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  • Two mobility revolutions transport policy has had nothing to do with – yet

    What have been the two sustainable mobility revolutions of the past decade? Of course, that is an impossible question. I am sure that if you asked 10 different people you would get 10 different answers.

    Some would say nothing much has happened. Others would say cleaner cars. Or ticketless public transport. Or high-speed rail. Or travel planning apps.

    All these are fine answers, of course; but still I would go for two different developments. Both have grown roughly 20-fold over the past decade and are genuinely new ways of getting around.

    They are e-bikes and car-sharing. E-bike sales are around 1.5 million units now, up from around 75,000 in 2005. Some eight million Europeans now own an e-bike, if you do the maths. The number of car-sharers stands at over two million, up from around 100,000 in 2005. In other words, both have gone from being niche to rather common. In progressive parts of countries like Germany and the Netherlands both are even approaching mainstream.

    Are there many attributes common to both of these revolutions? Sure. Both developments enable lower car ownership and are a cheaper, more rational and more fit-for-purpose ways of getting around. More and more people realise that buying a car and then seeing that €20,000 in value crumble just by sitting on the kerb 96 per cent of the time does not make sense.

    Both are perfect complements for intermodal journeys. If you arrive at a station and you have car-sharing and e-bikes at your disposal – as well as trams, buses, etc – you are perfectly set up, and another step away from needing to drive your car into an urban centre or even owning a car at all.

    E-bikes and car-sharing are complementary options; if you are not willing or able to have a car, an e-bike serves many needs, but a car works for long distances, heavy loads, foul weather, rural destinations, or all four. I am an avid cyclist myself and don’t like to be overtaken by an e-bike, but you have to admit that in many circumstances – heat, hills, trips greater than five kilometres – for many people it is a more feasible alternative to a car than a regular bike.

    And both booms have, I am almost sorry to say, not much to do with transport policy.

    Both come primarily from huge leaps in technology and are helped by economic and cultural trends. E-bikes have simply become much better themselves. Car-sharing has boomed also because it has become so incredibly easy to manage with a smartphone. And the more shared cars there are around, the more attractive car-sharing becomes – a virtuous circle at work. The weak economy is a factor too; most without a job cannot afford to have a car. And let’s surely not forget the cultural change; you have to be quite old, uncool, or both, to still derive status from having a car.

    So although transport policy has not done much to push both trends, can Brussels policymakers now do anything to support and accelerate them? Sure.

    For one thing, since the economies of scale of car-sharing are so important, it would be great if you could easily switch between different schemes. Sign up for one, use more, or even all. Common standards and flexible billing arrangements are surely something policymakers can help happen.

    One other, perhaps surprising, answer is pushing electrification much harder in all possible ways, including stretching CO2 standards for the car industry. Why? Because electric cars are very expensive to have, but very cheap to use. And that makes them perfect for sharing.

    Third, e-bikes are simply not on the radar in Brussels; they should be taken much more seriously in all the R&D and demonstration projects it finances, just like small non-car electric vehicles such as e-mopeds, e-scooters or Renault Twizy-like vehicles. The type approval rules for these below-car vehicles leave quite a bit to be desired too.

    Electrification is one of these rare cases in which trends in technology, energy, environment, mobility and culture can reinforce each other. It can enable lower carbon emissions and improved energy efficiency as well as more vehicle sharing and smaller vehicles.

    The Commission has an excellent opportunity to push a cross-vehicle, cross-modal electrification of transport in its forthcoming strategy for its much-vaunted ‘energy union’. It should not waste it.