Urban Mobility Transition Driven by New Digital Technologies

By Dr. Teresa de la Cruz, Project Manager, Dr. Beatriz Royo, Associate Professor, and Carolina Ciprés, Director of Research.

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Regular followers will know that over the past few years ZLC has coordinated the Horizon 2020 project SPROUT (Sustainable Policy Response to Urban mobility Transition) which has been looking at how authorities can develop and evaluate policies that support new, digitally-based, urban mobility solutions both for passengers and, our particular perspective, freight.

We are delighted that our work now forms the opening chapter of a new, open access, book published by Springer – ‘Towards User-Centric Transport in Europe 3’. This is downloadable from https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-031-26155-8. The whole volume is well worth reading: here, we summarise our own contribution.

Our starting point is that, although digitization is making possible a host of new business models for urban mobility, for example in the passenger sphere, online marketplaces for car-pooling and bike sharing and for freight, developments in hyper-local logistics, crowd sharing of last mile deliveries, and so on, very often their successful adoption is impeded by regulation that is inappropriate for these models or, as has been the case with e-scooters in many cities, doesn’t cover the situation at all. And besides regulation around physical and technical matters, there are also potential policy issues around for example the development of the ‘platform’ or ‘gig’ labour market, and the risk that new models may exacerbate the digital divide (thus perhaps excluding the very groups that improved urban mobility is supposed to help).

Often, and particularly in the case of freight, the likely impacts of emerging transport solutions are unclear to policy makers, who themselves are often working in a relatively inflexible administrative climate, and may lack the capacity, in knowledge and resources, to successfully obtain and integrate fact-based evidence of technological and financial implications into their decision-making. So SPROUT (and other EC-supported work areas where ZLC also is involved) has been working on approaches that help policy-makers identify the drivers of urban mobility needs and developments, understand the key elements that will enable mobility transition to be innovative and sustainable (in every sense of the word), and suggest guidelines for the successful creation and subsequent evaluation of policy responses. As is common with Horizon 2020 projects, a lot of SPROUT’s ideas have been tested and validated in ‘Living Labs’ across a selection of differing city and urban environments.

SPROUT identified over thirty urban mobility drivers, which can be grouped into six broad categories under the acronym PESTEL – for Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental, and Legal. Already we can see the complexities around policy formulation: fact-based evidence is likely to be only one factor in decision-making, competing with the values, feelings and emotions of both politicians and citizens (and the latter in both their private and their business/employment capacities).

Factual evidence, the acquisition and analysis of data, is thus only one consideration, albeit a very important one. It is also a particular challenge for urban freight policy – whereas in the passenger sphere, data on, for example, bus routes and usage is readily available, the same is not true for the commercially sensitive data of large numbers of actors in a fragmented industry, nor are there any standards for how such data might be gathered. And although developments such as the Internet of Things may vastly increase the volume of data available, there is the danger of a ‘data paradox’ – too much data generated, but too little of the ‘right’ data.

But fact-based evidence alone is inadequate – such arguments need to run alongside the active engagement of citizens and other stakeholders. The principle that society should be involved from the very beginning of the planning process was articulated by the European Commission a decade ago in the form of SUMPs – Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans – an approach that has been adopted in many of Europe’s larger and medium-sized cities, albeit with varying success. Barriers to effective stakeholder engagement are often related to limited financial and personnel capacities within local authorities, and a lack of the skills needed to plan and carry out successful participation exercises.

Long term political support is also vital. Long term commitment and vision is obviously essential, and importantly, and awkwardly for politicians, an acceptance that some initiatives and projects may fail. The local political process can steer consumer and business behaviour towards more desirable and sustainable mobility options, but it is important that the political toolbox contains more than just taxes, charges, and bans. A more flexible style of administration is required, which will facilitate the approval and deployment, and if necessary abandonment, of mobility solutions – a ‘regulatory sandbox’ in which solutions can be trialled, responsibly but also responsively.

The political element of course extends to the difficult element of funding. Most mobility solutions require an initial, sometimes substantial, capital outlay, some incur on-going running costs, and local authorities are not exactly awash with cash. While some funding may be available from national or EU sources, an increased public budget, typically funded by charges and taxes, may not be politically acceptable, and whilst many effective mobility solutions may well yield economic benefits in the longer term (boosts to local economies, reduced costs of accidents and ill-health, slower degradation of infrastructure, for example) these are rarely in the form of revenue streams against which a municipality can borrow. Long term investment and commitment by the private sector is essential, but this requires that the private sector recognises stability and certainty in overall policy (even or especially if individual elements are of a tentative or experimental nature. Public-Private Partnerships are increasingly being adopted, which deliver public benefits while allowing private business to validate and commercialize their solutions. (This may also help address the problem that ‘the field of urban green mobility solutions and services is today mostly dominated by non-European start-ups’ – a function both of a lack of equity financing in Europe, and the heterogenous nature of European markets with regard to policies, legislation and regulation).

Given the relative lack of resources available to local authorities, the need for effective guidance, so that the wheel is not constantly and expensively being reinvented, is obvious. This then is the context in which SPROUT has worked through its pilots, first in the operational assessment of particular mobility solutions, and then (and arguably more importantly) in the assessment of policy responses to issues raised by those pilots. For and through the pilots, we developed an evaluation framework, in three phases – preparation, use, and analysis – which can be more generally applied by any city that wants to speed up policies definition when introducing new mobility solutions, even though the mix of solutions itself may be city-specific.

For more information please contact Dr. Teresa de la Cruz at [email protected]