“Without sharing, the future with autonomous vehicles will be even worse” – Mpact interviews Cathy Macharis (VUB)

(c) Cathy Macharis (c) Cathy Macharis

Cathy Macharis is a teaching professor in Sustainable Mobility and Logistics at the University of Brussels (VUB) and coordinator of the research group MOBI. Her new book entitled ‘Met een factor 8 naar de mobiliteit van de toekomst’ (With a factor 8 towards the mobility of the future) was launched last week. The title represents the next underlying message: To achieve the climate targets, emissions must be reduced by a factor 8. Macharis suggests a mobility approach based on 8 main pillars: Awareness, Avoidance, Act and shift, Anticipation of new technologies, Accelerate policy, Actor involvement, Adapt and Amor! The book is a plea for urgent but feasible change towards the mobility of the future, without pointing fingers, hysteria or pessimism.

Do you miss the major climate marches as a scientist for climate? Or do you think there is a big opportunity for the climate behind Covid-19?

“Both are a major threat for human existence, but only the Covid-19 experts are being heard, while the climate experts are still waiting to be heard. Drastic measures are being taken for corona, but the same is postponed for climate. Why can’t we get the same kind of action and commitment from politicians for the climate? Why is there a need for societal fear before something happens? After all, fear includes love for what is important to us. We should extend that love for human existence much further towards a love for nature and for everything that grows. From that love we can do something for the climate. By the way, Corona offers a great opportunity to think about the transition to a different mobility.”

In your book, you add a fourth pillar to the classic pillars of achieving a more sustainable mobility system (Avoidance, Act and shift and Anticipation of new technologies), naimly the pillar of ‘Awareness’. Did you write this book to make a statement and create awareness?

“Well of course I hope I can achieve that. I wrote the book with the motivation to pass on my knowledge to a wider audience, other than the ‘usual suspects’. I do think many people already have had a moment of realisation, especially after all the heatwaves. So the realisation is there, but perhaps there is still too little knowledge about how we can approach it now, at this moment. That is why I hope my book will help us find a way in that.”

In the chapter on ‘Act and shift’ you write: “There is still some discussion about whether or not the shared cars have a positive effect.” What is the discussion about?

“Our data clearly shows that the users of station-based shared cars are typically users of public transport. While the users of free-floating shared cars are typically young men who like to keep their options open and who also use public transport less frequently. This is the reason why I think there is still some debate about whether carsharing contributes to sustainability. This is something that should be monitored carefully.”

You mention autonomous vehicles as the last step in the mobility evolution. At the same time, it is still as unknown as the rhinoceros to Albrecht Dürer. Are self-driving vehicles the fundamentals for a sustainable mobility system?

“Autonomous vehicles have to be rolled out in a thoughtful way, which is why it is very important that we already learn how to share cars. Because if we set up self-driving cars without sharing them, we will simply have a lot more vehicle kilometers and therefore more congestion. Sharing is a very important element in the transition of mobility. If we don’t learn how to share, I mean both ride-sharing and car-sharing, then the future with autonomous vehicles will create even more problems instead of solutions. Moreover, shared autonomous vehicles must be in combination with public transport. If we’re talking about really large and longer flows, the switch to public transport should be possible. The algorithms of the self-driving cars must be set up accordingly. This is why it’s really important that autonomous vehicles are connected, shared and electric.”

Within the European project ART-Forum, Mpact is reflection on the upswing of self-driving cars in the European North Sea Region. How can the stakeholders involved prepare for this evolution?

“The public transport companies should not stay on the sidelines, and they don’t. For example, UITP (the international umbrella organisation for public transport) is fully engaged with the subject. We can’t just leave it to private players. The government must develop very clear guidelines for self-driving vehicles and meanwhile keep an eye on the combination with public transport. Public transport companies should be the driver of this subject, along with the government creating the framework. The collaboration with private stakeholders is still possible, but within a clear framework.

