We are now on the precipice of systemic change to our planetary climate system…
The near-unanimous consensus at last year’s IPCC 1.5 conference, combined with an initial wave of climate change impacts in the form of stronger hurricanes, more violent storms/floods and longer drought, demands a holistic transition of all economic sectors to a carbon-free or neutral state within the next twelve years. This series of articles examines how each sector of our society and economy impacts our overall carbon footprint, and how each in concert with the others can make the entire system more durable against the increasing impacts of climate change.
We are now and have been since the 1980s, on the precipice of systemic change to our planetary climate system, and the point at which such effects become irreversible is quickly coming into view. Preventing or mitigating such a change will require a tectonic shift in social values and cohesion, and it is the scale and speed of this shift that will determine our relative success in meeting the climate change challenge.
As a society, we look at our great historical achievements as a marker against which we measure our true worth. While the United States has had many memorable moments in history, none compare to when our country took the world stage in World War II and defeated the second most dangerous threat to mankind. At that time, climate change as the most dangerous threat was still in its infancy. That threat grew quickly with the massive industrial output of WWII and the subsequent economic boom. The next paradigm shift occurred during the 1960’s Moonshot call to action, a bold and audacious effort which ushered in an electronic technology affecting society at all levels.
A similar effort is now needed. In a December 2018 report, The President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) stated that
After interviews with dozens of senior leaders and experts and an extensive review of studies and statutes, we found that existing national plans, response resources, and coordination strategies would be outmatched by a catastrophic power outage. This profound risk requires a new national focus. Significant public and private action is needed to prepare for and recover from a catastrophic outage that could leave large parts of the nation without power for weeks or months, and cause service failures in other sectors—including water and wastewater, communications, transportation, healthcare, and financial services—that are critical to public health and safety and our national and economic security.
Each successive report and study on climate change has concluded that we must eliminate the extraction and burning of fossil fuels sooner than later, and in most cases immediately. Our world must move quickly towards a renewable energy economy via electrification of all industrial sectors. For that to happen the transition must be agile in accomplishing its goal by utilizing the most of limited resources. Eliminating transportation emissions (28% of all U.S. emissions) is a good example of a need for an agile transition.
Our Transportation System Today
At the turn of the 19th century, electric and internal combustion vehicles were on a relatively equal footing. At the time, electric vehicles actually held a number of advantages over their early-1900s competitors by not having the vibration, smell, and noise associated with gasoline cars. They also did not require gear changes and did not require manual effort to start, as did gasoline cars which featured a hand crank to start the engine. In the United States, 40 percent of automobiles were powered by steam, 38 percent by electricity, and 22 percent by gasoline. A total of 33,842 electric cars were registered in the United States, and the U.S. became the country where electric cars had gained the most acceptance.
By the 1920s, however, improved road infrastructure required vehicles with a greater range than offered by electric cars. Worldwide discoveries of large petroleum reserves also led to the wide availability of affordable gasoline, making gas-powered cars cheaper to operate over long distances. The final nail in the coffin was the construction of the Interstate Highway System (IHS) starting in 1956. One could argue that the massive capital investment required to build the IHS, originally intended for national defence purposes, demanded wide-scale deployment of long-range internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to use the infrastructure. As a result, car ownership skyrocketed, along with a culture of absolute personal autonomy.
Currently, the vast majority of Americans drive cars and light-duty trucks, the least efficient mode of transportation on a per capita basis, to get where they need to go. In 2016, cars and light trucks accounted for 63% of U.S. petroleum used, whereas medium-duty (class 3-6) and heavy-duty (class 7-8) vehicles and buses accounted for only 4% and 19% respectively. Non-highway use (air, rail, water, etc.) accounted for the remaining 14%, with rail accounting for a mere 2% of all transportation energy use. In 2016, there were 113 million cars and 133 million light trucks in the U.S., with light vehicles accounting for 90% of the 3.2 trillion vehicle miles driven in the U.S. Compounding this inefficiency is that fact that privately-owned cars mostly sit unused in driveways and parking lots except for an hour or two of actual use each day.
Shifting from Absolute Autonomy to Multi-Modal Flexibility
Clearly, this level of inefficiency is unsustainable if we are to quickly move from the internal combustion engine (ICE) to the electric motor. Not only do we need to better utilize mass transit and rely on fewer ICE vehicles, but we must also restructure society to eliminate long commutes as part of our daily life. We simply cannot replace every ICE vehicle within a short time period, so a shared mobility system utilizing fewer vehicles overall must also be part of the change.
According to most transportation experts, this solution can only be accomplished through a multi-modal mobility system utilizing a range of transportation modes from mass (rail, air, bus, ferry) to shared (EV, shuttle, bike, scooter). The basic rule of thumb: mass transit for longer distances, shared transit for the beginning and last mile(s). If designed correctly, a shared mobility system will utilize a vehicle’s full potential while still providing a relatively convenient travelling experience. Like distributed energy, the shift in focus is from the size of infrastructure to efficiently manage transportation assets so no one is left stranded.
