How smart mobility can lead to healthier cities

By Margaux Cervatius - 08 March 2021

In Europe, transportation is the main source of carbon emissions. It accounts for 27% of total emissions in the European Union and 45% of these emissions come from cars. Increasing awareness of the environmental impact of transportation has prompted governments to accelerate the transition to smart mobility. The European Green Deal aims at reducing the emissions of the transport sector by 90% by 2050. In France, the Mobility Orientation Act has the ambition to make day-to-day mobility easier, cheaper and greener.

In response to these government initiatives and increased climate change awareness, an innovative smart mobility ecosystem has emerged. Indeed, smart mobility can bring solutions to environmental and health issues commonly cause by the sector.

Fighting air and noise pollution

Apart from a handful of die-hard climate sceptics, it is now widely accepted that transport has a harmful impact on the environment. Transportation – road, rail, air, and sea – is responsible for a quarter of the EU’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It is also the only sector whose emissions have increased steadily since 1990.

Road transport remains the main contributor to these emissions, at 77%. In France, it emitted 121 million metric tons of CO2 in 2018. In the UK in 2017, that number was at 118 million metric tons of CO2.

shanghai smog air pollution
The city of Shanghai covered in smog 

A public health issue

These GHG emissions affect the environment, but also human health. Fine particles cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Air pollution is estimated to be responsible for nearly 800,000 deaths per year in Europe and 8.8 million worldwide. In 2019, in France, one death in 1,000 was attributable in part to poor air quality. In the United Kingdom, in December 2020, a coroner ruled for the first time that air pollution was the direct cause of a death.

Researchers have recently studied premature deaths due to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). According to this study, reducing air pollution to the levels recommended by the WHO would prevent 51,213 deaths per year in European cities.

In addition, a recent study suggests that fine particles of natural or anthropogenic origin may carry viruses, including SARS-CoV-2. Researchers have observed several cases demonstrating a correlation between pollution peaks and a sudden outbreak of Covid-19.

Finally, noise pollution also impacts human health. It is estimated that one in four Europeans is exposed to noise levels above 55 decibels on average due to road traffic. This noise pollution is suspected to result in sleep disorders for 8 million Europeans, 43,000 hospital admissions and at least 10,000 premature deaths.

Towards greener modes of transport

In order to protect the environment and public health, public authorities are seeking to deploy cleaner means of transportation. Many countries want to eventually ban internal combustion vehicles. In France, the National Assembly has voted to end the commercialisation of vehicles powered by gasoline, diesel or natural gas in 2040.

The end of fossil fuels?

Scientists have developed biofuels to reduce the use of fossil fuels. These biofuels are produced from biomass (wood, cereals, agricultural waste, etc.). They are still often mixed with gasoline or diesel. But in the long term, experts would like to develop entirely synthetic fuels.

Hydrogen can also be an alternative to fossil fuels. More and more players are looking to use hydrogen-powered vehicles (preferably green, i.e. produced using electrolysis and renewable energies). Transport for London announced in 2019 that it had ordered twenty hydrogen-powered double-decker buses. These buses will be added to the city’s fleet of low-emission buses (hybrid, electric and hydrogen buses).

Finally, electric cars emit neither CO2 nor particles when driving. They can also be charged using green energy. In 2020, more than one million 100% electric cars were sold in Western Europe, including nearly 150,000 in France. This represents 10.3% of new car sales in France.

Shared mobility

Electric cars are good, but we could go one step further. Indeed, individual cars could easily be replaced by shared mobility solutions. Indeed, 50% of trips made in France are short (less than 5 km) and within a city. Similarly in the UK, 42% of trips are 2 miles long or shorter (3 km). Then free floating bikes and scooters represent a more sustainable alternative for most urban trips.

In fact, the electric scooter market increased by 105% in 2019. This trend is expected to continue in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Commuters are avoiding public transportation and prefer using scooters or bicycles. According to Cenex, the use of electric scooters for the last and first kilometre of a trip could reduce CO2 emissions by 66 to 90%. Moreover, choosing cycling could save 650 kg of CO2 per person per year, according to ADEME, the French environmental and energy management agency.

Adapting territories to smart mobility

However, these new forms of mobility require appropriate infrastructure. In order to encourage the use of bicycles or scooters, cities must build new infrastructures or adapt existing ones with:

  • cycling lanes,
  • bicycle garages near train stations, 
  • specific parking zones for electric scooters… 

Moreover, smart mobility will not be able to grow without a network of charging points spread throughout the territory. The French government is aiming for 100,000 charging points open to the public by the end of 2021, three times as many as in 2020.

Startups can help develop large-scale networks. Many of them are developing charging point management solutions, like Freshmile. Another example is the German startup GreenPack, rated by Early Metrics, which rents batteries for electric scooters or light vehicles. Using a mobile app, drivers can locate nearby charging stations, reserve a battery and go change it in less than a minute.

GreenPack’s battery charging and exchange stations (Source: Swobbee)

New technologies increasing the efficiency of urban mobility

Smart mobility players are also developing MaaS (Mobility as a service) tools that aim to make access to transport more efficient and flexible. This helps reduce traffic jams, delays and accidents.

According to a 2019 survey on daily commutes, 64% of French people use a single mode of transportation for the majority of their trips, which is the car in 82% of cases. MaaS solutions can help promote the intermodality of urban travel. For example, Nextérité, a startup rated by Early Metrics, develops the ViaFacil app, which calculates optimal multimodal routes (public transport, car, bicycle, walking…). It also provides real-time information on traffic and environmental conditions based on official and collaborative data.

Traffic jams are a major cause of pollution. In Paris, a motorist spends an average of 163 hours a year in traffic jams for a daily 30-minute trip. Software tools coupled with connected cameras or sensors can analyse mobility flows to improve them. Drivers have access to real-time information on a mobile app so that they can optimise their journey.

Cities are also deploying smart digital signage to inform users in real time. For example, dynamic signs can guide drivers towards free parking spaces to avoid traffic jams.

Finally, several platforms have emerged to facilitate carpooling in order to reduce the number of cars on the road. Klaxit, which ranks in the top 10% of startups rated by Early Metrics, is developing a platform for short-distance work-home carpooling. Thanks to the app, an employee can easily find a colleague making the same daily commute.

Rethinking mobility

Smart mobility relies on access to clean transportation modes and efficient urban infrastructure. Smart mobility startups play a key role in enabling the reduction of road traffic, and thus GHG emissions and noise pollution in cities. These innovative players can help cities achieve the environmental objectives set by the EU. These objectives are all the more important as the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed public authorities, companies and users to rethink mobility. Together, they want to build a new model, one that is healthier and more environmentally friendly.  

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