The Bumpy Road toward Low-Energy Urban Mobility: Case Studies from Two UK Cities

Tim Schwanen
2015 Sustainability  
Cities are increasingly seen as the places where innovations that can trigger a sociotechnical transition toward urban mobility are emerging and maturing. Processes such as peak car, rail renaissance and cycling boom manifest themselves particularly in cities, and success stories of cities experimenting with specific types of low-energy mobility abound in the academic literature. Nonetheless, innovation is known to be a precarious process requiring favorable circumstances. Using document
more » ... ing document analysis and in-depth interviews, this study examines the nature of low-energy innovation in the everyday mobility of people in two UK cities with favorable conditions for a transition away from fossil fuels-Brighton and Oxford. It shows that clear differences exist between the two cities in the sorts of innovation that emerge and diffuse as a result of path dependencies, local politics, and financial support from supra-local governments and agencies. While low-energy mobility currently has substantial momentum in both cities, the majority of low-carbon innovations in urban mobility are incremental rather than radical in nature, and their future is often imbued with uncertainty. The autonomy of small-and medium-sized cities as agents in bringing about transformational change toward low-energy urban mobility should not be overestimated. OPEN ACCESS Sustainability 2015, 7 7087 Introduction Current transport systems for people and freight are environmentally unsustainable [1] [2] [3] [4] . In 2011, transport was responsible for 23% of global energy consumption [5] and 22% of CO2 emissions [6]. Both energy consumption and emissions continue to grow due to a range of mutually reinforcing factors and processes, including a near total-94% [5]-reliance on oil; population growth; economic development; urban sprawl; the globalization of cultural ideas that tie car use and ownership to social progress, freedom and individuality; and governments' commitment to road building and investment in other infrastructures for carbon-intensive forms of mobility, such as maritime ports and airports [4, 7] . Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transport need to be reduced drastically, and the IPCC unambiguously calls for "aggressive and sustained" [4] (p. 602) measures yet also appreciates the monumentality of the challenges ahead: the growth of transport volumes in non-OECD countries and of intercontinental movements of people and goods risks cancelling out the benefits from technological advances and behavior change occurring across parts of Europe, North America and Australasia. In those regions, the growth of car use and ownership may have peaked [8, 9] and a rail renaissance, both within cities (metro, light rail) and between cities (high speed rail) [10] [11] [12] , and cycling boom [13, 14] can be witnessed. These developments seem to take place first and foremost in urban areas. Indeed, across the global North, cities lead the way in moving toward low-energy mobility-here used as shorthand for types of everyday mobility that consume less fossil fuels and emit smaller quantities of GHGs than do conventional internal combustion personal vehicles-for various reasons [15] [16] [17] : higher population densities make public transport, cycling and walking more practical and attractive compared to car use and ownership; populations are on balance relatively young, highly educated, environmentally conscious and willing to experiment with-or at least support-various forms of low-energy living; and governments are more likely to have the political, institutional and financial capacities to support low-energy mobility initiatives and experiments than are their suburban and rural counterparts. Whilst encouraging, the currently observable gradual shifts across the global North are unlikely to be sufficient if transport's contribution to anthropogenic climate change is to be minimized. Across academics from various disciplinary backgrounds a consensus appears to be emerging around two key ideas. The first of these revolves around the need for systemic change, whereby prevailing systems of mobility-i.e., not only (vehicle) technologies, physical infrastructures and user practices, but also the cultural meanings associated with various forms of movement, markets, maintenance and repair, forms of regulation and policy making, and formal expertise about transport [18]-become durably reconfigured. The second is that such change can be triggered by the diffusion of one or more low-energy innovations-new technologies, institutional arrangements or user practices that differ to greater or lesser extent from prevailing mobility systems; examples include IT-supported mobility services (e.g., car/bike sharing), bio-fueled buses and smartcard-based integrated ticketing systems. In accordance with these views, a literature on innovations in transport is emerging [19, 20] , most of which is informed by the theoretical perspectives of strategic niche management (SNM) [21] [22] [23] and the multi-level perspective (MLP) [18, 20, 24, 25] , although a range of studies have also drawn on cultural approaches like practice theory [26] [27] [28] and the energy cultures framework [29, 30] . The theoretical lens of SNM/MLP is particularly useful because of its comprehensive system orientation but also tends to privilege the temporal over the spatial dimensions of systemic change.
doi:10.3390/su7067086 fatcat:ho7xr7endvcbdcy2h4lulo4xte