Cities and Transition towards Low Energy Mobility

The first paper from my research on Innovations in Urban Transport has recently been published in the open access journal Sustainability. It summarises some of the analyses on the emergence and early development of low energy innovations in the everyday mobility of two UK cities, Brighton and Oxford. In many ways these cities are ahead of the curve in transitioning towards urban mobility systems characterised by lower energy consumption and greater energy efficiency compared to systems that are strongly dominated by private car use. And the empirical analysis confirms that many innovations related to cycling, bus and rail transport, shared mobility and clean cars are developing in both cities.

The paper argues that geography matters to transition processes in various ways. Innovation trajectories with regard to low energy mobility are differentiated geographically: where Oxford has a stronger orientation towards electric mobility (hybrid buses, electric vehicle charging, a car club with electric vehicles), Brighton tends to stand out in its attempts to create a cycling friendly infrastructure and the rapid expansion of car clubs. But the analysis also shows that cities should not be seen as independent and discrete spatial units in which innovation processes unfold. This is because most of the financial resources for those innovations come from elsewhere, notably the national government but also the EU. Thus, like technology and expertise do (as the literature on policy mobilities suggests), the finance of innovations in low energy mobility ties cities into wider uneven and networked constellations that encompass cities, states and EU institutions.

From this perspective, the budget cuts that local authorities across the UK will be experiencing due to changes to national level policy are not good news: they are likely to threaten the much needed continuity in support — finance, expertise, officers’ social capital, etc. — for innovations in low energy mobility in the early stages of their development. Indeed, a discourse of localism cannot prevent that significant reductions in national funding for local transport are likely to slow down of the rate change towards lower energy consumption in everyday mobility in many UK cities.

First ‘Progress Report’ online

It has been far too long ago since I last posted a blog. But the last months have been very busy (of course, they all are, but this time …). Anyway, today is a good time to write again as the first of three ‘Progress Reports’ on the analysis of transport in geography has just been published online. I have been asked to write three of such reports for Progress in Human Geography, which is arguably the leading journal when it comes to documenting the latest developments in the discipline.

In this first review of recent work on transport in geography I argue that the resurgence of interest in geography that previous commentaries have identifies continues unabatedly, not least because transport is widely seen or constructed as critically important to economic regeneration, the reduction of global carbon emissions and energy consumption, and reducing obesity. What is more, and perhaps most distinctive of the latest work on transport in geography, many geographers who would not identify as specialists in transport or even mobilities are now examining transport in one way or another (albeit usually not as their main interest).

Has transport returned to the core of the discipline as it once — read: during the heydays of the Quantitative Revolution — was? I seriously doubt it, but it is undeniable that ‘transport’ is more significant than it has long since been. And (a substantial) part of that renewed elan is independent from Urry and Sheller’s ‘new mobilities paradigm‘ or the mobilities turn in geography and sociology. But that is a topic for a future post.

The Progress Report can be accessed here.

Do Bike Sharing Schemes Reduce Energy Consumption?

Even though they have been around for some 50 years, bike sharing schemes (BSSs) have in recent years witnessed a dramatic growth in cities in the UK, elsewhere in Europe, North America, East Asia and to some extent Latin America and Australia (for overview of the current spatial distribution, see and Recent schemes differ enormously in terms of size, governance and business models. Compare, for instance, Hangzhou‘s mammoth scheme which is initiated, provided and run by the local state with Oxford‘s recent BSS experiment with 30 bikes and 6 docking stations that has been initiated by the county council but provided and run by a private company.