There are, however, significant cultural hurdles. Vehicle owners are used to absolute personal autonomy (i.e., travelling whenever to wherever they please). If we are to have a successful shift to a shared mobility environment. people will need to value efficiency and the lower personal cost of NOT owning a personal vehicle over the culturally reinforced idea of “personal freedom” being equal to owning a car. This adjustment will also require people to better deal with their “stuff”. Entire lines of “personal transport products” will be needed to allow people to quickly move their belongings between different transportation modes.
The Case for Shared Mobility
So how do we convince millions of people to abandon (or better yet sell) their cars and embrace an entirely new system of transportation? The Los Angeles Dept. of Transportation (LADOT) has outlined “Core Principles for Transportation Happiness” needed to successfully deploy a shared mobility system:
- Freedom to Get Around (Accessibility). The ﬂexibility to select among safe, easy-to-understand, and universally-designed options to help me get to where I need to be in a timely manner.
- Freedom from Disruptions (Reliability). The ability to get where you need to go, when you need to go there, with seamless infrastructure and responsive services.
- Freedom from Harm (Safety and Comfort). Enjoyment of a trip, free from harassment and harm, using a safe, comfortable, and intuitive system.
- Freedom to Connect (Culture and Community). The ability to feel connected with a neighbourhood and enjoy a destination’s cultural diversity.
- Freedom from Exclusion (Equity and Transparency). Respect and empowerment of communities through transparent decision-making and clear operations, equitable investments, and avoidance of disproportionate impact.
Another way to promote shared mobility would be to compare and contrast the costs and benefits with current personal transportation. For example, to the extent shared mobility allows the individual to take their “hands off the wheel and eyes off the road,” this time can be enjoyed for a useful purpose, either in work or in personal growth. Everyone should ask themselves, “what is the quality and value of my time spent driving each day?” and incorporate that value into the benefits of shared transportation. People must also allow themselves the added time in planning their day and be secure in the knowledge that they can continue to work and play while in transit or waiting for their next ride.
The Need for a Central Mobility Scheduling Platform
The key to shared mobility success is the logistics of managing shared assets within a given space, and a critical element will be developing a central platform from which travellers can schedule their use of those assets. For example, a family seeking to travel on vacation will need to arrange their long-distance travel, transportation to/from the train depot/airport, destination housing, transportation to/from the destination, and various shared transportation while at the destination. This should all be accessible via a combination of online and phone apps which allow for changes on the fly. For commuters, a reliable sequence of shared mobility resources should be available based on the number of commuters travelling to a common destination. This will require real-time management of resources and proactive planning by transportation vendors and travellers alike. While this system will not equate with the absolute autonomy of car ownership, it opens up new freedoms for the participants: Freedom from finding a parking space, freedom from car insurance, freedom from car payments, freedom from worrying about that parked car being damaged. An experience can be delivered that is relatively stress-free while allowing for continued productivity or recreation in transit, with the lighter feeling of not having another “possession” to fret over.
There is a direct connection between housing and transportation. The lack of housing located adjacent to work exacerbates transportation congestion since people must commute long distances from outlying “affordable” areas. Development of distributed, affordable housing closer to the workplace would go a long way toward alleviating congestion and reducing stress and while also promoting the use of a shared mobility system.
Cities should require an affordable shared housing element as part of the general planning process, with the caveat that residents within these planned developments agree to participate in the shared mobility platform. Creating robust housing in locations that offer work, shopping, recreation and connection, without the massive parking requirements that go along with the one car per person model, would open up new vistas in city planning. This proposal might appeal to Millennials, who generally do not own residential property and are more open to some form of shared housing and transportation. Shared residential space (studio units with common kitchen/living room/common areas) would be developed, with the understanding that tenants would be part of a social contract to engage in the shared mobility experience. It is this form of social contract that will allow for a “shared mobility experiment” to prove its value to the larger community.
The end game for shared mobility is for users to feel that their valuable time is not “wasted”, and that shared mobility actually frees them to be more productive and stay connected while in motion. Again, this will require a social adjustment that manages expectations of all parties and allows for a more flexible lifestyle. It will also require a massive infusion of capital, similar in scale to our investment in the Interstate Highway System. Alternatively, some will ask what they will do when they want to go camping or travel to remote areas where shared infrastructure is not available. In these situations, an individual or family should have the option to rent a medium to large-duty EV (vans, RVs, etc.) and use a much less congested highway system to reach their final destination. Approached holistically with a view towards more efficient use of all transportation modes, the shared mobility experience will approach the “absolute autonomy” ideal we currently enjoy, without the burden of paying car insurance, getting oil changes, or registering your car with the DMV.
Written by Robert Perry, with editing and input from Kristy Jansen