Total mobility – brave new world

I don’t go to that many general transport conferences these days as I fear I will feel like I’ve heard too much of it too many times before.

So it was a pleasure to go to an LSE Cities evening event last week on electric mobility. A get together of an eclectic and international mix of corporate strategists, sociologists, architects, academics and technologists which was full of insights and the satisfying intellectual click of ideas coming together that hadn’t come together before – or at least not in my head.

Here’s what I took from it…

In the future you will not own your means of transportation…

  • The future of transport is sharing / renting and not owning. You don’t own the bus or train you use now. In the future you won’t own your car either. The economics of electric cars work for leasing and renting not for ownership (the cost of vehicles and infrastructure is too expensive).
  • The future of transport is one mobile phone equals one transport system. Your mobile will give you easy access to cars, bikes and public transport.
  • The future is door-to-door and carbon free.
  • In young peoples’ heads the future is here now. Internationally young people are rapidly moving into a  post-ownership mentality. They can’t afford the baby boomers ownership model (houses, cars etc) and for cars why bother? Cars are universal, functional objects – the status and aspiration around car ownership is seeping away. The car is a commodity rather than a symbol of expression and why be lumbered with one type of car that you own– when you can have any vehicle you want – right now – for hire by the hour. Young people are also ‘post-privacy’ which also fits with a monitored and rented transport world rather than a private and owned one.
  • The car ‘club’ concept was uncool and now it’s not. Car clubs used to be resonant of drab, do-goodery – aspiring late 20th century individuals didn’t join this sort of club. But now the ‘club’ fits with the zeitgeist of joining groups on social media so it’s making a marketing come back.
  • DB’s biggest electric car users are 30-55 aged  family men with a geeky side and with no interest in public transport – but interestingly once they start using the electric cars they become converts to the rail service element of the total mobility offer.
  • Electric cars limited range is good news for public transport (as it can’t substitute for long distance public transport), they can also act as smart storage for electricity during the day as electric car use is highest during the electricity grid peak and station car parks make good charging points.

In the future public transport needs to be central to the total mobility offer

    • You are not in the public transport business anymore you are in the mobility business.

      Getting total mobility up and running will need big ideas


  • Big is beautiful in total mobility. You need to think big, spend big and act big to get significant total mobility offers up and running. Bikehire schemes for example don’t come cheap (look at London – look at any of the successful ones). German railways (DB) has set up an innovation unit and a separate subsidiary to drive this stuff forward. The subsidiary (with a staff of 800) is now working with entities like the  German post office, large German private companies, and the non-weaponised part of the German military on its fleet management / car sharing operation.
  • Not only do transport providers need to link up with each other they also need to link up to car manufacturers, telecoms companies and energy providers. It’s only at this scale that all the pieces of the low carbon, door-to-door jigsaw can be put together. And then there’s housing providers eg Housing Associations providing electric car sharing options.
  • The economics rarely stack up as purely commercial propositions. It works best in countries that accept you need a taxbase to spend on infrastructure for these schemes so…

Will the US and UK miss out?

  • If we can’t even integrate inter-bus ticketing in UK cities (except London) how on earth will we ever be able to offer wider total mobility packages?

    The electric car could go rogue without an attractive public realm

  • If the electric car isn’t put in the context of an attractive public realm (for walking and cycling) and integrated, attractive public transport then the electric car could go rogue and lead to a transfer of short trips from public transport, walking and cycling to the car.
  • There is also a danger of the UK (outside London) ending up with weak, partial and over-lapping mobility offers by a range of private and public sector providers.
  • But then again which country did the biggest and boldest road user charging scheme on the planet? High land values = high parking charges. Coupled with tight historic street patterns this might make cities like London naturals for total mobility.
  • Meanwhile, state-side no one wants to pay for transit infrastructure anymore and car-based urban sprawl has largely triumphed.  The bus, the bike, pedestrianisation on a neighbourhood by neighbourhood basis offers some hope – which is the way some of NYC is going.

In the future when all’s well? The doubters speak…

  • Should we be turning our cities into blank canvasses for the consumption of mobility? In our rush to try to ensure that total mobility is as sustainable as possible will we sacrifice what we like about the urban (its unpredictability, walkability and diversity)? Shouldn’t we start with the urban realm rather than the facilitation of total mobility at any cost?
  • Total mobility offers (eg London hirebikes) often end up being city centre status symbols for all concerned, whereas really it’s the suburbs that they would come into their own – World City centres can look after themselves.

Want to know whether or not the future works? In a few years time the Northern European countries like Germany and Switzerland will give us a good idea…

Jonathan Bray

Cars – are ‘friends’ electric?

Pine fresh

Ok…we get it

As pteg, we would prefer it if everyone walked, cycled or used public transport to make their journeys. But we must be realistic. Whether through choice, or necessity, many people are very attached to their cars. The car does have its benefits over other transport options:

  • It takes you from door-to-door, even if those two doors are hundreds of miles apart and in the middle of nowhere.
  • You can set off and head back whenever you want.
  • You can follow any route (unless you are accompanied by a bossy sat nav in computer or human form).
  • You don’t have to worry about who will sit next to you.
  • You can savour the aroma emanating from your Magic Tree, rather than other, less pleasant sources.
  • You can sing if you want and no-one will stare at you.

But don’t forget the bad bits…

So it’s easy to understand the attraction. But cars are also frequently polluting, expensive to run and tend to make you lazy. So accepting that, for the foreseeable future, there will always be a desire or need for cars, we need to look at how we can make them greener and encourage people to use them less.

There are lots of ways to do this, but having recently attended the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership conference, I will focus on two in particular – electric cars and the concept of combined mobility.

Plugging in

Electric cars first. If people must use cars, it would be great if they were electric. That way, they emit zero emissions at the tail pipe, reducing pollution and improving air quality for all – especially in inner-city areas where those on a lower income are disproportionately affected.

It was inspiring to see the enthusiasm with which manufacturers are developing electric cars in the hope that their product will be seen as ‘an iPad on wheels’ as one speaker put it – becoming the ‘must-have’ piece of tech.

Nissan Leaf

We heard, for example, about the Nissan Leaf – Nissan are investing big money into this car and the batteries that go with it and have received £20m from the Government to support development in Sunderland – great news for jobs in these austere times.

Manufacturers believe there is a market out there provided the vehicles are affordable (with help from Government incentives), they can address consumer worries (e.g. how far can I get on the battery) and there is a visible infrastructure available at destinations – like railway stations and supermarkets – and en-route (pathway charging), for longer distance journeys.

Avoiding business as usual – the combined mobility option

However, the problem with electric cars is that, aside from changing how you fill up your vehicle with energy, they allow people to pretty much carry on as normal, albeit in a greener, less polluting manner. The roads will still be congested, streets filled up with parked cars, the electricity still needs to be generated somewhere and people will still get lazy – using their cars when they don’t really need to.

One of the problems is that, with the electric vehicle option alone, people still own cars. If you own a car, of course you want to get the use out of it and you’ll be tempted to use it for the majority of your journeys. That’s where the concept of combined mobility and new models of car ownership come in.

Could mobile phone style contracts be the future of car ownership?

One of the manufacturers at the conference said that they were looking with great interest at the mobile phone industry as a business model. Here, you sign up for a contract that meets your needs and keeps you talking, texting, emailing and so on. You never actually own the phone that allows you to do this. Instead you have temporary custody of it until it’s time for an upgrade. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for people – they get the services they need and the newest, shiniest technology.

The same could go for cars, which could be presented as part of a package of transport services that keep you moving. You would never actually own the car, simply have access to it via a car club should you need it for a particular journey. The car club would ensure that you are always driving the shiniest, greenest and most efficient vehicles (they could even be electric, making the technology accessible to a wider range of people).

Alongside car clubs, the package would include other transport services – pay-as-you-go bikes, buses, trains, trams and taxis. Smartcard technology in the mould of London’s Oyster could give one-touch access to all of these transport services – leaving you to decide which is best for the journey you are making. For the morning commute, you can hop on a bike and dodge the traffic jams. If you need to do a food shop that evening, unlock a car club car for a couple of hours. Public transport would also become a more attractive, cheaper option for many journeys as pay-as-you-go cars make the real cost of motoring more visible.

This model means you no longer need to have the car sitting in the drive all the time, making you feel guilty for not taking it for a spin, costing you an arm and a leg and tempting you into making unnecessary journeys to the corner shop for biscuits.

Combined mobility offers the prospect of new thinking rather than ‘business as usual but with low carbon vehicles’. It’s time to embrace the car as our friend…albeit one that we only call upon when absolutely necessary. More of an acquaintance really then…

Rebecca Handley