AVs have been hailed by groups like the WBCSD as the answer to sustainable mobility, but unless they are part of new shared public-private transport models they could just lead to more cars on the roads. Mark Hillsdon reports
The day our cities finally grind to halt could be approaching a lot more quickly than we ever dared believe.
According to the European Commission, global urbanization is rampant, with the way in which figures have been historically provided by the United Nations now thought to be fatally flawed.
The UN method has relied on data compiled by individual countries, but without ever using a common standard. Now researchers at the European Commission have used geospatial technology and high-resolution satellite images to determine the number of people living in a given area. And the figures are shocking.
While the widely accepted UN figures predict the world's urban population will grow to 70% by 2050, from 55% at present, the new statistics estimate that 84% of the world's population already live in urban areas – that’s almost 6.4 billion people.
Cities will need to embrace a regulatory framework for AVs that nudges us away from ‘AV hell'
"Everything we've heard about global urbanization turns out to be wrong," says lead researcher Lewis Dijkstra. "If this is true, the impact is going to be massive.”
As urban areas grow, they also become more congested and unhealthy. Transport is already blamed for producing a third of all pollutants in our cities, with recent data showing that toxic air prematurely kills nearly 4.5 million city dwellers each year. The need to move even more people around will only increase the figure.
A range of solutions is needed to make urban travel more sustainable, with one possible answer being autonomous vehicles (AVs), the new darling of the transport sector. The market for AVs is projected to grow to $96bn by 2025, from just $3bn in 2015, but as a recent report from the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group, concluded: “Cities, nations and the world will need to embrace a regulatory and governance framework for AVs that nudges us towards an ‘AV heaven’ scenario and away from ‘AV hell’.”
The fear is that AVs run the risk of exacerbating the very problem they have set out to solve, and unless their development and implementation is carefully managed, they could actually lead to more cars on the road.
For an AV developer, Robbert Lohmann, chief commercial officer at Utrecht-based 2getthere, takes an unusual stance in bemoaning the fact that AVs are now considered "the holy grail" of transportation.
The only way to create sustainable cities, is to reduce the amount of vehicles ... the AV isn't going to do that
“The only way to create accessible and sustainable cities in the future, that people actually want to continue living in, is to reduce the amount of vehicles,” he says. “If I’m honest, the autonomous car is not going to do that. On the contrary, they're going to increase the number of vehicles.”
The World Business Council for Sustainable Development is a global, CEO-led organization of over 200 leading businesses that are working together to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world. A key aim, says WBCSD’s sustainable mobility manager Irene Martinetti, is to transform mobility “so that it is safer, more accessible and inclusive for everybody and that it's also cleaner and more efficient; autonomous vehicles come into play across all of these aspects”.
The worry is, however, that AVs could become an all too easy option to make a quick trip to the shops or commute to work, she continues, creating a whole new problem around ‘zombie cars’, AVs that have dropped off their owners and then trundle around the streets looking for somewhere to park.
Caroline Watson, network manager for zero emission vehicles at megacities network, C40 Cities, says: “Even if all the vehicles were zero tailpipe emissions, you'd still have congestion and some air pollution from the tyres and the brake wear, so we also need to reduce the number of vehicles on the road.”
Where these driverless vehicles could win, however, is as SAEVs, or shared autonomous electric vehicles.
Autonomous, electrically powered shuttle buses are now seen as a crucial building block of future urban mobility. These range from buses that operate in a zone defined by a perimeter, such as business parks and airports, to Navya’s autonomous shuttle Arma, which is already running - with a safety steward on board - on public streets in several countries including France and Australia.
Self-driving shuttles can also easily be configured to adapt closely to the exact journey of different passengers
2getthere is currently taking what Lohmann calls incremental steps to gain more experience about operating SAEVs safely on the open road. The company’s autonomous shuttle buses have been connecting the Rivium business park in the Dutch city of Capelle aan den Ijssel with the local subway station for nearly 20 years. A new system, dubbed Rizium 3.0, will be launched in 2020. Lohmann says it will be "the world's first autonomous vehicle that will operate in mixed traffic without a safety steward".
Helping people to travel that crucial first and last mile, and taking residents of sparsely populated areas to and from their nearest public transport hub is perhaps the most important role SAEVs can perform.
“When you look at the urban sprawl, very often the downtown area has very good public transport options,” explains Martinetti, “but as you go into the outskirts those options diminish, and very often people have to walk longer distances to get to public transport.”
According to Sophie Carval Stone, director of communications at Toulouse-based AV developer EasyMile, SAEVs “are designed for shorter distances and are especially appreciated by those with reduced mobility – disabled people, the elderly or young families with pushchairs.
“Self-driving shuttles can also easily be configured in an on-demand mode, adapting closely and optimally to the exact journey of the different passengers.”
