Sylvie Landriève, co-director of the Mobile Lives Forum.
Christophe Gay, founder and co-director of the Mobile Lives Forum.
People properly began travelling on a wide-scale basis in the 20th century, with the democratization of fast forms of transport. First came the train, which increased average journey speeds by a factor of over 20, compared to the previous century. Then came the automobile and the aeroplane. Two centuries ago, people typically travelled four kilometres (2.5 mi) a day in France. Today, it’s 60 kilometres (37 mi). That’s 15 times more. What’s most surprising is that the amount of time we spend on routine journeys has remained similar. In other words, the speed offered by new transport modes hasn’t saved us any time, it simply lets us go further. The result? Our activities are spread further apart. This is true for everyday mobility: work, shopping, entertainment, etc. It’s also true for weekend leisure pursuits and vacations. We often travel long distances for just a short stay.
With the car, we’ve gone from exhilaration to dependency. Today, the private car is ubiquitous in countries like France. So much so that it accounts for 70% of all miles travelled every year. 7 out of 10 people drive to work, most of them on their own. Our geographies, activities and pace of life have been organized around car use to such an extent we’ve become dependent.
Yet, speed is harmful in many ways. societies are extremely unequal when it comes to mobility. People living in some places are much more reliant than others on the car and speed, especially in outlying suburbs and rural areas. Second, the transport sector generates huge amounts of CO2 (almost 30% of emissions in France) and cars alone account for 15% of the country’s emissions. Third, the ever faster pace of mobility contributes to our poor health. Negative factors include sedentary lifestyles — since travel got faster we’ve never been so physically inactive — not to mention local pollution, noise, fatigue and stress.
So, what’s the answer? Our research at the Mobile Lives Forum shows we can’t reduce our carbon footprint while continuing to move around so fast. Political leaders have been making the environmental case for several decades but with few tangible results because the focus is always on technology as the way forward. Electric and self-driving vehicles are symbols of the hope manufacturers and authorities continue to place in technology. But it’s not working for two reasons. First, the carbon footprint over the lifecycle of these vehicles is mixed at best. And second, conventional vehicles aren’t being replaced fast enough. Ultimately, the CO2 emissions curve continues to follow the increase in miles travelled. Obviously, restricting private car use without offering a viable alternative would be detrimental for the people most reliant on their cars today — as evidenced by the Yellow Vests crisis in France.
Aspirations could accelerate the transition, if heard. Many people aspire to a less-frenetic pace of life, wanting to live more locally. Our survey of future aspirations shows that 8 out of 10 want a slower pace of daily life and 80% want to work within 30 minutes of home and 50% directly in their neighbourhood. Many also want to leave the major cities, where travel times are skyrocketing, with Paris leading this trend.
If we take aspirations and environmental issues seriously, we need to end our reliance on speed and individual, high-CO2 modes of transport. To achieve this, we must and can offer a real alternative to the private car. And we must do so now, with a “supply shock” in the form of better, more regular public transport, networks dedicated to active modes (walking, cycling, etc.) and a new industry policy for small, light, low-CO2 vehicles for those who simply can’t do without them.
At the same time, we need to rethink regional planning so we can live our daily lives more locally. This includes a progressive shift that brings routine activities, services and facilities closer to where we live. It also means more people working locally and from home. And with it, the growth of the local residential economy: grocery retailers, cafes, bars and restaurants, sports and leisure activities, and so on. Depending on whether you walk, cycle or use an electric vehicle or public transport, you must be able to access these vital daily services and facilities within a radius of two to fifteen kilometres (1.25 to 10 miles), irrespective of whether you live in a rural village, town, larger city or major regional centre. It also means putting an end to the “race for size” by many of today’s metropolises. For all, daily travel will be less hurried, the distances shorter and our reliance on fossil-powered forms of transport much reduced.