The future of urban transport

Karen Vancluysen, Secretary General of POLIS, spoke to The Innovation Platform’s International Editor, Clifford Holt, about how some of the challenges facing urban transport can be addressed.

The urban transport sector has a clear role to play in Europe’s green recovery. From a wider roll-out of electric vehicles, to cutting the number of cars in city centres, to enabling multi-modal journeys and boosting micro-mobility in urban environments. But these elements of a greener future are not without their challenges.

POLIS aims to improve local transport through integrated strategies that address the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of transport. To this end, it supports the exchange of experiences and the transfer of knowledge between European local and regional authorities. It also facilitates the dialogue between local and regional authorities and other mobility stakeholders such as industry, research centres, universities, and NGOs.

Clifford Holt, International Editor at The Innovation Platform, spoke to POLIS’s Secretary General, Karen Vancluysen, about some of the challenges and opportunities facing urban mobility as we hopefully begin to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

How would you define POLIS’s role in aiding the evolution of urban mobility?

We are a European network of cities and regions working together on sustainable urban mobility and urban transport innovation. Our mission is essentially threefold. First, we offer a platform to our members so that they can talk to each other, and the peer-to-peer dimension is very strong. This is important for cities to be able to learn from each other’s successes (and, indeed, their mistakes) in the field of urban mobility.

Second, we help cities engage in research and innovation activities funded by the European Commission in the field of urban transport. This means that cities can become testbeds for innovation by trialling new solutions that come from industry and the research sector. In addition, we also help them to integrate those innovations in a policy-responsive way so that these innovations assist them in solving certain transport-related challenges that they are facing locally. Furthermore, we also engage in discussions on topics related to transport innovations that are currently popular and which are being discussed by the sector. We then position ourselves and the relevant cities and regions to work on these particular innovations and see whether they can be of benefit.

Third, we represent the interests of our members towards the European institutions; we are essentially the voice of our cities and regions in terms of the dialogue with the European Commission, the European Parliament, etc. when it comes to issues that have a local impact in the field of urban mobility.

With the decarbonisation of the transport sector being a priority, what is needed to transfer innovation to the market and thus to society? What are your thoughts on EU R&D&I funding in this area (Horizon 2020 etc.)? And what role does POLIS play in ensuring a process of continued co-operation and consultation with all urban mobility stakeholders?

When we talk about the decarbonisation of the transport sector, cities and regions will be key; it is at the local level where much of the transport transformation that needs to happen will occur.

Our members have also committed to the decarbonisation challenge. At the recent POLIS conference we launched the POLIS Urban Green-Deal Makers Pledge which lists how cities and regions will contribute to the targets that have been set by the European Green Deal. These commitments now need to be empowered by other levels of government.

Then, when we talk about the role of innovation, this should not be seen solely in the context of technology; innovation can also take place in the way that policies are shaped as well as in the way that stakeholders are engaged with, or citizens are involved, in order to create solutions.

The message we therefore try to convey when we look at the different challenges is that we need to assess innovation from a more holistic perspective; innovation for the sake of innovation is not going to have any real benefit. Rather, innovation needs to be geared towards providing a solution to a specific problem. What is more, innovation needs to be aligned with policy and so not undermining potential policy goals, which can sometimes be the case when new solutions emerge – such solutions can often make big promises but, in practice, do not always deliver on them (especially if they are not regulated properly).

A good example here is automation. Driverless cars are being touted as able to solve many of the problems currently facing the transport sector. And yet, if cities or regions do not set the rules of the game in terms of the way they want to welcome such vehicles onto their roads, then this has the very real potential of generating effects that are the complete opposite of those that had been promised. For example, travel time will be perceived very differently because people will be able to do other things (such as work on a laptop or use their mobile devices to make calls etc.) while the autonomous vehicle is moving. That could lead to cars being used even more than they are now, as well as to more urban sprawl, which is clearly not what cities want.

