Imperial College London

Look beyond private car ownership to transform cities, say researchers

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Exhibition Road given over to bikes and pedestrians during the Great Exhibition Road Festival in summer 2019

Exhibition Road given over to bikes and pedestrians during the Great Exhibition Road Festival in summer 2019

Electric cars alone will not make cities healthy and sustainable, say Imperial academics, who have called for a radical new systems of urban mobility.

While electric cars are more sustainable than their fossil fuel alternatives, they create air pollution through particulate emissions from tyres and lack the health advantages of walking and cycling, said Imperial academics Professor Robert Shorten of the Dyson School of Design Engineering and Dr Audrey de Nazelle of the Centre for Environmental Policy.

The event marked the announcement of a trial mobility hub for Imperial staff, set to launch in April 2021 as the result of a research partnership between Imperial, Enterprise Holdings and Brompton Bikes.

The academics were speaking at a Sustainability Week event on urban mobility last Friday alongside George O’Connor from the world’s largest private mobility provider, Enterprise Holdings, Justin Abbott from Better Streets for Kensington and Chelsea, and chair Professor Mary Ryan, Imperial’s Vice-Dean for the Faculty of Engineering. The panellists said they would like to see cities transformed to better support walking and cycling and shared vehicle solutions.

Professor Shorten said that innovations in technology, policy and platforms designed to make transport greener might require further refinement. Shortcomings include the tyre emissions produced by electric cars, the potential battery waste caused by portable electric scooters and the fact that policies designed to reduce per-vehicle emissions can stimulate demand for vehicles, which in turn can increase aggregate emissions.

Dr de Nazelle said that motorised transport is less beneficial to health than active travel such as cycling, citing research by her group showing that walking and cycling, and policy interventions that help promote them, bring greater benefits to health metrics such as mortality, body mass index, stress and self-perceived health.

The bigger picture

Professor Shorten said that the shortcomings with present transport innovations occur because they are not necessarily committed to fundamental change. “These types of innovations are not always thinking about the bigger picture … When we innovate with respect to the automobile we often think of the occupants of the vehicle, without necessarily thinking of the people outside of the vehicle.”

Think of all the good uses we could have of the space taken up by cars with green space, play areas for kids, places for the community to get together and interact Dr Audrey de Nazelle

He said that the solution is to give people more opportunities to avoid car ownership. “We need to address that people often don’t have good choices… They need a car because they don’t have access to a folding bike they can use in combination of public transport [for example]. We need to empower good choices.”

Dr de Nazelle called for cities themselves to be transformed to enable more healthy and sustainable transport choices. “There are many different roads to reaching sustainability targets … We tend to go for relatively low hanging fruits and very narrow-minded solutions, technological solutions in particular. But really once we have taken all those cars and replaced them with an electric vehicle, are we really going to be much better off? Or could we instead re-think cities and envision cities and streets so we can benefit in multiple ways?” she said.

“Think of all the good uses we could have of the space taken up by cars with green space, play areas for kids, places for the community to get together and interact. … We see there are lots of benefits of active travel but how we make it happen is the big question.”

Justin Abbott, Co-founder of Better Streets for Kensington & Chelsea, said: “Kensington and Chelsea is one of the richest places in the world so change is not dependent on some invention, it’s just a choice … the borough has 207km of road and not a single cycle lane.”

Mobility as a service

The panel was joined by George O’Connor, Vice President of Sales and Business Development (Europe) at Enterprise Holdings, the company best known for its car rental division.

“Oftentimes people will look at Enterprise and say ‘but you guys are a car company’… we’re actually huge supporters of active movement and cycling,” he said. “We talk about the six wheeled solution, where we see the combination of a bicycle and a car.”

If you had a dominant player who took over the platform you could get into a situation where actually the needs of the users are not the primary objective, it’s a commercial objective, and often commoditisation brings poor service George O'Connor Enterprise Holdings

Mr O’Connor said that the company is moving into mobility-as-a-service (MaaS), which gives city dwellers access through an app or other platform to multiple modes of transport such as shared bikes and cars. He argued that MaaS deployed by public authorities for people works best when it is regulated and implemented in response to public policy.

“We sometimes talk about good MaaS, bad MaaS. What we think is healthy is when the implementation is in consultation, it’s public and privately led and it’s aligning with government policy… [we are in favour of] ensuring MaaS is aligned with public policy objectives, everything from clean air to emissions to congestion to even multi-occupancy vehicle sharing. What we think would not be so great is commoditisation of supply chains. If you had a dominant player who took over the platform you could get into a situation where actually the needs of the users are not the primary objective, it’s a commercial objective, and often commoditisation brings poor service experience, lack of transparency in pricing and structure and lack of access.”

Trial mobility hub at Imperial

The event marked the announcement of a trial mobility hub for Imperial staff, set to launch in April 2021 as the result of a research partnership between Imperial, Enterprise Holdings and Brompton Bikes.

The hub will offer Imperial staff, subject to availability and eligibility criteria, exclusive use of a folding Brompton bike for two months alongside access two shared alternative fuel vehicles provided by Enterprise that will be available for occasional use when needed. Participating staff will be asked to leave their cars at home for the duration and support a research study by completing questionnaires before and after the trial.

The trial will allow researchers to assess the uptake and barriers to shared transport use and help the companies assess the potential for future mobility schemes that could be rolled out at Imperial and in other workplaces and cities.

Recruitment is scheduled to open to the mobility hub in the near future. The hub is part of Transition to Zero Pollution, a major College initiative that aims to create a more sustainable society by taking a ‘whole system’ approach to transform the way we think about pollution.

You can watch a recording of last week’s panel discussion on YouTube and learn about the hub on the mobility hub web page.

Reporter

David Silverman

David Silverman
Enterprise

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Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 8104
Email: d.silverman@imperial.ac.uk

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Pollution, Human-behaviour, Strategy-collaboration, Research, Global-challenges-Health-and-wellbeing, Sustainability, Obesity, Comms-strategy-Real-world-benefits, Comms-strategy-Entrepreneurial-ecosystem, Enterprise
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