Intuition would suggest that BSS help to reduce energy consumption in urban transport, but I don’t think we really know much about their energy implications, for various reasons. First, on top of the existing diversity in schemes, the growth in both the number of schemes and size of individual schemes means that the social practices in which shared bikes are enrolled and hence the energy implications are diversifying rapidly. This increases uncertainty about energy implications. Second, there is a lack of appropriate data. This claim may appear counterintuitive given that most 3G and 4G schemes are hailed for the unique data they generate. But these data suffer from similar limitations as many other ‘big data’ on transport in being extensive but also thin on actual content. They either show which bikes are docked at (many) specific moments at particular stations, or where in physical space a given bike is at particular times. At best, we can reconstruct high-resolution space-time trajectories of individual bikes, but learn little about how bikes become coupled to and enrolled in the space-time paths (time-geography) and activity/travel patterns (activity-based travel behaviour analysis) of individuals, or in social practices (practice theory). Neither do we currently know much about how the space-time trajectories of shared bikes are related to those of other, motorised modes of transport. Consequently, as far as I am aware, there is little or no robust evidence that BSS usage actually substitutes for more energy-intensive ways of moving around the city, or about the extent to which schemes generate new demand for mobility. The nascent, and often rather celebratory, academic literature on BSS usage tends to examine trip patterns in isolation from wider urban transport systems. What is known on substitution comes either from modelling studies, in which all kinds of often strong assumptions about modal choice and substitution are made, or from studies using questionnaires with general questions about mode use that often lack the required precision, validity and reliability.

That said, there are good reasons why BSSs might help reduce energy consumption. Not only are the embedded energy and greenhouse gas emissions likely to be much lower for a BSS than for a bus, light rail or car system of the same spatial extension (a life cycle analysis examining this conjecture would be useful!);  by reducing the ‘last mile’ problem of ‘egress’ transport from a public transport stop to one’s final destination, a BSS can – if integrated adequately into a multimodal transport system – increase the attractiveness of public transport for people who might otherwise be using a private vehicle. BSS usage in a city context also generates all kinds of indirect effects, which might even exceed direct modal substitution effects. Use of shared bikes for utilitarian trips, for instance by people commuting into London by train seeking to reach their final destination, may increase those people’s inclination to cycle in other situations, for instance around the home for non-work trips. Widespread use of shared bikes in cities may also increase skills and competency among a range of road users: cyclists may begin to feel more confident in using bikes in other contexts, including those where conditions (infrastructure, actions of other road users) are less conducive to cycling, and drivers of cars and goods vehicles become more attuned to sharing the road with cyclists, possibly to the extent that subconsciously reckoning with cycling at left turns and other risk traffic situations becomes second nature. This reasoning obviously is a variant of the more widely known ‘safety in numbers‘ argument.

The question of energy consumption should not only be looked at through a lens of instrumental rationality and effectiveness; issues of social justice should be considered as well. Few studies have so far examined the social distribution of benefits, but the limited work that is available suggests that white, middle-class men are most likely to regularly use a BSS (e.g. Goodman and Cheshire 2014). It would appear that BSSs do little to address inequalities in access to transport that exist in most cities. Perhaps this is not surprising if the proactive approach of many local governments regarding BSS is placed in a wider context of urban entrepreneurialism and government-led, pro-growth oriented gentrification and regeneration. Having a BSS in a city is then not merely about environmental or social sustainability (air quality, GHG emissions, redistribution) but – and perhaps primarily – about creating an environment capable of attracting the mobile capital of firms, tourists and prospective residents by offering a transport scheme that is both fast and congestion-free, and fashionable and fun. There are also opportunity costs: pouring public money into a BSS probably means that less funds are available for more socio-spatially inclusive initiatives that can promote cycling as an energy-efficient means of urban mobility, such as bike co-ops, maintenance workshops or cycling competency training. Community-led, grassroots initiatives should not be romanticised and many in UK cities are to some extent supported by councils, but it would appear that these activities have greater potential than BSSs to reach migrant communities, the elderly and the urban poor and thus to link energy efficiency aims with progressive public health and social agendas.

BSSs have potential to reduce energy consumption in urban transport, if adequately integrated in a wider multi-modal transport system and as long as they do not constitute the mainstay of cycling policy and local governments’ financial support for cycling. It is a cliché to say that more research is needed, but we really need to know much more about how BSS usage is shaping and shaped by social practices in the city, what its energy implications are, and how BSSs link in with pro-growth agendas that do little to redress the soaring inequalities in mobility, life chances and health in contemporary British cities.

