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Social Sustainability and Smart Mobility

Researcher Prof. Dr. Hans Jeekel from the Eindhoven University of Technology,  Eindhoven Netherlands, published an article in the Journal “Transportation Research Procedia”  regarding Social Sustainability and Smart Mobility. The article provides an up- to-date review on this issue. Here are some of the key issues.

In the Brundtland Report (1987) social issues were considered important in reaching sustainable development. However, 1987 onwards attention for these social issues lagged in the professional and in the academic world behind environmental or ecological issues and behind economic issues. In recent years, more attention is given to social sustainability. The second concept, smart mobility, is newer. Smart mobility, often used in conjunction with smart cities, is still a rather undefined concept. The concept presents the connotation of a more active orientation to mobility problems and solutions than its “elder brother”, sustainable mobility, thus yielding enthusiasm in business circles and with governments.

Social sustainability in built environment and mobility

In the years after the Brundtland Report (1987) the role of cities and urban areas in sustainable development has become more prominent. Megacities did develop, and now the majority of these cities, containing more than 10 million inhabitants, can be found in the developing world. In 2008, for the first time, more than 50 % of the world population were urban dwellers, and this will lead to a projection of almost 70 % urban dwellers in 2030. Especially in the developing world, there is a great challenge to reach sustainability in cities.

Table 1 List of factors to be considered in urban social sustainability

Holden,  Linnerud  and  Banister develop  the  concept  of  the  “sustainable transport space”. That space can be defined in four dimensions:

  • Impacts of transport activities must not threaten long-term ecological sustainability
  • Basic transport needs should be satisfied
  • Intra-generational transport equity should be promoted
  • Intergenerational transport equity should be promoted 

Social  sustainability  is  mostly  related  to  the  second  and  third  dimension.  In  the  second  dimension, affordability  of mobility  is  a  core  issue.  In  the  third-dimension  transport  equity means  that  access  to  transport  should  not  vary  systematically  across  population  groups.  Accessibility  is the  essential  issue. 

It’s mostly observed that the  now  existing mobility system in the developed  world  is  unsustainable,  as  mobility  leads  to  pollution,  creates  safety  problems  and  takes  a  big  share  of  the  world’s  energy  resources. The current mobility system in Western countries is dominated by the car and by the socio-technological “regime  of  automobility  ” .

This  system  now  expands  over  the  globe. It will be difficult to change the mobility system as the technical aspects of the transport system (vehicles, infrastructures, etc.), the organizational models (e.g. individual car ownership, car and  bike sharing, and ticketing schemes), the regulatory framework, the user habits, etc. are all co-evolving.  These  interactive  dynamics  create  path  dependencies  which  make  it  difficult  to  alter  the  overall  direction  of  the  development.  Making  the mobility  system  sustainable  would  require  a  long-term  transition  where  technical  and non-technical  developments  align  in  mutually  reinforcing  processes.” 

Other researchers, (Berger et. Al.) propose a transition model based on three lines; people can travel more  efficiently,  they  can travel differently, and they can travel less. All three lines could present innovations, however; “travel, in  particular everyday  travel,  is embedded  in  broader  routines that  help  people  organize  their daily  lives “ This means that reaching social sustainability in mobility needs to break with these routines  and habits. 

Smart Mobility

Smart mobility is a newer concept in mobility that has attracted attention in the last decade,  especially  from  enterprises  and  governments.  However,  as  yet  this  concept  has  not  completely reached the academic world. A web search visiting 14 sites gives a basic  orientation on  the content of this concept.  From the websites  of  the Technical University Eindhoven,  the following content for smart mobility arises.

  • Smart  mobility  is  about  vehicle  technology.
  • Smart  mobility  is  about  ITS,  Intelligent  Transport  Systems.  Work  is  being  done  on  connected  cars, on cooperative adaptive cruise control, on intelligent traffic management, on platooning of  trucks.
  • Smart  mobility  is  about  data.  Work  is  being  done  on  real  – time  passengers  and  travelers  information,  on  personalized  travel  assistance,  on  logistics  planning,  on  IT- systems  matching  supply  and  demand  for  mobility,  on  big  data  solutions,  often  in  relation  to  smart  city  developments, on security architectures for generated traffic data.
  • Smart  mobility  is  about  new  mobility  services.  Work  is  being  done  on  optimal  utilisation  of  existing  vehicle  and  truck  capacity,  on  ridesharing,  on  car  sharing,  on  new  biking  systems,  on  integration  of  mobility  modes,  on  using  smartphones  for  facilitating  mobility  demand  and  ticketing,  on  on- demand  ride  services,  on  the  use  of  individual  cars  as  public  transport  and  broader.