The government must draw up very clear guidelines for self-driving cars, you cannot just leave it to private players

“We need to consider the balance between the profitability of these vehicles for private companies and the social goals. This balance must be clear from the start. Through our Multi Actor, Multi Criteria Analysis Method, you can see what different stakeholders want and which type of autonomous vehicles are suited for them. For example, if we work with sharing systems, they must focus on sharing.”

What is the added value of autonomous vehicles?

“If we do a complete switch over to autonomous vehicles, less parking space will be needed because these vehicles will always be in movement and on the road. And when they have to charge, this can happen at charging points outside of the city, so the inside of the city gets more green space, and more space for cycling and walking. This vision would be even better if it goes along with the transition to electric vehicles. However, the main vision must remain ‘fewer cars’. I have indicated in my book that only 62.000 shared cars are needed for journeys to and from Brussels. That also means less car production, which already has a significant impact on CO2 emissions. For longer distances, autonomous vehicles in which you can sleep are already being considered.”

Transport is actually too cheap, just like food. After all, the external costs for society are not included. How do you reconcile this with social inequality and transport poverty?

“Low emission zones are often a delicate subject because they focus on the exclusion of very old cars, which are often owned by poor people. On the other hand, if we don’t act, the system remains as it is. A subscription to public transport or MaaS can be an efficient solution for those people. They will no longer have a car, but they will still have access to a lot of options. A regeneration and electrification of the fleet is needed, but that does not mean that we all have to drive an electric car now. We must go for sharing systems first.

We need to electrify the fleet, but that doesn’t mean we all have to drive an electric car now

“So yes, some measures hurt. But I’ve seen the tax calculations for the kilometer charge and a lot of people would indeed pay less. At the moment, you simply pay for the ownership and a road tax each time, whether you use the car a lot or not. So this measurement would simply be much better for people who don’t drive much by car. So the picture of the kilometer charge being bad for everyone? Not true. In addition to that, this idea also brings along behavioral change. If we want to be climate neutral by 2050, that means that you no longer can have petrol or diesel cars. In Brussels they say: in 2030 and 2035 diesel and petrol cars are no longer welcome. That is a very clear message.

“Transport poverty occurs when there are no other options, but I think that we are at a time when there are many options, and that we need to develop those options properly in combination with a strong public transport. We cannot tackle transport poverty by a continuous investment in more road infrastructure and in exemptions for car use, but by economizing on what we give to company cars and on health costs due to air pollution. Like this, simply more money will be released to develop these new options. And I also think that public transport can get a whole new lease of life, just by making sharing systems possible along train stations by developing mobihubs. This will increase the reach of public transport, especially in more remote areas.”

Covid-19 seems to create a more individual travel behaviour. Positive in terms of cycling, but negative in terms of the use of public transport. Which direction do you think it is heading?

“The figures show that we are back to the similar level of car use from before the pandemic, and in terms of use of public transport at 65%. A lot of people are still working from home, but a lot of people who used to take public transport, now use their own car again. And that is a pity, this means we are taking a step back. However, emerging studies show that public transport is not a source of infection. In countries where public transport is widely used again, the numbers of infections are not increasing. I think that fear of using public transport will disappear in the long run.”

51% of Flemish people consider car ownership as a necessity. Do you believe that we will achieve that vision of sustainable transport? Is this a hopeful book?

“Well, it is certainly meant to be a hopeful book (laughs). And I also understand those people. Flanders is a very fragmented region, actually just one big nebulous city, which makes it harder to organize public transport more efficiently. I understand that many Flemish people think: I can’t get anywhere without a car. This is why it is also important that we do something about spatial planning. We must focus on compaction and creating multifunctional neighborhoods. As a result, we may handle the problem from the core. This book is also hopeful because, despite the difficulties with public transport and the decrease of investments that it gets, I still plead and call for a strengthening of public transport. At last, I also plead for the hope to combine public transport with sharing systems in such a way that it increases the range. And it’s just that step that people should start taking, and that we should encourage, also in smaller cities and municipalities in Flanders.”

– Arne Stoffels