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Future of Personal Mobility

Overview of Personal Mobility 

When discussing the sustainability of personal mobility vehicles, the conversation generally revolves around electric vehicles. Battery-powered cars that run on renewable sources of electricity are so common, that the image of an environmentalist driving their Prius is almost cliche. The reality is that even the pick-up truck, an American icon, is going electric. With 237 million registered cars in the United States alone, it’s no wonder market trends have mostly focused on personal mobility vehicles. However, there’s more to the topic than just Tesla and innovation attempts by legacy automakers. 

Mobility is a complex topic that goes beyond cars. Viable alternatives to vehicles powered by internal combustion engines are currently on the market and many more are getting ready to be introduced. Car sharing initiatives, bike and scooter rental options, efficient public transportation systems, and smart technology to regulate traffic flows are key components to achieving sustainable personal mobility. 

In this article, the term personal mobility vehicle refers to the transportation options that allow individuals to move freely. We will focus on sustainability developments for private vehicles, shared vehicles, and regional public transportation. For long-distance mobility, such as trains and airplanes, please check out Part 2. 

Urban Mobility

The effects of an unsustainable transportation system can be most clearly seen in urban areas where congestion, air pollution, and population density are particularly severe. The United Nations predicts that by 2050, 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. The average driver in Los Angeles, USA spends 102 hours stuck in traffic every year, which accounts for a 19bn USD loss in productivity. Promoting sustainable transportation is important for both the environment and improving our quality of life. 

As our population grows and becomes increasingly urban, cities hold the biggest potential for a shift to sustainable mobility. To address these challenges, particular attention must be put towards developing efficient public transportation infrastructure, promoting car sharing, increasing availability of rentable bikes and scooters, and modifying roads to be more pedestrian and cyclist-friendly. 

Car sharing schemes 

Car sharing has an important role to play in reducing the overall amount of vehicles on the road and increasing accessibility. Car sharing and short term rentals lower the environmental impact of cars by reducing the number of vehicles required to meet demand. Fewer cars being manufactured means fewer resources extracted and reduced manufacturing emissions. Additionally, fewer cars on the road makes it easier to keep up with advancements in technology since not as many cars need to be modified.

Car sharing schemes also distribute the financial burden of adapting to electric vehicles. Instead of buying a sustainable vehicle and having to keep up with evolving technologies. Car share companies are more readily equipped to supply and update their fleet with earth-friendly vehicles. Car-sharing companies could also consider collaborating with car producers to create modal-design in which motors can be replaced as technologies improve without having to replace the whole car. 

Bike and scooter rentals 

Bike and scooter rentals are particularly conducive to the realities of urban density. Having things in close proximity makes it easier for individuals to take advantage of smaller vehicles to get around. Bikes and scooters are easily powered through renewable electricity, reduce traffic congestion, and contribute to a well-rounded urban transportation system.  

Many cities around the world have successfully introduced electric bike and scooter rentals to reduce traffic. With relatively minimal changes to road design, bike lanes can be incorporated to facilitate the use of these sustainable personal mobility devices. In urban areas, these on-demand rentals provide a complementary alternative that works well alongside public transportation.  

Public Transportation 

Urban areas are uniquely positioned to increase the efficiency and usability of public transportation systems as a strategic way to reduce carbon emissions. Investing in electric vehicles for public transportation means that the burden doesn’t fall on the private consumer to buy into sustainable options. By simply taking advantage of their city’s public transport, users can travel sustainably at a low cost while using the time to read or catch up on work. 

Public transport is an affordable and popular way to get around, especially if it’s convenient and doesn’t significantly increase travel time. A report by the Mobility in Cities Database showed that when door-to-door speeds are relatively similar between private and public transportation options, users were more likely to opt for public transportation. The high density of urban areas means that public transport is a good transportation option. Bus routes can easily be modified to accommodate commuter needs and trains and metros allow passengers to avoid traffic altogether. 

Cities can promote the use of public transportation by integrating door-to-door mobility information (such as apps which tell you the best routes for getting from your door to exactly where you want to go), managing traffic with smart technologies, and better understanding the mobility needs of their users. Increasing the number of public transportation users, by making public transport more convenient, enables public transportation companies to upgrade to electric vehicles that drastically reduce their operating costs and appeal to earth-conscious consumers. 

Making public transportation vehicles carbon-neutral will not make all mobility sustainable. It does, however, have a significant impact on carbon emissions just by reducing the amount of vehicles on the road and reduces pressure on transitioning over-one billion cars on the road

Transitioning to Sustainable Mobility  

From a sustainability standpoint, we need a comprehensive approach that recognizes the realities of transitioning away from fossil-fuel powered vehicles. What will happen to the millions of cars that are currently on the road? If we wait until the end of their technical life, we would have to continue burning fossil fuels to power them for decades to come. We don’t have that kind of time to wait for sustainable transportation, the United Nations has suggested we only have 12 years to drastically reduce our emissions. 

For a small percentage of vehicles on the road, we could consider using biofuels made from organic matter (like corn and soy) instead of petroleum. Producing sufficient crops to convert into enough biofuel to supply the world’s needs, however, would devastate biodiversity, destroy ecosystems, and increase food prices. Additionally, crops would have to be grown using regenerative methods to avoid negative environmental effects of large-scale monoculture farms. Biofuels is a small scale alternative, viable for people who for example, convert their used cooking oil into fuel or by diverting agricultural byproducts such as corn husks. On a larger scale, producing biofuels would be environmentally problematic. 

Circularity is the biggest opportunity to address the transition. A “cash for clunkers“ system on steroids that retrofits existing cars with new battery technology and avoids rare materials. This may not be as sexy as introducing completely new models, but it could be the solution that brings auto-mobility into a sustainable future. Mass retrofitting also helps the transition because it creates an immediate need for national charging infrastructure. Enabling the mass transition to renewable energy allows for battery-powered vehicles to support the large scale infrastructure necessary for a functional electrified transportation system. It’s a bit of a chicken or the egg situation, in which both aspects of the transition rely on each other to be successful. A well-coordinated transition would facilitate a smooth change to sustainable personal transportation. 

Successfully transitioning to electric auto-mobility also demands thoughtful action on redirecting human capabilities and enabling the necessary infrastructure. The prospect of vehicles being able to recharge while parked, rather than needing dedicated recharging space also opens up opportunities to think differently about urban planning. For example, old gas stations could be repurposed as community spaces in which people previously employed in positions dependent on fossil fuels are taught the technical skills for a greener economy.  

Conclusion 

Investing in decarbonizing personal mobility options is essential for ensuring a sustainable and livable world. It allows us to re-imagine transportation and how we can make it a more enjoyable experience for users. To make personal mobility sustainable, we must take a comprehensive approach that not only considers cars but also involves a wide range of common-use, on-demand, and public transportation options. By diversifying solutions, we can leverage the strengths of each transportation system to gradually build electric generation capacity, smart grids, and energy storage.