Overtaking the old mobility. The car, from host to guest

Il·lustració © Enrique Flores

Cities are currently the scene of the foremost social, environmental and economic challenge posed by sustainable mobility. It is time to apply new formulae, such as vehicle sharing, the promotion of cycling, walking, proximity-based urban planning, the creation of new models such as superblocks; and also the promotion of green spaces and electrified public transport.

The shift in mobility caused by the lockdown imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic has endowed our cities with a new reality, since it drastically reduced motorised travel, whether for work, study or leisure purposes. We have enjoyed cities with lower levels of air pollutton and, turning our gaze upwards, we have rediscovered the blue colour of our sky. We have also realised that the noise generated by traffic prevented us from appreciating the silences and the singing of the birds. Or that the space dedicated to cars was excessive; for instance, Barcelona allocates more than 60% of its public space to them and has one of the highest traffic densities on its streets, with 6,000 vehicles per km², double that of Madrid and triple that of London,[1] despite the fact that private vehicles only account for 20% of modal distribution in Barcelona.[2] Not surprisingly, this situation incurs a cost for our health and well-being.

When motorised mobility markedly dropped, we verified what some of us had been saying for a long time. As Xavier Querol asserts, the problem is the occupation of public space by cars, their polluting and greenhouse gas emissions. The key indicators of polluting emissions that plummeted during the lockdown confirm this hypothesis. In turn, CO2 emissions dropped and noise levels fell dramatically. All of this suddenly made it possible to comply with the maximum levels of pollution established by Europe.

The need to maintain social distancing to prevent contagion has forced many cities to expand the public space for pedestrians, with strategic urban planning measures that reduce the space for cars on the roads. Barcelonaalong with other cities such as Paris, BrusselsBerlinLondon and New York, has spearheaded actions to encourage the mobility of bicycles and pedestrians as an alternative to private cars. These measures taken in pandemic times show us the way forward to turn our cities into more flexible, liveable and healthy spaces.

Climate change, the next pandemic

The agreements of the Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21) require states to meet specific emission reduction targets and compel local authorities to place energy efficiency and climate protection at the forefront of their mobility policies. In this vein, COP21 proposes fostering concrete actions to transform the mobility of urban centres and progressively reduce the circulation of petrol and diesel-powered cars as of 2030, until their full withdrawal by 2050. Hence, this would also lead to the widespread use of non-fossil fuels at the service of urban mobility. This is an essential requirement to ensure the European Union can meet its commitments, both in terms of mobility and in relation to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. Let us remember that this pollution causes approximately 3,000 premature deaths a year in the Barcelona metropolitan area, more than 30,000 in Spain and more than 400,000 in Europe. To accomplish the objectives, priority must be given to cleaner transport systems (trams, trolleybuses, commuter railways, electric vehicles, bicycles, shared cars), getting around on foot and an urban planning designed with short distances in mind, the so-called “15-minute city”.

The mere electrification of the current fleet of vehicles does not suffice to solve all the problems. Technology is a tool, but it must be accompanied by a change in behaviour or facilitation. The different levels of government – state, regional, and local – should undertake more determined efforts to drive the model changeover from road to rail transportation, and should place particular emphasis on intermodal systems that combine walking, cycling and collective public transport. In this regard, the use of bicycles in urban areas must be encouraged and the density of bike lanes increased; public transport networks and services must be enhanced, increasing service frequency and flat fares; and, in addition, the intermodality of the different modes of transport must be guaranteed.

[1]Carolyn Daher, presentation of a course in Mobility Management, Barcelona Provincial Council 2018. 

[2] Modal share is the percentage of travellers using a particular type of transportation in a city.

Cities are – must be – the leaders of change to tackle the climate emergency, with urban planning oriented towards proximity. Superblocks are an example of a shift in the urban model to convert the public space given over to cars for decades and return it to the people and their communities. Cities such as Paris and Pontevedra are also examples thereof. The process of conversion to a city of short and accessible distances, with compact urban planning that reduces the energy needed to get us around, must also incorporate urban green spaces.

Mobility plans

Local authorities must have plausible sustainable urban mobility plans and urge the development of business relocation plans so that all organisations – public and private – incorporate mobility managers into the workplace. Mobility and business relocation plans must also be integrated into a broader strategy for sustainable territorial and urban development. The authorities must be encouraged, in the framework of these plans, to place citizens at the heart of mobility policies and offer them the opportunity to be consulted before, during and after their implementation. The plans are also a means of promoting actions conducive to the European Union’s targets for greenhouse gas emissions, noise pollution, accidents and social exclusion related to mobility.

