The need for transport decarbonisation continues
As we entered 2020, the automotive world was undergoing a technology transition faster than we have seen in the last hundred years – from petrol powered to electric cars which are IT connected.
We now have the opportunity to focus on a different future. Our actions over the next three to five years can be aligned to a 20 to 30 year vision which delivers better air quality, zero net carbon emissions, healthier lifestyles, profitable industries and high quality employment.
The transport sector is pivotal to improving our environmental and economic future. If we are to deliver continuing economic growth for the UK, it will be essential to develop connected, green solutions across multiple modes of travel – from trains, planes and cars to boats, bikes and scooters.
The UK Government’s ‘Road to Zero’ strategy sets out a pathway for decarbonising transport and consultation is now underway regarding banning sales of new non-electric cars, including petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles from 2035.
This needs to happen at a time when the automotive industry is least able to invest in innovation due to the triple challenges of electrification, post-Brexit trade rules, and a sales slump. Innovation is crucial to bring sustainable technologies to the market at an affordable cost and in a way which meets all users’ needs.
Approaches to mass transit
We need to think about modal shift in a different way – mass transit in buses, trams and trains is one way to deliver low carbon transport, by using a heavy vehicle to transport many people. Another is to look again at micro-mobility - the use of smaller vehicles to transport a single person, especially for local journeys Statistics indicate that use of bicycles, e-bikes and motor bikes for instance have been significantly higher post-covid, and that some migration from public transport to private cars is likely.
What is micro-mobility?
Micro-mobility is about using smaller, lighter and more efficient vehicles to achieve short journeys. It could include hoverboards, bikes, e-bikes, scooters, mopeds, motorcycles and small four wheel vehicles (like the Renault Twizy) – technically referred to as L-Category vehicles.
For short journeys, these can be time-efficient, cost effective and very low energy consumption, reducing congestion and parking problems. These can be municipal (e.g. Boris bikes) or privately owned. Where powered, they are usually good candidates for electrification.
Cities around the world have taken very different approaches with very different results. Some (like San Francisco) could be likened to the “wild west” of scooters and bikes, with thefts, littering, dumping and road accidents – others (like Berlin) have put regulation in place and seen the benefits of that.
There are lots of key variables to consider around these new modes of transport, including elements such as age restrictions, licensing, insurance, lanes and road infrastructures, ownership and protective equipment.
Regulation in this area hasn’t kept pace with technology and acts as a barrier. Vehicles such as hoverboards and electric scooters are currently classed as motor vehicles in the UK and are therefore illegal to ride on either the road or pavement. Electric assisted bikes are classed as bicycles, although the difference between these and electric mopeds is becoming more blurred.
Adopted and applied correctly, these forms of transport could have real benefits, but played badly we could result in safety and sustainability problems similar to those in San Francisco.
The smallest examples of micro-mobility are self-balancing unicycles and hoverboards, which are small enough to carry on a bus or into the office. These are often first and last mile solutions in conjunction with public transport, but currently illegal on pavements, cycle lanes and roads in the UK. Safe use of these could, in future, provide last-mile transport, and increase public transport ridership.
Limited trials, on electric scooters, are currently being carried out for people with a provisional licence, and for rental fleets. Comparatively, France allows usage from 12 years old and use of privately owned scooters. Here, however, no infrastructure was enacted and scooters should ride in the main carriageway. Many concerns have been raised over safety.
Bikes and e-bikes should use cycle lanes where possible, but the state of these in the UK is not as good as other European countries. The surfaces are often poor, lanes are often shared with pedestrians, and often end abruptly at road junctions, Petrol or electric mopeds are restricted to 28mph and can be ridden from 16 years old in UK with a licence, basic training, insurance and a helmet. These vehicles are not allowed on cycle ways, and therefore must be on the road (not motorways). Arguably such vehicles would be safer on “cycle lanes” at speeds <20mph where the main carriageway speed is >30mph.
Petrol or electric motorcycles can be ridden from 17 years old in the UK with a licence, insurance and a helmet, and can be used on a main carriageway.
Petrol or electric quadricycles require the same licensing and insurance as a car, however the vehicle type approval requirements, especially for crash protection, are much lower.
The public response to Covid 19 has highlighted that societal behaviours can be malleable and receptive in ways that were previously unthinkable. Sales and use of bikes and e-bikes have increased. Rental e-scooter trials have been accelerated, and there are also more electric motorcycles, with many more planned for release.
If sustainability through micro-mobility is technically achievable at scale, it assumes people will continue to adapt their daily routines. This may not always be the case, and significant research is still required to understand public attitudes and behaviours. If not, we could fail to realise the benefits or worse, we could see unintended consequences such as an increase in injuries through traffic accidents. Questions like “how do I look when using this” can also have as much of an impact on uptake, as price or technical capability.
It would clearly be desirable to lock in some of the carbon and air quality benefits we saw during the early stages of lockdown. As we look at growing our “cycle lane” network we have a unique opportunity to think about how this could be used for a wider variety of low carbon transport solutions. There is a good argument that low speed, vulnerable vehicle types – such as bicycles, e-bikes etc could share a cycle lane operating at <20mph, and separated from both pedestrians and other traffic. This would create a real alternative to car usage for many journeys and reduce issues of emissions, congestion and parking.
A high quality “cycle lane” infrastructure is needed– with smooth and well-maintained surfaces, clear markings to separate pedestrians, and junction layouts with clear priorities. UK Government has released funds to support this infrastructure, and as this is an investment of money and space we will only make once, I hope that local authorities are considering the wider implications of this.
At WMG, University of Warwick we don’t just ponder these alternatives – we take our part in delivering them. Examples include:
Coventry Very Light Rail – By using a very lightweight vehicle, the Coventry Very Light Rail (VLR) project, led by Coventry City Council, can use a track system that can sit on concrete “rafts” rather than requiring expensive deep excavations which disturb services like water, electricity and sewers which sit below the city surface.
Deliver-E - Developed with Astheimer Ltd, DELIVER-E is innovating for the delivery sector. A compact, quiet, lightweight electric L-Cat delivery vehicle prototype, Deliver-E can respond to the “last mile” logistical demands of an online consumer market without damaging the environment.
Warwick Moto - Warwick Moto is a student-led project which aims to design, build and race the University's first fully-electric race-spec superbike. Besides developing the technology of the bike, this project (and many like it at WMG) develops top-quality industry-ready graduates to provide the skills for the future
Triumph TE-1 - WMG is bringing our electrification expertise and network of industrial partners to help Triumph deliver world-leading electric motorcycles in the future – and to source their components and systems from the UK.
Fit for the future: What’s next?
Now is the time to invest in the infrastructure which could make micro-mobility safe and sustainable in the UK. Timing could be everything – as attitudes are more open to changes in transport and working patterns now than they have been for decades. As local authorities look to improve their infrastructure, now is the time to deliver a system which is fit for the future.
And as far as vehicles are concerned – there remains plenty of opportunity for innovation. Cycles, scooters, mopeds, motorcycles, cars and vans are all very familiar to us – but what lies in the gaps between them could be more exciting still. We need to take care that regulation provides for safety, but does not stifle innovation in this area.
Find out more about WMG's energy research here.
Article originally published in E-Mobility Technology International here.