Reaching carbon neutrality and cutting EU dependence on fossil fuels won’t be possible without a sweeping transformation of mobility systems, urban leaders said at the Eurocities Mobility Forum in Antwerp.
From 16 to 18 November, local politicians, EU officials and transport experts gathered in the Belgian city to discuss visions, issues and solutions to advance sustainable transport.
With the mobility sector accounting for 32% of the total EU energy demand, building new cycling and pedestrian areas, promoting electric vehicle uptake and improving public transport would significantly help the EU to wean itself off Russian oil dependency.
For city authorities, this translates into the need to multiply current efforts within the framework of two guiding principles: achieving climate neutrality and adopting user-friendly, digital solutions that can accelerate the green transition.
As “Smart Ways to Net Zero”, this year’s Mobility Forum’s title indicates, there’s not just one way to strive for climate neutrality. Still, there can be a ‘smart’ way to do it, by connecting people and transport while promoting behavioural change.
“We want to encourage a switch in people’s mindset: from ‘My car, my freedom’ to ‘My mobility, my freedom’,” said Koen Kennis, Deputy Mayor of Antwerp. The host city is well on its way to achieving that goal after launching ‘Smart Ways to Antwerp’, a new digital and integrated mobility scheme.
On the frontline of change
Last year, the European Commission supported cities’ actions with an update to its Urban Mobility Framework and new regulations toward the green transition.
For decades, urban areas have been tailoring their pathway to sustainable mobility with various measures, from creating low-emission zones to promoting shared electric mobility, to new speed limits.
The process has been anything but smooth, with cities facing multiple challenges stemming from territorial, economic and global hurdles. At the ‘Smart Ways to Net Zero’ panel discussion on the Mobility Forum’s opening day, local officials traded ideas on how to respond to common problems.
Bologna has been focussing on public transport to offer residents a viable, convenient alternative to private cars; the plan is further strengthened by the promotion of active mobility and a wide-reaching cycling network. As part of the CIVITAS FastTrack project, the Italian city is also working to decarbonise public transport by replacing fossil fuel buses, creating a new tram line, and increasing road safety.
No wonder in April the EU selected Bologna to join the mission 100 Climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030.
Simona Larghetti, the Bologna Metropolitan area’s Mobility Delegate, emphasised how road safety is part and parcel of sustainable mobility and should be made a priority. “Sometimes we invest too much in the creation of new infrastructures whereas our efforts should also go into adapting them to human beings. Lots of people are eager to cycle and walk, but they need the right spaces to do it safely in,” Larghetti explained.
The Italian city’s representative reminded the audience about the Bologna Metropolitan area’s efforts to build a green infrastructure. ” We need an urban forest, we need trees in the city along which we can walk and cycle; we need to change the way we live in our urban environment,” Larghetti remarked.
Get residents on board
Part of local officials’ job is to propose sustainable mobility options that can convince locals to leave their cars at home. Like Bologna, Varna boasts new walking and cycling paths and a well-liked public transport system. These and other sustainable measures are changing the way residents move around the Bulgarian Black Sea port city.
“In our country, car equals status. We need to ask people to get out of their motor vehicles,” said Bilyana Raeva, the Varna representative in Brussels. Raeva explained how the Bulgarian city found an ally in grassroots citizen movements that encouraged locals to make the most of the new seaside pedestrian area. “It was a rocky journey, but we learned to find solutions together,” she added.
Elina Rantanen, the Deputy Mayor of the Finnish city of Turku, stressed how the promotion of net zero mobility goes hand in hand with improving residents’ wellbeing. “There is a clear connection between sustainable mobility and people’s health. In Turku, an increase in walking and cycling saves over 1,200 lives a year,” said Rantanen.
Rantanen highlighted how seeking residents’ involvement and approval is paramount to fostering change. “Decisions shouldn’t just come from the top,” she added.
For Robert Van Asten, the Hague’s Deputy Mayor, today’s transport revolution doesn’t need to rely on the latest innovative solutions.
“Climate-neutral mobility is possible in cities with technology that was already available in the 19th century, like walking, cycling and public transport. The train has literally connected Europe. Many European city centres are designed for pedestrians,” Van Asten said.
What future for digital mobility?
Mobility systems that rely on apps are a cornerstone of modern transport. Car-sharing, ride-hailing taxis, shared scooters and e-bikes have multiplied in recent years, enriching cities’ mobility offering.
As the sector developed, it soon became clear that a single solution was needed to connect all different online services to make them user-friendly and easy to use.
The idea inspired the Mobility as a Service (Maas) concept: connect all digital transport providers into a single platform to allow road users to plan, book and pay for their services all in one go on their phones.
Some cities like Antwerp and Milan have embarked on pioneering Maas efforts, and the European Commission has recently waded in: EU authorities are expected to issue new rules for service providers and platforms operators to encourage MaaS deployment and uptake in Europe.
But as Maas develops unevenly in cities, it is facing its own share of growing pains. Digital solutions are still to be adopted on a wide scale. Lately, some prominent MaaS operators have faced financial difficulties and announced restructuring plans.
Why is it still so difficult to promote digital mobility? Can cities’ journey to connected mobility be seamless?
At the “Towards a seamless journey experience via digitalisation” debate of the Eurocities Mobility Forum, local officials, transport and consumer experts discussed the future of Maas, weighing the pros and cons of this emerging system.
Monique Goyens, Director General of the European Consumers Organisation (BEUC), advised to steer the right course and concentrate on users. “Whatever policies municipalities roll out, it’s up to the people to decree their success. This is why we need digital systems that are user-friendly, and user-centric. That’s not always the case.”
“People want things like reliability, safety, connections, convenience, availability of seats. Mobility services need to address these needs,” Goyens explained. She also suggested to offer financial rewards to encourage users to opt for green transport options.
Antwerp, a frontrunner in digital mobility, is following this track. ‘Smart Ways to Antwerp’ relies on a multimodal mobility route planner that lists all journey options, often in combination with each other.
“We look at mobility from a user standpoint. For many, cars are still the easiest way to travel. How can we help residents to make other choices?,” Kennis said.
The Antwerp Deputy Mayor stressed that it’s paramount to converge all urban transport services into one platform: “We promote the integration of different mobility systems. We’re convinced that if citizens can rely on a single app, they can use it more easily and be more prone to change from one mobility mode to another.”
However, Annika Degen, the Europe Department Deputy Director at the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) cautioned about overstating the importance of digital mobility systems. “We need to manage expectations. The digitalisation of mobility can help consumers make better choices, but I don’t think it’s a huge step for encouraging net zero transport. The real change will happen due to actions such as infrastructural works and investments in sustainable mobility modes,” Degen remarked.
“Digitalisation is important, but it’s a lot more important to count on frequent and efficient transport services,” Mihai Chirca, the Head of EU affairs at Transdev, an international public transport operator based in France, said.
Like Degen, Chirca urged prudence and emphasised how offering reliable services should still be the priority. “Digitalisation won’t help you if there are no buses available and they don’t have enough seats for everyone,” he explained.