Urban Mobility: A Complex Transition to Low Carbon

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An improved understanding of mobility in combination with more sustainable forms of transport is key to the future of cities and the transition to low carbon mobility. For this to occur a mix of multiple forms of mobility is required, leading to the question, what are these various forms of mobility and what solutions do they offer for a low carbon transition?

Mobility is more than just transportation and with its scope consistently adapting to include the various flows which occur throughout the city. The first of which and importantly in modern society is the rise of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and the flow of information. ICT brings a prospect for flexible and mobile working as well activities such as online shopping, thus creating an opportunity for personal time saving as travel time can be substituted by online activities. The past year plagued by COVID-19 has proven this out as many people are forced into remote working and ultimately learning about its benefits to their lifestyle. Sheller & Urry had predicted this over a decade ago, explaining that as individuals start to increasingly use technology, people will begin to ‘exist beyond their private bodies’ as they are able to ‘plug into systems of information’. This new level of connectivity provides the ability catch up on work while on a train or spend the time reading or listening to an audiobook, travel time can simultaneously be leisure or work time. Consequently, despite contrary views, travel time does not have to be dead or wasted time as additional activities can still occur while travelling. The increase in actions such as online shopping ties into the next form of mobility, the transportation of ‘things’. The world is coming increasingly globalised along with international trade networks. A tremendous amount of effort and energy is consumed in the process of distributing resources around the world. This increase in global trade needs to be combined with improved distribution networks and more effective transportation systems to create increased efficiency.

Mobility theory recognises the importance of immobile infrastructure as it manages the flow of people, resources and information through a city. Lending itself to the growing initiative to make cities more walkable and move away from euclidean zoning, which separates land for single use developments and ultimately creates decentralised cities and urban sprawl. Banister suggests that ideally a city should have a population of at least 50’000 with a medium density of over 40 persons per hectare. This can be achieved through increasing the density in low density areas, done in combination with more mixed-use land developments and creating walkable neighbourhoods through redesigning street networks. The objective is to claim back the ‘street’ for pedestrians and re-create a more sociable space in cities which are presently too dispersed. Currently in London, some local councils are creating walking guides designed by artists to motivate people to get to know their cities as walking becomes a means to connect with their city and build an emotional attachment.

There is growing expectations that Electric Vehicles (EV) will become a viable alternative to the Internal Combustion Vehicle (ICV) with the benefit being ‘zero’ emissions, pushing for a wider adoption of EV’s would help cities achieve lower emissions targets. However, EV’s and other alternative vehicle concepts have had difficulty catching on as they are still perceived as an inferior alternative. This is not necessarily down to the consumer, in part it has been a failure of businesses, researchers and politicians who create unnecessary barriers for market entry for EV’s due to various concerns or general scepticism. While other market barriers for EV’s include social lock-ins and lack of complete consumer knowledge, for example many consumers expect the batteries driving range to be too short or that they require more than they actually need, while some consumers are resistant to new and unfamiliar technologies. 

Interestingly, EV ownership has shown transformative properties, contributing to consumers rethinking their social and environmental impact as well as their personal mobility. Ryghaug & Toftaker found that there is a degree of spill over between EV buyers and other social practices. Consumers acknowledged that since becoming an EV owner to a certain degree they have become increasingly environmentally conscious and pay more attention to their personal energy consumption. In a similar way that walking more creates a greater connection to the streets and assists in changing one’s perception of their city. Both are examples of the necessary emergent outcomes required by a mixture of transport and mobility solutions which will contribute to greater social and cultural shifts into sustainable low carbon urban mobility. However, as Banister explains, the crucial factor to any proposed solution requires the acceptance and adoption from both people and government for it to succeed.

Due to the complexity surrounding mobility and the need to move towards low carbon transportation, it seems an impossible task to achieve without some trade-offs. Additionally, it can take governments years to create and implement policies as politicians are often more preoccupied with re-elections, thus requiring a degree of social pressure to encourage policymakers to take action. If we consider the potential of emergent outcomes, the emphasis from policymaking should rather focus toward promoting low carbon mobility through societal shifts and behavioural changes opposed to centring investment towards large transport infrastructure. Conversely, switching to alternative transport methods is extremely complex, while improving alternatives and attempting to change attitudes or beliefs won’t necessarily result in a required reduction in carbon emissions either. Nevertheless, policies which do recognise the complexity of mobility and provides the space and agility to allow for emergent outcomes could successfully reduce the impact of transport on urban sustainability and shift towards low carbon mobility, however the full extent to which this can be achieved is yet to be seen.

References/Further Reading

Banister, D. (2008). The sustainable mobility paradigm. Transport Policy 15 (2): 73-80.

Calthorpe, P. (2006) From New Regionalism to Urban Network: Changing the Paradigm of Growth. In: Saunders, W. S. Urban Planning Today. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 117 – 130.

Calthorpe, P. (2017) TED Talk. 7 principles for building better cities [Online] Available from: https://www.ted.com/talks/peter_calthorpe_7_principles_for_building_better_cities/ (Posted April 2017)

Hui A. (2017) Understanding the positioning of ‘the electric vehicle consumer’: variations in interdisciplinary discourses and their implications for sustainable mobility systems. Applied Mobilities: 1-17.

Middleton, J. (2011) Walking the city: the geographies of everyday pedestrian practices. Geography Compass 5(2): 90-105.

Schwanen, T. and Lucas, K. (2011) Understanding auto motives, in: Lucas, K., Blumenberg, E. and Weinberger, R. Eds. Auto Motives: Understanding Car Use Behaviours. Emerald: Bingley: 3-38.

Sheller, M. and Urry, J. (2006) The new mobilities paradigm. Environment and Planning A 38(2): 207-226.

Spreck, J. (2013) TED Talk. The Walkable City [Online] Available from: https://www.ted.com/talks/jeff_speck_the_walkable_city/up-next (Posted September 2013)

Ryghaug M and Toftaker M. (2014) A transformative practice? Meaning, competence, and material aspects of driving electric cars in Norway. Nature & Culture 9(2): 146-163.

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