When we begin to consider such innovations it is thus very important that we do so by considering the localised challenges; and yes, decarbonisation is one such challenge, but we also need to think about air pollution, road safety, congestion, and so on, and how these innovations can help to tackle them.

An integrated approach and solutions that can tick several boxes simultaneously are therefore required.

In terms of European research funding, the Framework Programmes are important to test new and innovative solutions at the city level. However, moving from trials to large scale deployment remains a challenge, and we try to help cities here by aiding them in making informed choices and by helping them to see how they can embed these innovations more structurally into their policies. It is therefore important to highlight that the work does not stop at the end of a trial; it needs to go beyond that, and we have to bridge the so-called ‘valley of death’ to ensure that the right innovations reach the market after the research funding has stopped.

Alongside the European Framework Programmes – and, of course, we anticipate that much of the research funding for urban mobility will be obtained via Horizon Europe – there are other programmes, such as INTERREG, which are also important for our members because they focus on very concrete piloting, as well as those more mature technologies that are closer to deployment. Other programmes also enable the sharing of best practice between cities, which is very important.

Funding is also being made available in the recovery and resilience funds that have been released by the European Commission in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Member States are currently developing their recovery and resilience plans and it will be key to ensuring that sustainable urban mobility gets its fair share.

To return to the concept of autonomous vehicles: there is some scepticism as to how quickly this could be rolled out in the urban environment due to, amongst other things, the number of sensors etc. that would need to be embedded in the area. How do cities perceive such challenges?

There is indeed an element of scepticism, on the part of the cities, too, regarding this issue, not least because much of the coverage in the mainstream media has led many to believe that they can expect to see autonomous vehicles driving on the streets in the very near future. This, of course, is unlikely to be the case.

Nevertheless, it is important to highlight that there is a tremendous difference between the inter-urban (or highway) environment and the urban environment, with the latter being incredibly complicated and complex. To introduce an automated car into the urban environment would be both difficult and costly, with a great many challenges that need to  be overcome.

Cities must also ask themselves what roles they see autonomous vehicles playing should they ever become available to the urban environment, and whether this should occur in the same way as conventional cars became a part of the cityscape just a couple of decades ago, which I think many, if not all, would agree should not be the case. As such, we need to set conditions – perhaps automation is only desirable in the urban environment if such vehicles are also shared and electrified.

We are currently working with our cities to explore issues such as these, and one of the European-funded projects we were involved in, called ‘Co-exist’, can help here, as it developed an automation readiness framework for cities by looking at different elements of automation, what the likely impact could be on the urban fabric, and what action cities need to take for the future. However, it should be underlined that when we talk about automation readiness, we are not talking about cities that should adapt to the needs of automation, but automation that must adapt to the needs of the cities.

Electromobility has a clear part to play in the future. How is POLIS active in this area?

We have a very active clean vehicles and air quality working group within POLIS, and many of our cities have been leading the way in terms of pushing for the final rollout of electrification, which, unfortunately, has not happened as fast as many had hoped.

Cities have an important role to play in the rollout of the charging infrastructure, for instance, and they are taking that up. However, this needs to be done in partnership with industry.

While POLIS is a network that represents public authorities, we also engage in facilitating the dialogue with the private sector, on all aspects related to transport innovation, because the lines between the public and the private sector have become increasingly blurred in the last few years. This collaborative working is also important when it comes to facilitating the future of urban mobility and looking at the likely impacts of the innovations that are emerging in terms of both opportunities and any potential negative externalities.

This is certainly true when it comes to electromobility; if the petrol and diesel cars on the roads today are simply replaced with clean ones, then while this may help to cut emission levels, it will not solve other challenges such as congestion. As such, we need to look at the future of urban mobility from a multimodal perspective; in addition to cars, we also need to consider cargo bikes, for instance, as well as the electrification of captive fleets such as public transport and urban freight vehicles. This is not just important in terms of achieving the critical mass that is necessary for electrification to become more widespread, but also in terms of enabling that multimodality perspective. Nevertheless, once this happens, and as the charging infrastructure is put into place and the first push is achieved in the market, that market will gradually begin to develop, meaning that cities can then step back and begin to withdraw from their initial role.

