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.

 
 
 
 

What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.


Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.