Seminar on Social Theory, Transport and Energy Modelling

I will be speaking at one of the seminars organised by Rachel Aldred (University of Westminster) in the context of the ESRC-funded seminar series Modelling on the Move: Towards Transport System Transitions? on 13th September in London.

This particular event focuses on the relevance of social theory for transport and energy modelling, and my talk will offer reflections on the way transport researchers have conceptualised, understood and ‘done’ process and change over the past decades. It will problematise conventional ways in which change has been examined and argue that insights from ‘process philosophies’ can usefully inform standard practice in transport research. Process philosophies are a heterogeneous collection of philosophical thinking, including amongst others the work of authors as diverse as Henri Bergson, William James, Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour and also Alfred North Whithead. IN the presentation and accompanying paper I will be drawing on the latter and show how his philosophical ideas and metaphysics can be used to think about change in a transport research context.

More information on the seminar, including an abstract of my talk, is available here, and registration for the seminar can be done here.

Slack time?

It has been a while since I last wrote on this blog, but that doesn’t mean I have been idle over the past two months. I have just returned from a visit to Chile and more specifically the University of Concepcion, where I have worked with our great host Juan-Antonio Carrasco as well as Karen Lucas and colleagues from Ghent and Concepcion on a collaborative project about the relationships between social exclusion and transport disadvantage in different geographical contexts. This three-year project — funded by the EU’s Marie Curie programme – has been under way for quite a while now, but our visit to Concepcion has been important in taking the project to a new level. I am really excited about the empirical work with data from Chile and Belgium (and the UK at a later stage) that we have set out to undertake.

Since June the Research Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand, in which the Universities of Sussex, Manchester and Oxford collaborate and which is funded by the UK research councils (primarily the EPSRC), has officially been in existence. We are currently in the starting-up phase and our website is still under construction. However, a summary of what the Centre is about is available here. As part of the Centre we are currently developing a project about what drives the emergence and success of low-energy initiatives in energy consumption reduction in urban transport, in which we will be comparing different city-regions in the UK: Greater London, Merseyside (Liverpool), Brighton and Hove, and Oxford. The idea of the project is to more fully integrate understandings of niche developments in sociotechical transitions thinking in innovation studies with thinking on the role of space and place from economic, urban and cultural geography.

There is no doubt I will report on the development of the project and the Centre on this blog in the (near) future!

Moving towards low carbon mobility

Moving Towards Low Carbon Mobility

A few weeks ago the Moving towards Low Carbon Mobility book edited by Moshe Givoni and David Banister came out. This is a book with chapters written by researchers of the Transport Studies Unit on different dimensions of low-carbon mobility, including technology, governance, infrastructure finance and pathways to a low-carbon future.

My contribution to the book consists of a chapter that reviews the latest thinking on socio-technical transitions in transport. It covers key theories — the multi-level perspective advanced by Frank Geels and others, social practice theories advocated by Elizabeth Shove and colleagues and the complex systems approach that John Urry has elaborated over the past decade — and seeks to outline how these strands of social science research can inform thinking about how to effectuate the step change towards low carbon transport.

I have also contributed to the final chapter of the book on how transport policy should be reconfigured for a low-carbon transport future to become a more realistic prospect. Here Moshe, David, James Macmillan and myself argue that what I tend to call the ‘logic of provision’ — the idea that providing alternative, better, speedier, more fashionable, etc infrastructure is the primary means for bring about change in the transport system — and prevailing understandings of travel time as a cost to be minimised are more of a hindrance to step change than that they will really help to bring a transition about. We also begin to outline a list of guiding principles for alternative transport policy but it must be said that this is only the beginning. Much more thought needs to go into answering the question what policies should look like if they are to help to bring about fundamental change in transport.