Alongside these issues there are challenges in terms of improving air quality that need to be addressed and which also require the wider roll-out of cleaner vehicles. We recently published a position paper in which we have highlighted a number of the challenges which currently still exist even post- ‘dieselgate’ and the subsequent improvement in testing procedures. These include the fact that there is still too much potential for tampering, while many ambitions are simply not high enough and so do not help our cities to reach air quality targets.

We should not forget that the core element of sustainable urban mobility policy is to reduce cars in cities in general and have public transport and active travel as the backbone of the urban mobility ecosystem, while those cars that remain would have to be clean. For that reason, urban vehicle access regulations (UVARs) are also instrumental, even though they are politically very sensitive, and not always easily accepted by the public. Internalising the external costs of car traffic will however be crucial to reaching our sustainable mobility goals.

What are your thoughts on the current stage of concepts and technologies such as Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS), co-operative ITS, mobility as a service (MaaS), etc. What next steps are needed in order for a wider roll-out to be achieved?

These tools can be an important means to an end. Co-operative ITS and ITS in general have played an interesting role by making traffic more efficient. But what is important to also note is that we need to move away from traditional traffic management to multimodal network management. Cities are not interested in simply making car traffic flows more efficient (indeed, this might not be something they want to achieve at all, as they would prefer that the number of cars were simply reduced in city centres). We therefore need more information on the potential of ITS in terms of environmental benefits and not just traffic efficiency benefits, which is also important in terms of the multimodal perspective we have already discussed.

MaaS has become something of a buzzword in recent years, and yet the actual level of deployment remains quite limited. The need for public sector oversight and for a regulatory framework that ensures that cities can keep an eye on what modes are being prioritised in the MaaS environment will be instrumental moving forwards. The question of what role the public sector should play in MaaS is one that is currently high on the agenda. Should MaaS be a purely commercial initiative? Or a hybrid initiative combining public policy with commercial interests?

From our perspective, it is important to ensure that the modes being prioritised in a MaaS environment are indeed the most sustainable ones, and not the ones which create the most revenue. As such, we need to gain an insight into the algorithms being used. Indeed, we are already seeing some trends that do not have sustainability at heart. For instance, walking is a very valuable mode for cities. But in a MaaS environment walking does not generate financial revenue, and so citizens may find themselves being nudged away from walking and towards a more monetised mode. For instance, if someone uses Google Maps to find a route to walk within a city, the app will try to nudge them towards the use of an E-scooter.

Cities are, of course, interested in micro mobility, and E-scooters etc. are an excellent example of a modal shift that cities are looking for if it helps them to reduce car use; but they do not want pedestrians to use them when they would have been happy to make their journey on foot. There is therefore a clear need for public sector oversight.

There are perhaps several reasons as to why MaaS is not taking off as fast as we would have hoped. For instance, the concept requires a somewhat complicated co-operation between very different types of stakeholders, both public and private, while there are also challenges that need to be overcome in terms of sharing data between stakeholders and the protection of commercial interests. Indeed, these stakeholders all want to be seen as leading the field and so do not necessarily want to integrate together into a third party application. In addition, the question of who is going to be responsible for the cost of this additional layer that MaaS brings, and therefore the business model, is yet to be resolved.

MaaS could be improved by ensuring the better integration of public transport and shared mobility services. And if there were ever an optimal time to join the different sustainable modes together it is now, as we begin to (hopefully) emerge from the COVID-19 crisis and as we work to avoid the anticipated surge of private car use when lockdowns ease, as people are expected to see their own vehicles as being much safer than using public transport. A better integration of public transport and shared mobility, backed up by MaaS, has the potential to play a role here, but it will have to go hand-in-hand with subsidies for those services that positively contribute to the urban mobility ecosystem.

