One positive to come out of coronavirus self-isolation measures is the reduction in pollution across many major cities, writes Nicolas Andine, Co-CEO at Karhoo.
According to the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, particle pollution has dropped by almost half in London, Bristol and Cardiff since the 15th February. However, while total pollution levels could drop by up to 10-20 per cent according to Pierre Friedlingstein, a climate expert at the University of Exeter, it would be “a small dent if emissions go back to pre-COVID-19 crisis levels in 2021.”
Before the coronavirus outbreak, transport as a whole accounted for a third of the UK total emissions according to the government’s latest figures. When people take to the roads once again, we need to be focused on keeping emissions in decline. The only way to do this is by thinking about travel in a more sustainable way once the status quo returns.
Breaking Old Habits
In an attempt to reduce emissions, the UK government is allocating £90 million in funding towards testing new green technologies as part of a “transport revolution”, with the final plan to become carbon neutral by 2050 coming this autumn. This will involve deploying new technologies such as e-scooters and electric cars, drones designed to deliver medical supplies in Portsmouth and Southampton, and self-driving cars to transport people between Bristol airport and Bath. However, while testing out emerging technology is an exciting step forward, the real change needs to start by reducing the environmental impact of the vehicles on the roads today.
The government consultation mentions plans for some towns to create “mobility hubs” and booking platforms to help travellers to choose between eco-friendly public transport options. However, there is very little on how to increase efficiency in existing vehicles and reduce the number of taxis and buses without passengers on the road. This needs to be a priority for the government when it comes to sustainability. Last year alone, Uber drivers in London, Nottingham and Glasgow had passengers on board for just 42 per cent of the time, spending the rest of the time cruising for work or driving to pick up a passenger.
No one is expecting drivers to change their vehicles overnight, but there are things the UK can do now to help make fleets more efficient, optimising existing assets instead of adding more vehicles to the road.
Is That Seat Taken?
While trials of new, more environmentally friendly modes of transport are essential to improving sustainability in the long term, there are already effective solutions available that can make transport more efficient today. Carpooling or ride-sharing has huge potential to reduce road emissions. A recent study from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that a pooled and electric ride reduces emissions by up to 70 per cent compared to a private car. BMW Daimler research found that one shared vehicle could replace eight private cars.
What’s more, a shared ride results in savings for each passenger and a more valuable ride for the driver. Each passenger splits a one-off trip cost instead of paying per car and the driver gets the maximum value from his time. It’s a win-win for consumer wallets, driver livelihood and sustainable travel, and needs to be factored into the government’s plans to overhaul UK transport and reduce emissions.
Established Technology can Drive Efficiency
If the government wishes to improve mobility and sustainability at the same time, it needs to be driving efficiency across all areas of existing transport. This is where demand responsive transport (DRT) becomes essential, ensuring minimal gaps between service and allocating rides based on the area’s needs to reduce wasted miles. The government is already considering DRT services to help create bus services for a handful of towns, setting aside £20m to trial on-demand bus services in rural and suburban areas. This is a positive first step, but the government needs to ensure that taxis and private hire vehicles aren’t left behind if it wants to maximise efficiency on the roads and reduce emissions in the most effective way possible.
This means taking the same measures across buses, trains, taxis and private hire vehicles when building mobility offerings for towns, cities and even rural areas. By bringing multiple operators together and sharing the data between them, journeys can be calculated to give customers the optimal route in terms of journey time but also environmental impact, offering sustainable choices such as electric vehicle ride-sharing. Spanish rail operator Renfe has led the way in the private sector here, creating a Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) platform that integrates various modes of public and private transport in the hope of providing a better experience to customers and giving them the most efficient way to travel.
What’s more, the government should be working with mobility and e-hailing providers to calculate the most efficient routes. The insights gained from multiple fleets on city streets provide the foundation for efficient routing; re-routing; real-time traffic; vehicle tracking and multi-modal routing. Multiple people and multiple pickups along an ever-changing route – the fundamentals of ride-sharing – are absorbed by the model without a problem.
A Long-term Solution
All available evidence points to the growth of the ride-sharing sector when the lockdown is lifted, and it’s only forecast to continue its expansion – revenue is set to grow from $74bn to $120bn globally by 2025. You can point to the emergence of aggregators like Bellhop and Guru – which provide fare comparison for ride-sharing services across the world as a sign of the direction of travel. This growth outstrips even that of e-hailing, as it is set to become a vital part of every travellers’ journey over the coming years. As such, the government needs to keep ride-sharing in mind when planning the future travel infrastructure for the UK if it wants to see emissions stay low once regular travel resumes.
Most importantly, in terms of getting private sector buy-in and support, ride-sharing makes financial sense as well as being an environmental necessity, helping the government to put more into green initiatives and reduce pollution levels. Ride-sharing will place itself at the heart of urban mobility in the coming decade, but putting nationwide plans in place now is vital to make sure it has enough of an impact to reduce emissions permanently.