Lower emissions require unpopular decisions

Stephen Perkins analyzes mobility concepts with regard to their global impacts on climate protection targets and sustainable urban development. In this context, he is also concerned with how these concepts can be made accessible to a broad mass of people. The renowned energy and environmental scientist is the Head of Research Analysis at the International Transport Forum at the OECD. Therefore, he knows the current challenges of international transport policy and supports decision makers across the OECD countries with recommendations for action. In our interview, Perkins pleads for more courage to make unpopular decisions.

Mr. Perkins, the latest transport outlook of your organization forecasts that passenger transport will increase nearly three-fold between 2015 and 2050 and urban traffic is expected to double. This is a huge challenge for urban transport planners, isn’t it?

Yes, it reflects pent-up growth in urbanization and it takes quite a lot of time to turn around existing trends. Investment in transit and technical development of railways, metros and road modes like BRT (rapid busways) is necessary but the long-term challenge is to shift towards a more integrated development. To change the way a city is planned and organized is a challenging process, but essential.

The REACH NOW App offers multimodal transport services in numerous cities.

What does integrated development look like?

Take for example the ingrained pattern of housing subsidies on the outskirts of cities that aren’t followed up with infrastructure investments to provide alternatives to the car. Development needs to be planned instead – in an integrated way, considering housing costs and transport costs together. The idea then is to create a cheap and fast transport web, so citizens can easily reach key destinations on foot, by bike, electric micromobility*, bus or rail.

Cheap, clean and fast, that’s an ambitious goal.

Indeed. The technological improvements have been enormous in terms of electric, hybrid or hydrogen buses. However, costs to public authorities hamper the adaptation. Therefore, the speed of change in many European cities depends on the number of vehicles equipped with the latest technology they can afford today. Outside of Europe, tight budgets may mean cities often have the opinion, “We’d rather have a larger number of Euro 5 buses than the pricier and cleaner Euro 6 or 7, or than zero-emission electric and hydrogen buses”. Things won’t happen as quickly as we’d like them to but a bus bought today will be on the road for 12 years or more in many cities and we shouldn’t lock-in higher NOx and particulate emissions for relatively small savings in the short term.

How can shared mobility services contribute to channel the growing demand for individual mobility?

In terms of micro mobility, shared bike systems and electric push scooter systems actually have a big potential of accelerating a shift towards soft modes of transport. Non-motorized mobility -- cycling and walking – has the lowest impact but electric assisted micromobility greatly extends the range of accessible destinations in cities without recourse to cars, buses or trains. Outside of cities, shared motorized transport, like shared cars and vans, offers the prospect of alternatives to the private car at an affordable cost. However, these services need to be allowed to flourish and not overregulated or overtaxed. Astonishingly, we see governments introducing charges for the use of road space by these relatively environmentally friendly traffic modes, while the use of roads remains largely free for ride-hailing services or private cars. Policymakers should be consistent and adapt these kinds of charges to existing modes.

Are road charges the only option?

That’s one way to do it. And maybe a good one if you look at the mobility option of shared cars. Mathematically, they have a big potential as they could replace many solo trips, shared mobility might even halve vehicle-kilometers driven in urban areas if widely adopted. Nevertheless, you need to provide incentives to get people to share rather than just using their individual vehicle. One example is the Car Pool Lanes on motorways in the U.S. These are available to high-occupancy vehicles whereas other vehicles have to pay a fee. So-called HOT (High-Occupancy Toll) lane concepts like these provide a reasonably effective incentive to shift to car sharing. Otherwise, it will remain at the margin of the overall car demanding.

High occupancy lanes are reserved for two or more passengers.

Would road-pricing systems also be a faster way to mitigate CO₂ emission levels?

Yes, absolutely. Introducing kilometer charges that differentiate in time and space according to congestion would be ideal to take account of the demand for road space and overall travel by car. This scenario will be fully effective if it is combined with higher quality public transport systems, more integrated land-use and transport planning, and the widespread use of electric and shared vehicles. In the high-ambition scenario of our recent outlook we see urban transport CO₂ emissions fall by 45 percent by 2030 and by 76 percent by 2050 compared to 2015 levels – if policies are put in place to guide these disruptions.