These four dimensions – vehicle technology, ITS, data, new mobility services – define the scope of smart mobility. Smart  mobility is  user- oriented,  technology  oriented,  mostly  car- oriented,  IT- oriented,  and developed world- oriented. And, quite important, smart mobility is action – oriented.

The author understands that smart mobility needs to broaden its approaches towards  sustainable  mobility  and  towards  smart  city and city as a  place- approaches,  to become an active and comprehensive strategy helping to reach sustainable development.

Exploring the relationship between social sustainability and smart mobility

Is smart mobility socially sustainable?

Vehicle technology in smart mobility is helpful in reaching greater fuel efficiency, in reaching greater safety in cars, and thus can be considered positive on health and safety.

The  data  dimension  is  on  real  – time  passengers  and  travellers  information,  on  personalized  travel  assistance, on logistics planning, on IT- systems matching supply and demand for mobility, on big data – solutions,  often in  relation  to  smart  city  developments,  on  security architectures for generated traffic data. From a viewpoint of social sustainability the central question is whether this work will remain car-based or will be broadened  to other  forms of mobility. When it remains car -based, car drivers get an advantage with respect  to  accessibility of key services. This could lead to higher car densities, and thus to the possibility of more car traffic. Certainly, in urban areas this could create health and safety problems.

There is also the perspective of far less individual car traffic, of far better use of existing car capacities, of an impetus to social cohesion. Potentially real time information and personalized travel assistance could be of great help for everybody that needs to be mobile to get access to services. Social cohesion  could win with real-time  information

The researcher points out that from this first assessment a mixed picture on the  relationship between social sustainability and smart  mobility arises. In this respect, the most important questions seem to be:

1.  Will the focus on creating technology for basically the highest car segments remain? When  yes, smart mobility will be  – certainly temporarily- “toys for the richer boys”, and the divide in  the car fleet will be broadened, with disadvantages on social equity

2.  Will  personalized  travel  information  be  offered  and  made  available  for  all  types  of  “mobilists”, or will it remain a service for car drivers only? In this last situation the buyers of this  personalized information will get an “accessibility profit”, with disadvantages on social equity 

3.  On  new  mobility  services, will  the  possibility  to  reach  far  greater  mobility  capacity  in  existing  trucks  and  cars,  via  ridesharing,  via  on  demand  ride  services,    be  picked  up,  or  even  made obligatory? When not,  this remains a nice narrative  to sell new car technologies. When  yes, we will reach a new paradigm, with cars as public transport, with less trucks on the road,  and with advantages on safety, health and social cohesion.

Some preliminary conclusions

The study concludes that from a perspective of social sustainability, smart mobility could develop along two basically different  scenarios.

The first scenario is that cars will become so attractive, with easier use, and with more advantages for  car  drivers  via  personalized  information,  that  more  cars  will  be  bought,  and  that  sprawl  will  be  encouraged. This scenario  scores  negatively  on  social  cohesion,  on  equity,  and  on  accessibility  of  key  services. Non-car drivers will get disadvantages, and  problems with scarcities in space (parking, driving  in urban areas) will grow.

The second scenario is that with new technologies, it will become easier to share cars, to utilize their full  capacity with ride sharing and on demand rides, meaning that cars can become part of the full spectrum  of  mobility  options,  with  far  less  cars  needed. This scenario  scores  negative  on  those  working  in  the transport sector, but positive on social cohesion, equity and accessibility. 

It could be expected that health and safety conditions will be better than nowadays in both scenarios,  while affordability will be at least a  temporary problem  for  the next decade, with poorer households initially not being able to buy the smarter cars. 

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