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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

What A Cobbler Taught Me About Mobility

When I moved to Germany from Detroit, over 10 years ago, I was excited to step into a society steeped in centuries of history. But when I heard the question “have you found a good cobbler yet?” it felt like I had somehow ended up in the pages of a Victorian era novel.

Fast-forward 3 months and this seemingly strange question finally made sense. In my first winter in Munich I walked so much that, for the first time, my daily commute had resulted in me walking right through the soles of my shoes. A situation I never experienced in my last 44 years of life. While this may seem trivial, it highlights an important fact about Europe’s multi-modal transport system. In Germany, walking is an important mode of transportation and, thus, part of many people’s commute.

Combine this with the robust public transport system with its ramified subway, streetcar and bus networks, the biking infrastructure, car sharing services and micro-mobility fleets – the options to get around can almost be overwhelming. This is a stark contrast to North America where, in many regions, driving is the only realistic way to commute outside of city centers.

After a few years in Germany, it has become abundantly clear that one of the biggest differences in terms of transport lies in the infrastructure. Here, it is a highly integrated system equipped to support a wide range of transportation modes in- and outside of the cities. Around 30% of the population use public transit for daily commuting, with a further 29% taking advantage of biking infrastructure, car-sharing, and micro-mobility options. Back home in North America, upwards of 76% of the population still make their commute alone in a personal car. Therefore, providing reliable, convenient, and comfortable alternatives to the passenger car is an important step in developing a more sustainable and functional transport system.

But perhaps there are still some skeptics out there, who ask if walking along with the other alternatives are really needed and if so, why. One reason is that at present, road transport contributes roughly 75% of the CO2 emissions within the mobility sector. In addition, travel (miles or km) within our cities is expected to triple by 2050. With those figures in mind, a transition towards a more sustainable mobility system is paramount to ensuring we can maintain our existing quality of life.

A major part of facilitating this transition lies in changing deeply rooted habits. Most of us, on both sides of the pond, have long been sold the story that driving a personal car is the most convenient mode of transportation for most trips, and in many cases, it is still true today. The car is king. We can drive where and when we want, it is flexible, and allows for privacy.

But can we design a future multi-modal mobility system that is more integrated, sustainable, and ultimately convenient for the end user? And if so, what are some of the characteristics of how this transition is being shaped on both sides of the Atlantic? Perhaps we can take this opportunity to learn from each other as we work to accelerate this journey.

The good news is that it is predicted that we will see more disruption in the field of mobility in the next 10 years, than we did in the previous 100 years. Mobility continues to develop at a dizzying pace, fueled by technological breakthroughs – related to autonomous driving, connected car, and of course electric mobility. At the same time there is a growing awareness of the climate crisis and behavioral changes which includes the propensity toward sharing models. Together with these technology and societal trends, we see new opportunities for innovations to take hold.

Thankfully, America finds itself in a great position to be at the forefront of this disruption. The US happens to have far fewer regulatory barriers to quickly bring new innovations to market than you see in Europe – meaning there is the ability to design and test new solutions under real-life conditions. Companies such as Uber
UBER
and Tesla
TSLA
were able to scale up quickly thanks to a swath of real-world data, allowing them to fine tune and optimize algorithms on the go. This approach has an inherent advantage and supports the push toward a mobility transition.

At the same time, we see partnerships between the OEMs, as well as new players joining the field – who are challenging the traditional players and taking a piece of the mobility pie. Partnerships such as those between VW Group and Ford or Daimler and BMW illustrate the need to solve today’s mobility challenges together. I spent over 20 years at Ford, BMW, and Porsche and during that time it was always the OEMs who were the relevant competition – but this has now changed. And mobility start-ups such as Waymo, established tech giants like Apple, and many others have secured their role in the mobility transition.

But, in addition to innovative technology and a new set of ‘playing rules’ it is important to consider the role that regulations and policy can play. In this regard it is worth casting a glance at how the European Union has prioritized sustainable mobility: by 2021, passenger car fleets must have an average of < 95 g CO2/km. As a result, the automakers in Europe have responded. The major OEMs alone have already announced the launch of 500 new EV models and forecast 25 million cars sold by 2025.

COVID-19 is of course impacting the mobility transition in a major way, but in my opinion, for the better. For instance, to stimulate car sales after the economic meltdown in the second quarter, the German government introduced an “innovation bonus” which doubled the rebates for the purchase of full electric vehicles to up to 9,000€ while cars with combustion engines were explicitly excluded from incentivization. Furthermore, more than 68 cities around the world have announced initiatives for the long-term redesign of the inner-city infrastructure in favor of bike and pedestrian lanes. One particularly ambitious example is the “Plan Velo” from Mayor Anne Hidalgo of Paris. With this plan she has committed to create bike lanes on every street – amounting to over 6,000 streets and 1,700 km in Paris. Cities should take Paris as an example of the level of ambition and coordination necessary to make truly meaningful progress in this transition. This city-wide initiative is sure to play an important role in decreasing car congestion while offering a more integrated transport system.

The benefits of such an integration into the transport system can perhaps best be understood by going back to my story about the cobbler. One could say that this issue was the result of an over reliance on walking as part of my daily commute. Overall, this is a minor issue, a new set of soles is not going to break the bank. But let’s extrapolate this over reliance onto other modes of transport. Last year alone, the burning of fossil fuels to support America’s transport sector resulted in 1,546 million metric tons of CO2. Could we categorize this as the result of an over reliance on internal combustion engines and fossil fuels?

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced the decision to ban the sale of ICE vehicles by 2035. While much of the slack will undoubtedly be picked up by EVs, it also opens up the opportunity for new solutions to enter the fray. In banning internal combustion engines, California is taking a strong regulatory approach to end its over reliance on fossil fuels in its transport mix. In Europe, the impacts of the strict regulations are showing in the numbers. While the sales of diesel and petrol cars fell by more than half in Q2 this year, at the same time, sales of electric vehicles rose by 53.3% to reach a market share of 7,2% – up from 2,4% in Q2, 2019! This can be looked at as an important step in the overall transition we now find ourselves in and is something we should be aiming for globally.

COVID-19 will also serve as a catalyst to push further integration. Road transport has been reduced between 50-75% depending on the approach and length of lockdown. A trend we see as a result is hyperlocal mobility. It is expected that travel will resume, but perhaps when it does it is in a more sustainable way.

As next steps, we need to include everyone at the table – cities, states, citizens, start-ups, and corporates to actively engage in how we shall shape the future of mobility. We should discuss options in which to make walking, biking, sharing, and public transport more comfortable and convenient as compared to the passenger car. We also need to get serious about figuring out what role regulations and policy shall play. Either way, in the end, if we are successful at doing that – we may all need to find a cobbler!

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