Future CAR:DIFF - exploring a ‘citizen-centric’ approach to sustainable transport
I was delighted to be invited to attend and summarise Cynnal Cymru’s most recent event in a series that is exploring the future of the car, and more generally, sustainable mobility. Participants were asked to consider the role that electric vehicles could play in reducing the carbon emissions associated with personal transport in Cardiff, prompted by presentations from expert speakers on a wide range of mobility-related issues.
Key theme 1: A move towards more sustainable mobility is not only about protecting the environment
Councillor Huw Thomas, the leader of Cardiff City Council set the scene with eye-opening statistics about the city. He reminded us that Cardiff is one of the fastest-growing cities in the UK; this growth, whilst welcome, has put unprecedented pressure on the city’s infrastructure. 90,000 people commute into Cardiff, and 80% of those journeys are made by car. The resulting congestion has a bigger economic impact on business than in any other UK city – the average commuter spends 32 hours a year in traffic around Cardiff. There are significant health impacts associated with the high levels of vehicle emissions; Cardiff has some of the highest levels of nitrogen dioxides in the UK, and air pollution is now a more pressing public health concern than alcoholism or obesity in the city. This issue was also addressed by Mark Barry, Professor of Practice in Connectivity at Cardiff University, who pointed out that, alongside air quality issues, driving is relatively dangerous – there were 6,853 road accident casualties in Wales in 2016, including 103 fatalities. Further, the health and well-being impacts associated with vehicle use fall disproportionately on the more disadvantaged parts of the community.
Talybont Energy – one of many examples of electric mobility for rural communities | Paul Niewenhaus | The Electric Vehicle Centre of Excellence (EVCE) at Cardiff University
But it is not all doom and gloom. Paul Niewenhaus, Co-Director of the Electric Vehicle Centre of Excellence at Cardiff University, and John McCarthy, Leader of Intelligent Mobility at Arup, were both at pains to point out that a well-planned mobility strategy can deliver multiple benefits. In his presentation, Paul highlighted that delocalised production of electricity from renewable energy can open up electric mobility for rural communities, and provided examples of grass roots organisations in the Brecons exploring just that. Meanwhile, John talked more broadly about ACES – Autonomous, Collective, Electric and Shared – mobility solutions which can benefits in terms of social justice (addressing inclusivity, public health and inequality), together with economic benefits associated with the higher level skills needed to support mobility as a service. In addition, the breakout group identified individual health benefits associated with active travel, as well as the broader benefits identified by Huw Thomas in reducing road traffic; 8% of commutes are conducted by cycle and walking is becoming an increasing part of city mobility, with 70 million trips per year made on foot.
Key theme 2: Electric vehicles cannot be considered in isolation: a systems approach is crucial
Huw Thomas spoke of Cardiff City Council’s ambition of a ‘50/50 modal shift’, in which half of all journeys will be made by public transport and 50% by car. Personal electric vehicles are not accessible for all; initial costs and access to home refuelling are major challenges. Any mobility solution for Cardiff must be integrated, taking into account housing, infrastructure and business networks, and equitable, meeting the needs of all residents. This view was supported by Alan Hendry, Director of Sustainability at Jacobs, who presented examples of best practice in sustainable mobility from around the UK. Common to most was a strong alignment with other local policy objectives (e.g. health, well-being, social justice, air quality). Mark Barry highlighted the challenges to providing integrated mobility in Cardiff, describing public transport in Cardiff as ‘fragmented’, and arguing that people are not currently incentivised to use it. The need to involve multiple parties in developing a mobility plan was stressed by Alan Hendry, who emphasised the importance of public/private partnerships, and John McCarthy, who talked of a mobility ecosystem, explaining ‘no one company can solve all these problems’.
Issues regarding the integration of electric vehicles into existing systems were also raised, particularly charging. The problem of when to charge a vehicle was discussed by Anthony Simpson of Reading University. Currently, charging tends to occur at peak grid times; smart charging is the Economy 7 of the electric vehicle world, drawing down charge at times of low drain on the national grid, helping to address predictions of grid overload as the number of electric vehicles grows. Meanwhile, Paul Niewenhaus briefly discussed an alternative approach to balancing out supply and demand in the grid, explaining that excess supply of renewable energy could be used to produce hydrogen through electrolysis and subsequently fuel cars. The issue of where to charge was also tackled: Huw Thomas described on-going investigations into providing public charging in terraced housing areas and Mark Severn, UK Sales Manager for Chargemaster, described Polar, the UK’s biggest public charging network, linking together over 5,000 public charging points. Mark Barry, however, questioned the need for thousands of charging points – could other models such as battery stations (as opposed to petrol stations) work, and be easier to implement?
The breakout group discussed whether charging concern was a barrier to adoption of electric vehicles. Amongst the group, range anxiety was agreed to be a ‘real thing’, with electric vehicle users describing the different strategies they employ when undertaking long journeys (planning ahead versus hiring an internal combustion car!) and actions that could encourage people to use electric cars for their commute (free charging on site, rapid charging points, free parking as an incentive).
