.

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