Improved urban mobility means quality of life, says Dr Carl Friedrich Eckhardt, but it is necessary to pave the way for those who would rather use a car instead of owning one
Mobility is essential for our quality of life. It enables us to organize our individual lives. It gives us more flexibility in choosing our jobs, more freedom to organise our social lives or we can see our distant family members more easily. Moreover, our wealth is based on division of labour and interregional business relations that are dependent on mobility.
However, for many years cities have been struggling with the negative impacts of road traffic: cars parked almost everywhere, we can often find half an hour of our valuable time eaten up by searching for a parking space and we are spending more and more time in congestion. Lastly, and most importantly, almost every large city regularly fails to meet the air quality requirements of the EU. As the conflict becomes more intense, cities mostly react with restrictions, such as number plate lotteries or car-bans.
At the same time, cities and their residents are aiming for a better quality of life: liveable public space, fewer cars and therefore less traffic, better mobility and better air quality. What has been an intensifying conflict over recent decades can now be turned into harmony. The key words are customer orientation and innovation. Three developments are supporting this paradigm shift. First, customer preferences have already been changing and this will continue. Car-utilisation rather than car-ownership is becoming more and more popular. Second, the automotive industry is investing in all forms of sharing services (car sharing, ride sharing, ride pooling). Even the financial markets are investing massively in fast-growing start-ups. Last but by no means least, three technological developments support the previous two developments: electrification of drivetrains, digitalisation, and autonomous driving.
Against this background, from today’s point of view, it appears bold but it is realistic to state that we are presented with an historic chance to increase quality of life and urban mobility at the same time. Moreover, this can be achieved within the next 15 years. We don’t need to wait. Everything we need is already in place. We only need to implement and scale them.
Space-making for liveable streets: a win-win solution by a resident-centric step-by-step approach
We are in a very promising situation in that we have all manner of technological solutions available. The challenge is only a political and an economic one. The political challenge is to convince politicians, civil servants, residents, NGOs and the media that this paradigm shift can be achieved without renouncement and thus without fear of political pressure. We only need to pave the way for those residents having a car but who would prefer multi-modality without car-ownership: they don’t need a car every day and they don’t want to own one. They only have a car because they need one every now and then. If the availability of car sharing was sufficiently reliable, they would sell their car. First empirical indications from Berlin and Hamburg support this view. This target group counts for roughly a third of car-owners in urban residential areas. An additional 20 per cent could also be motivated because they don’t need a car in their daily lives but they are emotionally attached to cars.
The economic challenge is to provide critical mass and to overcome path-dependencies. A small fleet does not provide sufficient availability for residents to use a car when they need one. This holds particularly true for residential areas with high parking pressure. Here, at first sight, it seems that car sharing would make things worse. But the contrary is true. Each and every shared car can substitute roughly 10 private cars (usually substituting older, less efficient cars with new or electric ones) and in total the number of vehicle kilometers driven goes down. Therefore, privileged parking for car sharing is in the interest of a city. A mayor should look at it as an investment to make more space available for liveable streets.
If it is easy to implement dedicated parking for car sharing and bike sharing, a city should go for it. But if it is politically difficult, here is a way to create a win-win situation. The starting point should be a participation process inviting residents to shape their neighbourhood according to their preferences. This could be supported by architecture or urban design students who could visualise various scenarios of how the neighbourhood could look. As these concepts are only suggestions residents should be empowered to revise them. In parallel, it is wise to use an objective tool such as the Urban Travel Monitor (developed with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology) to understand mobility preferences, attitudes, and actual behaviour in that particular neighbourhood. Based on the objective and emotional dependency of car-owners the tool indicates the potential number of people who would rather be willing to opt for multi-modality without car-ownership. In order to transform that potential into real-life changes workshops are required to understand the preconditions under which these car-owners are willing to sell their cars. The low-hanging fruit will be a request for dedicated parking for car sharing and for improved cycling infrastructure. The latter includes bike racks, bike lanes, or bike sharing stations.
The win-win situation can be implemented in a step-by-step approach. All partners contribute: the city provides the infrastructure, mobility providers improve the availability of their services and residents get rid of their cars, first by temporarily parking them outside of the neighbourhood and then by selling/scrapping them. In order to gain experience and to learn, the neighbourhood project could organise test events in selected locations of the neighbourhood. It could start with a weekend. The participation process should evaluate the success and feed back the lessons learned into a continuous improvement process. The next step could be a test week or two in order to gain experience in daily life. Finally, as a concrete result of the participation process, the infrastructures are implemented permanently and residents sell or scrap their cars.
The beauty of the concept is that neighbourhood projects like this can make space available for liveable streets and improved mobility at the same time. After a series of iterations it may be that every second car can be substituted. This is quite something. It is important to understand that this process allows residents with preference for car-ownership to continue with their mobility behaviour. There is a strong invitation to change but it is not a must.
Scaling electric mobility: charging stations and privileged parking
Even though electric mobility helps cities towards compliance with EU air quality regulations, promoting this technology requires changed framework conditions such as taxation, preferential parking etc. As the examples in Oslo, Amsterdam and Copenhagen show, it is possible to make a difference if the framework conditions are optimised. This requires a solution to the problem of critical mass and path-dependency (also referred to as the chicken-and-egg problem).
In order to lower NO2 emissions, the scaling of electric mobility is necessary: an unpublished study for a German city suggests that more than 75 per cent of all vehicle trips need to be electric. Therefore, public charging is essential. According to a rule of thumb, roughly 75 per cent of all car-owners cannot charge their electric vehicle at home. Either they are on-street parkers or an installation of a wall-box is not possible due to expensive installation costs or a veto by the landlord or other proprietors. Therefore, a few public charging stations are not sufficient for EV-owners to charge their cars.
Scaling electric mobility requires a critical mass of public charging stations (several hundred or thousands) and additional incentives to use electric vehicles. At the local level parking privileges are very effective: cars are typically parked for 23 hours a day and are used for only one. Each and every trip starts and ends with a parking process. Again, to be effective, a critical mass of public parking spaces needs to be dedicated for electric vehicles only. If each year 10 per cent of public parking spaces were dedicated for electric vehicles, after five years every second parking space would be available for emission-free drivetrains. This will have an impact.
However, provided a city could scale electric mobility, it would be politically difficult to justify this, the more the city suffers from parking pressure. Here again the step-by-step approach described above will also help. Firstly because the space being made available could be used not only for liveable streets and multi-modal offers, but also for electric vehicles. Secondly, electric car sharing fleets will provide base-load demand for public charging and privileged parking.
The paradigm shift towards better a quality of life and improved urban mobility is possible. One key is to establish a participation process in order to explore residents’ and voters’ needs and then pave the way for those who would rather use a car instead of own one. This provides the basis to create critical mass from the very beginning. Piecemeal policies are unlikely to succeed. To successfully manage the paradigm shift it is wise to establish a multi-stakeholder-process.
Dr. Carl Friedrich Eckhardt is Head of Centre of Competence Urban Mobility
Organisation for the BMW Group