Il·lustració © Enrique Flores © Enrique Flores

For sustainable and safe mobility to have a greater presence in cities, the speed of vehicles must be seriously reconsidered, traffic must be eased and a new 30 km/h limit must be adopted as a measure to reduce the number of road traffic deaths and injuries. In Spain, pedestrians accounted for almost 22% of deaths in traffic accidents in 2019. Out of this percentage, 65% lost their lives on urban roads. The change in the traffic regulations laid down by the Directorate-General for Traffic (DGT) is moving in the right direction by setting the maximum speed of 30 km/h on all Spanish city streets with a single lane of traffic as of 2021. Another good example is the restriction of the circulation of polluting vehicles in low emission zones (LEZ) in Barcelona, in force since early 2020 and with sanctions introduced as of 15 September on vehicles that circulate without the DGT environmental rating badge. Vitoria, Bilbao, Valencia and Seville are examples of cities that are also committed to sustainable mobility. The denialist behaviour of climate change and the damage that cars cause have no future. From this point forth, cars must lose their status as a host and become a guest in our cities, thus paving the way towards the liveable or post-car city.

The concept of sustainability in the field of urban mobility must not neglect the urban distribution of goods (UDG), currently a major factor as regards congestion and the impact on environmental quality. UDG is steadily growing and must be regulated by municipal authorities. The environmental and social costs of platforms such as Amazon, which flood our cities with vehicles, must be internalised. To this end, a fee for the use and occupation of public space in the distribution of goods must be applied. Sustainable rethinking for the last few kilometres in transporting products to their destination is a key challenge. A critically important commitment in this regard is generalising the policy of green logistics for cities, including cargo bikes, electric vans, trams and buses.

Sustainable and safe mobility is job creation

Sustainable and safe urban mobility calls for quality investments at the service of the community. A contribution can therefore be made to the European Union’s resource efficiency targets, in particular those related to a job-creating “circular economy”. In fact, available data indicate that eco-mobility contributes to job creation. The Estudio sobre la generación de empleo en el marco de una apuesta por la movilidad sostenible [Study on Job Creation in the Framework of a Commitment to Sustainable Mobility] conducted by CCOO [Trade Union Commission], points at the creation of more than 450,000 jobs in the sustainable mobility sector in a forecast from 2010 to 2020. The European Cyclists’ Federation provides more data on the different sectors that benefit from the increase in bicycle use: manufacturing, services, sales and rentals, tourism and infrastructure. The ratio between people employed in the manufacture of one million cars and one million bicycles is 1.6 people in the case of cars and 4.89 in the case of bicycles. In other words, the manufacture of bicycles generates three times more jobs than the manufacture of cars.

Many European countries still have out-dated and expensive infrastructure, which could be financed by the adoption of the Eurovignette, a toll system established for the use of certain road infrastructure applicable to heavy goods vehicles above 12 tonnes on the roads of those countries in which it is being implemented (for the time being, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Sweden). Fifty per cent of revenues from the Eurovignette can be allocated to urban mobility optimisation measures and 75% of urban tolls can be channelled into maintaining and developing urban transport infrastructures.

Other measures to foster sustainable mobility include the adoption of an appropriate legal framework (now in the consultation process in Catalonia) in cities and metropolitan areas or the development of a Community directive establishing the obligation to reduce commuting for work purposes. In Catalonia, there is an urgent need to promote an instrument to manage mobility, now fragmented between various ministries, agencies and directorates-general. This involves the creation of a sustainable and reliable Secretary of State for Mobility that establishes a mobility management strategy in line with European guidelines, on the one hand, and with Catalonia’s energy, environmental, road safety and urban planning policies, on the other. It would entail supporting cities and metropolitan areas with actions that promote public transport and eco-mobility, and thereby design plans to manage commuting to work differently, an entire issue yet to be addressed. In this regard, companies and authorities could be forced to draw up commuting plans as of 200 workers; to create a financial and tax incentive framework that promotes cycling[3] and public transport for everyday travel; to encourage car-sharing through technology platforms; and to promote teleworking, as established by the French National Assembly’s Draft Law on Mobility Orientation, passed in 2019. Initiatives such as the recent approval of the Labour Mobility Pact, driven by Barcelona City Council with business representation and major trade union organisations, indicate a new path to follow.

In short, today and in the future, urban mobility must be based on eco-mobility and cooperation networks. In the framework of the implementation of new formulae, such as the shared use of vehicles, it is of paramount importance that such practices are properly inserted in the intermodal mobility chain, along with the use of bicycles, walking, proximity-based urban planning, the creation of new models such as superblocks, green spaces and more frequent electrified public transport, thereby also generating more environmentally-friendly employment.

Cities are currently the scene of the foremost social, environmental and economic challenge posed by sustainable mobility, nonetheless yielding more than remarkable benefits for society as a whole in the short term, but above all, and with a strategic vision, in the medium and long term.

[3] French law provides incentives for bike commuting up to a maximum sum of 400 euros per year.

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