Neither new mobility services nor MaaS in itself are going to solve all the problems that we have; we will need integrated policies that combine carrots and sticks, that incentivise sustainable modes but also clearly discourage car use, for example through UVARs.

With transport being just one (albeit central) element of the smart cities concept, what other areas (ticketing, parking, noise, health-related issues) must now be properly explored and properly integrated into future urban transport policymaking, and how is POLIS already active here?

The urban mobility spectrum is very wide with numerous topics that need to be considered, and the aforementioned integrated approach is instrumental in tackling the inherent challenges. We have therefore developed five thematic pillars, within each of which we have established several Working Groups. Many of these are actively trying to address the issues you have highlighted.

Ticketing, for example, is, of course, closely linked to the discussion of MaaS, and the more seamless we can make intermodal and multimodal journeys, the more welcomed they will be by the user. We should not forget that it will always be easier to complete a journey using just one mode. As such, we have to make sure that we facilitate multimodality and make it as easy as possible for the user, and so ticketing can play an important role. However, digital integration will have to go hand in hand with physical integration of different modes, through interchanges and mobility hubs.

Regarding parking, we have a dedicated Working Group on that topic and we also have a partnership with the European Parking Association to look at an important tool that will enable the management of urban space in cities and, moreover, put a price on the use of that space.

The parking sector is currently experiencing a certain level of disruption as parking spaces in cities are being decreased as part of the effort to reduce the number of cars in these areas. And we also have to recognise that parking has been an important revenue stream. As such, we must now also investigate how parking within the city space could be approached in the future, particularly when it comes to the use of the curb-side. We need to move towards more dynamic curb-side management which looks at different functions of the curb perhaps depending on the time of day (the curb-side could, for example, be reserved for food trucks during lunchtimes, used as a pick-up/drop-off zone for shared mobility and ride hailing in the evening, for urban freight delivery purposes in the morning, and/or dedicated for public transport). We have to be more dynamic, and that is where ITS can again play a supporting role.

In addition to the curb-side, cities are facing a general trend towards respacing city streets in favour of city life and active travel, which I believe will continue to evolve moving forwards. The trend of giving the streets back to the people was already initiated way before COVID, but this trend has been accelerated during the current health crisis. Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis has seen cities respacing their streets to give more room to pedestrians and cyclists, for instance, in order to maintain social distancing. This is something which was long overdue, and we need to achieve a fairer (re)distribution of space in favour of the most sustainable modes. Moreover, cities also need to accommodate the new transport modes that have been emerging in recent years, such as micro-mobility. E-scooters in particular, have been perceived by some as ‘cluttering’ city streets and getting in the way of pedestrians. While this is a concern and this new mode requires proper regulation, we also have to recognise that light and active mobility modes in general deserve way more space – and safe space – on our streets, and that the private car has been taking up an unfair share of our city space.

To return to one of our priority areas that we have already discussed: the better integration of public transport, shared mobility, and, by extension, all sustainable modes, will be crucial moving forwards. We must now explore new business models and new types of public-private co-operation while also ensuring that we include areas outside of cities – both suburban areas and even rural areas, where the level of car dependence is much higher, and public transport supply is more limited compared to city centres. Then, we need to look at how a better level of co-operation between the public and the private sectors can be achieved. In many cases, it would be much more efficient to enter into partnerships in which the city can rely on and subsidise certain trips carried out by the existing privately-run mobility services and potentially extend their deployment in a way that complements mass transit and addresses unmet needs, whether we talk about suburban areas, specific target groups or off-peak periods. There is a lot of untapped potential here.

We have also been working on the link between transport and health. Of course, the link between transport and air pollution is clear (and needs to be addressed), but there are also health benefits linked to active travel that we have been capitalising on. This presents an additional argument for cities to invest in active travel, not just from a transport policy perspective, but also from a health policy perspective. This can also help to tackle other societal challenges, such as a lack of physical activity, obesity and related issues such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and so on.