How do you evaluate Daimler’s aim to support carbon-neutral driving by having electric models make up more than half of their car sales by 2030?

Obviously, the electrification has huge benefits in terms of local environmental pollutants and CO₂ emissions. Additionally, more connected vehicles also pave the way to intelligent control of eco-driving. Simulations show that with a high-ambition scenario the average level of CO₂ emissions per passenger-kilometer could drop to 17 g by 2050 across all world regions. This means that the fuel economy of an average car improves by around 75 percent compared to 2015.

Which circumstances help to promote electrification?

The reason why demand for electric vehicles grew spectacular fast across Norway is that they have a large tax on internal combustion-engine vehicles that purchasers of electric vehicles do not have to pay. Additional incentives of exemptions from road and tunnel tolls and access to bus lanes have caused that many drivers prefer electric vehicles.

Does the “System Norway” work everywhere?

It’s only one option. Policymakers have the choice to either raise the taxes on conventional vehicles or provide a subsidy for electric vehicles. A third way is to wait for the time it requires for manufacturing costs to fall and economies of large scale production to be passed on to consumers.

So, are private car users not ready for the change?

People appreciate the qualities of electric vehicles: They perform better, they have better acceleration, and they offer more space as they don’t carry such a big gearbox. Because of high levels of cost, right now mainly people at the high-income end of the spectrum are likely to choose electric vehicles. One way for companies to promote electric vehicles to a broader clientele could be a guarantee to take them back at a fixed price that is equal to the value of a used combustion-engine vehicle. There continues to be some anxiety over the driving range of electric vehicles and potential costs of replacing batteries if they do not perform as promised.

The EQC Edition 1886 on tour (EQC 400: combined power consumption: 21.3-20.2 kWh/100 km; combined CO₂ emissions: 0 g/km**)

Despite the shift towards public transport and shared mobility, your study sees CO₂ emissions in transport remain a major challenge, mainly driven by the increased demand for freight.

Urban delivery is a rapidly growing problem as e-commerce is forcing an increase in the number of movements. To counter this, consolidated shared delivery needs to be organized and financial incentives may be required to make this happen. I give you an example: When road pricing for heavy trucks was introduced in Switzerland, it caused a huge change in the way companies behave. They looked for cooperation in organizing their loading and their logistics, consolidating loads with other companies. Eventually, the introduction of the fee cut emissions by 6 percent. Governments can help to push that by working with companies on last mile solutions and foster the electrification of delivery vehicles. There is a big market for companies like Daimler.

In Switzerland, vehicles over 3.5 t gross vehicle weight must pay a toll for heavy vehicles on all roads.

With all these disruptive developments our kids will grow up with: Are you envious – or worried?

I think they will have a great time with the mobility systems of the future. With all the different micro mobility modes, they will have more choices. However, if the public authorities don’t get a handle on pollution and congestion, the cities will become worse rather than better. The unanswered questions are: How many investments can we afford to provide alternative and environment-friendly modes of transport? How do we effectively enable electric vehicles to take over rapidly and provide a much more controlled and pleasant environment without noise or pollution? There is a lot to look forward to and many cities are already doing good work. So, generally, I am very optimistic!

Stephen Perkins is the Head of the Transport Research Centre of the International Transport Forum at the OECD. His work has focused on issues of regulation, competition, investment, pricing and taxation, congestion, environmental protection and road safety. Stephen Perkins holds degrees on energy economics and environmental sciences from Imperial College and from the University of East Anglia in the UK. He is a member of the steering committee of the WCTRS (World Conference on Transport Research Society), responsible for international cooperation.

* Micromobility is a category of modes of transport that are provided by very light vehicles for example electric scooters, electric skateboards, shared bicycles and electric pedal assisted, pedelec, bicycles.

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