How to end congestion without giving up the car

Well, this looks healthy: Paris, 2007. Image: Getty.

Cars are spectacularly under-used. This may seem slightly counterintuitive if you were stuck in a traffic jam getting to work this morning, but the cold, naked fact is that an average car drives barely 50 minutes every day. For more than 23 hours it sits idle. When it’s on the road, a car carries an average of only 1.2 to 1.5 passengers.

Put differently, cars do what they were built for only about 3.5 per cent of the time, and then with 25 to 30% of the passengers they could carry. So inevitably lonely drivers find themselves stuck in congestion, breathing polluted air – not to even mention the impact of “individual mobility”, as experts call driving a car, on CO2 emissions and climate change.

That we accept this is a testament to the huge value we attribute to the freedom of movement that having our own car provides. Yet it is indisputably unsustainable, and increasingly so as car travel is increasingly undermined by its own success. Drivers in many world cities spend 25-41 per cent of time stuck in congestion during peak hours, the cost of which has been estimated at 0.8 per cent of GDP across the US, Germany, Britain and France.

How many of these do we really need? Image: International Transport Forum.
 

The same mobility with 10 per cent of today’s cars

Enter the sharing economy, ever on the look-out for under-utilised assets that can be made accessible for use with the help of today’s digital networking possibilities. Countless car sharing and ridesharing operators with a bewildering array of business models promise to make car travel as convenient as with your own car, and without the hassle. Could shared mobility provide the solution for urban mobility?

In fact it seems it can. Researchers at the International Transport Forum used real mobility data to create sophisticated computer model of mobility patterns over a typical 24-hour working day in the city of Lisbon in Portugal. They then replaced all private cars with a fleet of shared vehicles.

The result stunned even the experts: The shared fleets provided all the trips needed with 10 per cent or less of the current number of private cars, in some scenarios with 3 per cent. These results have been confirmed in four studies to date, testing different configurations of services and using data from cities with different density, topography and infrastructure. A shared mobility simulation for Helsinki in Finland was released in October; a study for Auckland, New Zealand, followed in November.

An infographic. Image: International Transport Forum.

Parks, not car parks

Imagine for a moment a world in which 9 of 10 cars have disappeared from your city’s streets. The first thing you’d notice is how much space cars occupy. In the simulation, 95 per cent of the land currently used for on-street car parking was freed for wider sidewalks, more cycling lanes, parks instead of car parks.

Congestion also disappears. The shared vehicles clock many more kilometres, but the overall distance driven falls by more than a third. And with fewer cars driving less overall, CO2 emissions from car traffic would also fall by a third – without any new technology in place. There would be knock-on effects: vehicles drive more, so need to be replaced sooner, so advances in fuel-saving or emissions reduction become relevant more quickly.

One of the most fascinating simulation results is the impact of shared mobility on social equality. Transport services are a means to an end – access to jobs, schools, shops, health services and so on. Private cars provide great access for those who have them. Those who don’t may find themselves having to refuse a better paid job because it’s simply not reachable by public transport.

Lisbon. Image: International Transport Forum.

The dark red areas in the maps of Lisbon above show the points from which 75 per cent or more of health services can be reached within 30 minutes. The light areas indicate that less than 25 per cent of services are within a 30 minute reach.

With on-demand shared mobility, almost all citizens have the highest level of access to health care, no matter where they are. The Gini coefficient, a widely-used indicator for inequality, drops from 0.26 now to 0.08 or almost full equality of access. The improvements for access to jobs and education are in the same order of magnitude.


The end of Public Transport?

So, potentially, on-demand shared mobility could offer cities a way out of traffic gridlock without making people less mobile. Will it happen?

A lot of political will is needed to launch such an urban mobility revolution. Much depends on adroitly setting the right framework in a way that ensures society reaps the benefits. For one thing, it will require regulation on how travel requests and rides are matched. The research suggests that a central dispatcher works best, rather than several. There could be multiple operators for shared taxis, taxi-buses and other services, however.

And what will happen to public transport? It’s hard to imagine traditional bus lines following fixed routes on rigid timetables, much like 19th century steam trains, competing successfully with on-demand services. On the other hand, nothing keeps city-backed public transport operators from offering innovative services themselves – for instance smaller buses that swarm around the city or oscillate along corridors, picking up people along the way based on itineraries constantly optimised by algorithms.

Transport as a service. Image: Shared User Mobility Center.

And the new shared services can even work well in tandem with public transport. The ITF studies show that shared mobility services have the biggest impact in combination with high-capacity public transport – they can provide effective feeder services for metro lines or commuter rail.

Surveys and focus groups conducted in several cities showed that users are attracted by the idea. But the shared mobility service will have to be set up – and promoted – to attract car owners, not people who use public transport.

How do we get there?

The “what if” approach of replacing all private cars with shared vehicles can demonstrate what is possible, but it doesn’t do much to help cities get there. With 100 per cent shared mobility, the price of a journey could be 50 per cent less than today on public transport, even without subsidies.


But there is a risk that such systems will falter during the transition – as happened in Helsinki, where the Kutsuplus on-demand bus service folded in 2015, caught between high costs and limited reach. In Boston, a similar service called Bridj gave up in April of 2017 (but is now planning a comeback in Sydney).

To succeed, shared mobility would probably need at least about 20 per cent market share to have sufficient scale to keep costs low enough and significantly reduce traffic (and emissions). When surveyed, users made it clear that while they love the idea in principle, the two things that matter to them are service quality and price.

Yet city planners can take courage from another answer. Asked whether they would be less likely to use a shared vehicle if it had many riders on board, the opposite turned out to be the case. People don’t mind full cars but are not keen on sharing a ride with just one other person – for fear they might be engaged in conversation.

If that turned out to be true, it would at least help improve capacity utilisation.

Hans Michael Kloth, a former journalist with news magazine Der Spiegel, now works at the International Transport forum, a policy think thank linked to the OECD in Paris.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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