Finally, Paul Niewenhaus sounded a cautionary note, and one that is extremely important in considering the systemic development of a sustainable mobility strategy that includes electric vehicles. Whilst the electrification of vehicles decreases carbon dioxide emissions at the tailpipe, the embedded carbon dioxide within the vehicles is increased. A failure to recognise the cradle-to-grave impacts (social, environmental and economic) can lead to burden-shifting to other points in the life cycle and negative unintended consequences. Therefore, sustainable systems design must always take a life cycle approach.
Key theme 3: The role of the public sector is crucial in promoting sustainable mobility
Alan Hendry presents some of the ‘Mega Trends’ happening globally including France’s move towards only making fully electric or hybrid cars from 2019 | Via the Guardian
Alan Hendry’s presentation identified common factors amongst UK towns and cities exhibiting good practice in sustainable mobility. Political ambition was identified as a key enabler, with the majority positioning sustainable mobility as a major strand in council policy and sought funding to facilitate it. Alignment with other policy objectives also enhanced the effectiveness of cross-department working in the public sector. Paul Niewenhaus described the electric vehicle market as an ‘incentive-driven market’ and discussed the situation in Norway, where a range of incentives had been offered by the public sector to overcome market failure (such as free charging, no sales tax and no congestion charge) and were now being streamlined in the light of increased market traction. He highlighted the importance of funding from the public sector to support research into effective strategies for promoting the uptake of sustainable transport. Meanwhile, Huw Thomas spoke of Cardiff City Council’s desire to lead by example, perhaps through adopting electric vehicles as part of the council’s fleet.
Key theme 4: Understanding and empathising with users is central to designing an effective sustainable mobility system
A sustainable mobility strategy stands and falls on its uptake. Taking into account that there are multiple different futures envisaged, and multiple different players involved, any strategy must be designed taking into account the needs of all users. John McCarthy described ACES strategies as ‘part of a moving jigsaw – although the pieces are the same, they fit together differently everywhere’. He argued that, in order to fit the pieces in a particular configuration for a given situation, understanding user needs is fundamental, advocating a ‘citizen-centric’ approach to systems design.
Mark Barry described trends in mobility behaviour that indicate that we may be ‘on the edge of a disruptive change’. Car ownership has been falling since the 1990s, with rail journeys doubling in the same time. Active travel is becoming more popular amongst people and there is a gradual culture change away from ownership. Driverless vehicles are developing rapidly and, Mark suggested, will be commonplace in ten years. Mark presented a radical vision for a future Cardiff where the city is not designed (as now) to accommodate many cars being used infrequently, but fewer cars working harder. In his vision, Cardiff would become a greener city with safe spaces and people would move around using high-volume mass transit, with autonomous vehicles providing ‘last mile’ solutions in urban environments. In my experience, this kind of a future is not necessarily obvious to its potential users; we need to find effective ways to present, compare, and communicate multiple positive radical changes if we are to empower citizens to achieve the most appropriate one for them. Further, consultation approaches need to be designed to encourage participation from citizens with different physical and cognitive abilities to ensure that solutions are truly democratic.
Mark Barry, Professor of Practice in Connectivity at Cardiff University highlights the sheer number of cars in every street ‘that spend most of their time doing absolutely nothing!’
Sustainable mobility requires users to engage with new forms of business. Mark Barry, Paul Niewenhaus and John McCarthy all discussed the concepts of mobility as a service, business models in which transport needs are met through services, rather than vehicle ownership, but it is crucial to understand how these can be designed to meet the latent, intangible needs of users, as well as the explicit, tangible need for mobility. Mark Barry described the hedonic values currently associated with cars; pleasure, identity, esteem. The sense of owning a car and having autonomy in transport decision-making can be important to users, and these factors must be taken into account when designing an integrated vision for future transport. Mark Severn of Chargemaster described the responsive business strategies of the company; systems are designed to fit as closely with the normal behaviour of customers, so as to ‘nudge’ more sustainable behaviour.
The issue of behaviour change was addressed in the breakout group, where we discussed triggers that had prompted positive and negative changes in mobility behaviour. (It should be taken into account that the group was self-selecting as being predisposed to sustainable travel, through their very attendance at the workshop, and any findings should be treated accordingly). The consensus amongst this group was that small changes can promote big changes in behaviour. The ‘bike-to-work’ scheme was identified as a direct incentive to adopt active travel that had knock-on effects for two participants – reconsidering one part of their personal mobility ‘jigsaw’ led them to pay more attention to other pieces – one participant dubbed it ‘mindful travel’. Amongst participants, it was also noted that changes in routine associated with transport were not necessarily bad. The active travellers plan ahead for longer journey times and weather conditions, and commuting has become a leisure activity that replaces or supplements other forms of exercise. Similar planning for change was seen for users of electric vehicles, particularly for long journeys. However, when active or public transport plans impacted on other people (for example, spouses and children), they were more likely to be dispensed with. In the case of commuters, company policies could have a negative effect on sustainable travel (one participant explained inflexible working hours meant that active and public transport were precluded for them, owing to childcare demands).This further underlined the importance of taking a systems approach to the development of travel policy.
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