Time to stop the endless growth of transport?

By Olaf Merk

Europe feels the heat: from Portugal to the UK, temperature records were slashed last week

A record heatwave last week confronted many Europeans with the reality of extreme weather events. Dangerously hot temperatures, extreme droughts, wildfires, melting glaciers, losses of homes, biodiversity and human lives. The immediate questions took up a lot of attention: how to avoid people from dying from the heat, where to evacuate residents from burning areas, how to extinguish the fires? But the real question is of course: how can we avoid this happening again?

The answer is depressing: we cannot. Whatever we do, things will first get much worse. Past greenhouse gas emissions have locked us into a pathway of global temperature rise that we cannot avoid, even if we were to cut emissions drastically. For most people, this was probably one of the coolest summers of the rest of their life. This makes it even more urgent to reduce emissions as quickly as possible. And here, the responses from policy makers have so far been hopelessly underwhelming.

Transport ministers generally like to build new infrastructure. Transport policies are often simply lists of new transport links and facilities, be it roads, railways, airports or something else. Even if many policy makers accept the need to decarbonise transport, the solutions are almost exclusively geared towards new investments: green technologies, alternative fuels, electrification, charging and refuelling infrastructure. Undoubtedly these are important, but most of these projects will only lead to substantial emission reductions in a decade – or later. What if we do not have time? What if we actually need much steeper reductions to make sure that things will just get somewhat worse, instead of apocalyptically worse?

Paradigm shift

A lot of consumption – especially in developed economies – is conspicuous, frivolous and non-essential. This is also true for the consumption of transport. Taking climate change seriously implies stopping to facilitate transport growth categorically, and instead introducing measures that reduce the demand for transport now, in particular the polluting and non-essential types of transport. In other words, a paradigm shift. This is even more relevant in the context of the looming energy crisis, related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If we need to ration energy and transport demand, which types of transport could we do without? I have my own list of transport examples that I think should be strongly discouraged or banned, but my list is not really the point. The point is that transport policy makers must start doing this exercise – which types of transport do they want to limit – and do it quickly.

The Spanish Minister of Consumer Affairs Alberto Garzón wrote in a tweet on the recent heat wave that hit his country: “The consequences of climate change are already here. The fetichism of endless economic growth must end to preserve life”. The time has also come to stop the fetichism of endless transport growth.

Olaf Merk is Ports and Shipping Project Manager at the International Transport Forum (ITF)

See more ITF work on Decarbonising Transport, including the Transport Climate Action Directory: an online database of transport CO2 reduction policy measures

All aboard!

Why must public transport reinvent itself to offer citizens better access – and how it can be done? Carl Adler suggests some answers

Good transport systems cater for all people, but by that standard, most fail. Limited bus, train, tram and metro services mean far too many citizens cannot travel where they need to or when they need to.

Limiting: Traditional public transport infrastructure is often always easily useable by everyone

Such a lack of good connections affects some more than others. For people with disabilities, travelling often means navigating challenging parcours fraught with insurmountable obstacles like stairs or gaps between platforms and vehicles. Seniors, pregnant women or those who tore a ligament playing sport face many of the same issues, even if perhaps only temporarily.

More often than one would think, perfectly healthy citizens face difficulties getting from A to B in straightforward ways. Cars are great for those who can afford them; for those who cannot, getting around is often a pain.

Access to opportunities

Where people depend on their own vehicles – by choice or by lack of it –, public transport systems are often underfunded afterthoughts. Plagued by inconvenient schedules, few routes, creaking infrastructure and outdated rolling stock, public transport is no fun, doesn’t deliver what is needed, and often at prices that many cannot afford.

So what can close the wide gap between existing services and the connectivity citizens need? How can transport ensure that people have access to the opportunities around them – from attending better schools to accepting higher-paying jobs, from quick access to medical services to a wider choice of shops?

Digital platforms that link citizens with mobility options are one important way to bridge that gap. The buzzword making the round in this context is “ Mobility as a Service”, or MaaS. MaaS platforms are digital venues, mainly applications, that aggregate information on transport services from different sources. These can include mobility solutions from the private sector, such as ridesharing or e-scooters, as well as public transport options.

Don’t worry, be mobile

With MaaS, users need not worry about who provides which service and contact them separately. A MaaS app is a one-stop digital shop into which users in search of the best possible connection enter their destination and then book an option regardless of who is behind that service: hailing a taxi, renting a shared bicycle, or purchasing a tram ticket – all happens in a single app.

Don’t worry, be mobile: MaaS platforms take the pain out of organising trips that require multiple types of transport managed by different operators. Users can grab an e-scooter to ride to a subway station and at the other end hop into a taxi for the final lag – all managed and paid for within a single MaaS app. For people living far from transport stations, such enhanced last-mile connectivity can make the difference between using public transport or taking a car.

“The Innovative Mobility Landscape”: The ITF team reviews the changing urban mobility landscape with new operators and services

Several countries have introduced MaaS systems over large areas and managed to overcome the traditional divide between public transport and other mobility solutions; often innovative services proposed by start-ups. These platforms can be refined by using user data to see where and when different people travel, however data must be used in a manner which does not infringe on individuals’ privacy. The sort of data used and the way it is shared is a new and challenging issue for policy makers to address. Through careful and mindful policymaking, however, MaaS has the potential to make transport based on other options than private cars and mobility as a whole more attractive and more inclusive by better catering for older citizens, those with mobility impairments or people living in rural areas underserved by traditional public transport.

Flex the ride!

In many parts of the world, dedicated transport services serve specific groups of people who, for one reason or another, have difficulties using public transport. School busses are a well-known example, but there are also fleets of vans available for physically impaired people or for the elderly. So, in fact, costly and fuel-consuming services with few users have been created, sometimes duplicating public transport services simply because the latter do not cater sufficiently for special needs.

Some countries and regions have integrated transport services that users call when they need them into a single platform. Called “demand-responsive transport” (DRT), these systems work with algorithms that merge several individual requests into a single trip. That way, operators can run fewer vehicles on the same routes.

Inspiring innovation: “In Denmark, the government makes it possible for everybody to be a part of society”; Gitte’s mobility success story

FlexDanmark is the world’s most-used DRT system. Founded by five Danish transport operators, the system works across Denmark. The central dispatch system through which all ride requests flow enables the operators to use fewer vehicles for the same number of passengers. The system cuts costs for the providers, but it also often leads to shorter wait times for users. Riders use the platform to make 16 500 trips each day.

Innovations like MaaS and DRT promise to make citizens who have been cut off from shared transport options more mobile and give them access to new opportunities. They are a big step in the right direction – but they alone will not deliver inclusive transport. Opening conventional transport systems like trains, buses and metros to all citizens will require targeted action by policy makers. The data generated by using these platforms can improve service but must be managed responsibly. With new solutions comes great responsibility but an even greater potential to include more citizens in society.

Carl Adler is a recent Master’s Graduate from Sciences Po Paris’ Urban School and is Digital Content Editor and Co-ordinator at the International Transport Forum.

The International Transport Forum publishes cutting-edge research on making Mobility-as-a-Service a reality. Learn more from the latest ITF work, which includes case studies