In another report, the Boston Consulting Group estimates that by 2030, 25% of all passenger road travel in the US will be in an SAEV. “Such a change will have an enormous impact on health, safety and quality of life in cities,” the authors say. “Traffic accidents and fatalities will be reduced by nearly two-thirds. Pollution will be drastically curtailed. Cities can repurpose millions of square feet once used for parking to new green spaces or commercial uses while securing more affordable mobility and accessibility for elderly, disabled and low-income people.
“In short, the advent of SAEVs will usher in the most sweeping change in American urban life since the invention of the automobile itself.
”If we are to reach our goals, every single stakeholder has to co-ordinate
So what needs to happen to make sustainable urban transport a reality?
“If we want to see sustainable transport with fluid multi-modal mobility, we need private companies, public transport operators, and different parts of government to all start working together,” says Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcars, who has recently helped the World Resources Institute (WRI) Ross Center develop its new Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities.
Robin Chase, co-founder of car-sharing firm, Zipcars. (Credit: robinchase.org)
“Governments are in control of parking requirements, kerb access, lane use, and tax and regulatory regimes,” she continues. “Public transport companies ensure low cost access for all, which includes running high-volume transport options that efficiently move large numbers of people and make sure that all geographies and people are served.
“The private sector provides vehicles, services, and technology that permeates the entire system. If we are to reach our goals, every single stakeholder has to co-ordinate. This is one of the reasons we initiated the Shared Mobility Principles, to get all stakeholders joined together under one common vision for cities with shared principles about what it is going to take to get us there.”
Electric vehicles have shown what’s possible, says Watson, who agrees that cities need to encourage businesses to get involved, pointing to the work that has been done in London, where all the city’s 20,000 taxis must now be, at the very least, hybrid vehicles. This has created a new market for a charging infrastructure that simply wasn’t there before, and which the private sector, with one eye on the bottom line, is happy to support.
There's now a big onus on the car manufacturers to step up to the plate
C40 Cities, which supports a global network of 96 cities to fight climate change, has also recently launched its Fossil Free Streets declaration, with signators committing to only buy zero emission buses from 2025, and ensuring a major area of their city is zero emissions by 2030. (see, California looks to boost market for EVs through shared purchasing power)
As well as raising ambitions in cities, says Watson: “It also gives a clear market signal that there is a demand there for these products … there's now a big onus on the car manufacturers to step up to the plate.”
Cities also have the power to introduce financial incentives that discourage single-occupancy journeys, while in Madrid, says Watson, the city owns much of the land where petrol stations are sited, and is starting to stipulate that in order to keep selling petrol, fossil fuel companies must install charging points, too.
Another element of urban transport is active mobility, and in the rush to embrace the AV, it’s important not to forget the essential role that encouraging people to walk and cycle can play.
“This keeps the population healthy, and is low cost, small footprint, non-polluting, and accessible for most of the population,” says Chase.
“Making walking and cycling safer and more attractive benefits everybody. It's about accessibility,” says Watson. “If you introduce cycle super highways, or segregated cycle lanes, then that's a very cost-effective cheap way for people to travel.”
It is important to recognize that the status of individual cars is rapidly changing, especially among younger generations
There is common agreement that a digital mobility platform that brings together all forms of transport needs to be at the heart of a sustainable urban mobility system. It should help make using public transport as attractive as possible, and, through the use of devices such as smartphones, simple and easy to use.
A report by the New Climate Economy concluded: “Innovative, technologically sophisticated operations of ride-hailing networks, car- and bicycle-sharing systems, mobile trip planning and ticketing apps, and other new mobility services are winning users in cities around the world.”
In Chicago, for instance, Mastercard recently teamed up with CityTech to test how personalized communication would affect travel demand during the rush hour. The results showed that passenger levels dropped by 17.5% between 5-6 pm when commuters were sent a text offering them a fare rebate to travel earlier or later.
As Nicolas de Crémiers, head of marketing at French AV developer Navya, explains: “It is important to recognize that the status of individual cars is rapidly changing, especially among younger generations … What this group is really interested in is mobility as a service (MaaS) which is a fast-emerging model pioneered by popular on-demand ride sharing and car-pooling providers.”
Watson agrees, and says that C40 Cities’ research suggests that bike and lift-share schemes have changed the way in which people think about travel: “It’s given them more options. They're more confident about leaving their house without their car because they know they'll [still] be able to get home,” she says.
And of course, once fewer cars are on the road, they become safer, air quality improves and cities can move closer to realizing a low carbon urban future.
Mark Hillsdon is a Manchester-based freelance writer who writes on business and sustainability for Ethical Corporation, the Guardian, and a range of nature-based titles including CountryFile and BBC Wildlife.
This article is part of the in-depth Urban Transport briefing. See also: