The journey to a better place: low carbon mobility and sustainable transport – by Moshe Givoni

bike frame and shadow

photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr cc

It was going to be the birthplace of a world revolution, combining the Israeli entrepreneurial spirit and its love affair with start-up companies; and it was going to finally marry sustainability and transport. It was supposed to demonstrate that harnessing together technology and political will can bring about a real change. Without going into the details of why Better Place’s electric car failed to move us any closer to low carbon mobility, once again it demonstrated that there are no easy technological fixes for environmental problems. If Better Place had picked a ‘better’ car or place to begin with, had had a more focused marketing strategy and had been quicker to set up the battery-exchange ‘fuelling’ stations, would we at least be moving towards sustainable transport? Probably not!

We live in a digital world, and as a result, increasingly in a virtual world. With the developments in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) many of our everyday activities do not require us to step outside our home anymore. Going to work can be replaced by stepping into the next room and ‘logging in’; shopping nowadays only requires ‘surfing’ amongst virtual shops that sell real products; and meeting our friends can be done at any time no matter where we or our friends are. Yet, there are no signs that we are moving around less. In some countries indications suggest that maybe for the first time we are starting to use the car less (see special issue of Transport Reviews), but there are ‘good’ substitutes to the car when it comes to speed and distance: High-Speed Trains and planes for example. Furthermore, Peak car is anything but imminent in China and other emerging economies. Is technology failing us again in the quest for sustainable transport?

We might only be at the start of a transition to a world where the role of physical movement across space will diminish – a world of low (carbon) mobility. If this transition is completed, we would conduct most of our everyday activities virtually. Not only is this unlikely, it is likely undesirable. We still need to be co-present, to be in the same place and time as one or more others, for social if not other reasons. Co-presence is probably a necessity for human beings and this requires transport. Even if we don’t need to physically move from A to B, we seem to choose to.

In this case, how much travel do we need to plan for?

We have a choice to make. Despite the growing emphasis on demand management in transport research, managing the supply (of transport infrastructure) is actually the key. Such a choice relates to choices we need to make as a society that are outside the realm of transport planning and the transport system, but have a direct influence on it. We can continue to believe in the economic growth paradigm, and paint it green, and hope that technology will lead the way to a better place. Or we can try to prosper without growth, manage without it, live ‘glocally’, and servicize our economy – none will be easy nor a guarantee to low carbon mobility, but they will certainly mean a movement in the right direction towards sustainable transport.

Being mobile – being on the move – yet not constantly, is a good thing. An a-mobile society is associated with many and various ills. But how we move is what matters, and especially if we move or are being moved around. The primary choice is between the bicycle and, once again, the car. Without giving up the bus, train or the plane (all have an important role in fulfilling current and future mobility needs) the key is whether we choose, as the principle mode of transport for everyday activity, the car or the bicycle.

driverless car

Toyota Prius modified to operate as a Google driverless car driving a test course
(By Flckr user jurvetson (Steve Jurvetson). Trimmed and retouched with PS9 by Mariordo [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Choosing the car means in all likelihood the autonomous car. This has the potential to free us from the one-hour per day travel time budget we seem to have had throughout history, or chosen to have. With the autonomous car, travel time will not be wasted time, it will be everything else. Distance will lose most of its friction – travelling to work for example could start as soon as we get into our bed the night before and we could start travelling ‘back’ while still engaging in the usual meetings and various work tasks. We could finally afford our dream house in the suburbs, five hours drive away from our city (centre) office. Congestion then will be an all-day phenomenon.

mass bicycle ride

Critical mass ride in Tel-Aviv, Israel
(Photo by Daniel Mishori)

Choosing the bicycle, electric in all likelihood, is choosing to increase the friction of distance. Although it does seem at odds with our nature to conquer distance, speed and technology, it surprisingly can offer distinct qualities. It probably has the best potential to offer well-being. It certainly does not in any way mean abandoning progress, innovation, entrepreneurship and the like, only using them differently. The bicycle can take us to low carbon mobility and to sustainable transport – it is the only realistic option it seems to get to a better place.

Onwards pedalling to low carbon mobility!

Moving Towards Low Carbon Mobility book coverMoshe Givoni is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geography and Human Environment and Head of the Transport Research Unit at Tel-Aviv University. He is also a Visiting Research Associate at the Transport Studies Unit, Oxford University and an Associate Editor for Transport Reviews journal. Moshe gained his PhD at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London and received a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellowship which was undertaken at Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam. He was also a Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford University and Senior researcher at the Transport Studies Unit at Oxford University before joining Tel-Aviv University.

Moving Towards Low Carbon Mobility, edited by Moshe Givoni and David Banister, was published in 2013. It is also available as an eBook for subscribing libraries on elgaronline

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