That is a very powerful argument, because when the environment and the ‘greater good’ is used as a reason to push for things like active travel, for example, societal take-up tends to be relatively low; but if the benefits can be linked to personal health and the physical benefits, then that acts as an important enabler.

How would you like to see EU policy develop moving forwards and, given the changing landscape how do you expect POLIS’s priorities to also have to evolve in the future?

We were happy to see that the European Commission has clearly stated that the only way out of the COVID-19 health crisis is via a green recovery and that we should not compromise on the targets that were set by the Green Deal before the pandemic.

This is important because many other crises existed before the coronavirus and while they may now be less tangible they are still very much alive and are, unfortunately, still resulting in fatalities. We have thus been urging the European Commission to pay proper attention to the local level and not to use subsidiarity as an excuse for not interacting directly with cities and regions.

We are also counting on the Commission to make sure that urban mobility is properly represented in the recovery and resilience plans currently being developed by Member States, and that the resilience of urban mobility for the future is given the weight that it deserves. Indeed, the recovery of public transport will be instrumental to Europe’s future.

The Commission has also recently published its Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, which mentions a number of ambitions but has little information on how those ambitions are going to be realised. We are therefore looking forward to gaining a better understanding of the actions that are going to take place and, furthermore, to the announcement of the Urban Mobility Package, which is scheduled for later this year, as this should also outline a number of ambitions.

The link between the European and local levels is really very important, not least because at the moment the intermediate national level very often holds cities back, instead of empowering them. We are therefore calling on the EU to help us realise the common ambition that we share because, as previously mentioned, cities hold many keys in terms of the transport transformation.

In terms of priorities, in recent years we have seen many innovations and disruptions emerge in cities, all of which have occurred at a very fast pace and many at the same time. That can often present a challenge for cities, which need to quickly adapt to that fast-changing environment. In many instances, it has become clear that cities are constantly lagging behind reality and that the private sector is faster and more agile than the public sector.

We must therefore ensure that the regulatory framework is made more agile and that it is able to factor in the unknown and the uncertainty that we inherently have to deal with in our cities when it comes to innovation and disruption. That way, each time a new mode or solution comes along cities will not have to adjust the regulatory framework from scratch; rather, a framework needs to be in place that can systematically build in the unknown factors when they occur, just as we have seen with micro-mobility. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that cities can indeed react quickly to unexpected circumstances. There was no roadmap for the mobility sector in the face of the coronavirus, and we saw the peer-to-peer exchange that POLIS offers become really instrumental in how the crisis was handled as we enabled our cities to look at what their counterparts were doing elsewhere, to learn from their experiences, and to see whether they could perhaps copy some of the approaches being taken (such as the introduction of pop-up bicycle lanes, for instance, or the introduction of residential zones with priority for pedestrians and cyclists, or the reduction of speed limits, health and safety measures for public transport, and so on).

We saw how our cities stepped up to the plate and acted when and where they needed to act while also providing mobility to those who still needed it, even amid the peak of the pandemic. I was very impressed by the way they performed, and we should learn from that as we move out of the pandemic and as we look to make our systems more resilient for the future, maintaining – and even enhancing – the agility we have seen during the COVID-19 crisis.

We have also noted that those cities that acted the quickest and which have made good progress in tackling the coronavirus pandemic through temporary measures are those cities which have excellent sustainable urban mobility plans in place. This enabled them to roll out some of the measures that had been scheduled for implementation in the coming years in just a couple of weeks or months, and there is also scope for some of these temporary interventions to become permanent.

The COVID-19 crisis has taught us that we need to be resilient and that we need to cope with uncertainty, unpredictability, and disruption. And, of course, with the increasing importance of the accessibility and affordability of transport solutions, combined with the importance of climate neutrality, these are the building blocks upon which we can shape future policies.

Karen Vancluysen
Secretary General
+32 2 500 56 75
Tweet @POLISnetwork

Please note, this article also appears in the fifth edition of our quarterly publication.

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