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.

 
 
 
 

How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.


Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.

 

The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.