Study shows it's possible to end gridlock and slash emissions. But are we up for it?
Possible blueprint for Dublin in six months; Lisbon model shows 97pc traffic cut feasible
Imagine your city or town being virtually car-free, without you having to endure delays or inflexibility in choosing when and where you want to go.
It's a mad idea, isn't it? Pie in the sky? Never going to happen. Maybe. But it has been proved, technically and cogently, to be feasible. It just entails massive change across our social, political lives and perspectives.
Some people believe it will have to be done. I mean, realistically how much more can the M50 take? Dublin city centre? Galway? Big towns at peak times?
As a simple exercise in how compelling the change needs to be, take a minute next time you're stuck in gridlock and count the number of cars with one occupant. Most, I reckon.
Now imagine a system where you don't need 97pc of those single-occupancy cars in the first place because their use is shared, planned, coordinated, integrated into a mobility system. So we'd get to work, school, game, airport etc needing only a fraction of current car numbers.
Most of us don't need our cars for upwards of 20-plus hours a day anyway. They mostly sit idle.
But for a variety of reasons, including the lack of a comprehensive, joined-up public/private transport infrastructure and our own desire to come and go as we please, we cling to our motors.
To go without them means we'd have to have utter confidence in not just a radically better public transport system but greater integration of all-round mobility. Right now, we're struggling with relatively minor progress on that front, so let's be honest, it would be a massive task.
But technically it can be done. And an Irish woman has helped show how. Meet Sharon Masterson (below), from Kells, near Cahirciveen, Co Kerry, of the International Transport Forum (ITF) at the OECD. Sharon is speaking at the Electronomous car tech summit in Killarney which starts today.
I spoke with her in advance of the conference.
Her role with the ITF brings public and private-sector organisations together to make sure transport policy decisions have a strong business focus and basis.
Effectively she is responsible for showing governments how the cities of tomorrow could be planned for. The ITF is an intergovernmental organisation on a global scale. Departments of transport, including our own, are key stakeholders.
But the ITF is not a regulatory body. "We make sure the regulators are informed before they make policy decisions. It allows them to make better decisions that impact 30/40 years ahead."
The work she and her colleagues do involves copious use of data and analysis. Not so long ago they looked at Lisbon, Portugal. They modelled and channelled all the info they had.
And they found that if the model applied on the basis of their analysis could be worked in real life, the number of cars on Lisbon's roads would be reduced by 95pc. Yes 95pc.
They have subsequently refined the model and now calculate Lisbon would only need 3pc of current car numbers. The model, since extended to other cities (including Dublin), is comprehensively inclusive (smartphone-centred, car sharing/booking, vastly expanded public transport, car on demand - you name it). Critically it always envisages major inputs from business (car-share fleets, buses etc). If it worked in real life it would mean taking the same as 210 football pitches of cars off the city's roads. Lisbon, Sharon says, shows "what could be implemented".
The scenario for Dublin (commissioned by the government) will be ready in about six months (Auckland and Helsinki have been studied too). Given that Ireland will have presidency of ITF from May next and that there will be a big meeting of transport ministries in Dublin in November, the results will provide an interesting backdrop.
Without doubt such a future scenario is fascinating but I have to intrude with serious doubts. Wouldn't a 97pc cut wipe out carmakers? Not at all, Sharon says. There might be fewer cars but they would have shorter lifespans as they'd be on the go so much that their rapid turnover would ensure steady demand for new ones. "There would be a greater use of cars by operators, individual companies and others (Anything, I say, to get rid of the one-occupant car)." You'd also get latest car technologies more frequently. And that could help cut C02 emissions by 37pc. Parking areas would become drop-off zones.
The Lisbon test relied heavily on car/ride sharing, of course. "Yes it is car sharing. It can be a fleet of cars owned by operators. We already see a lot of vehicle makers investing in car-sharing or ride-sharing services. It would be up to the policy makers to decide how it is constituted." Research has found that sharing gave the best results - all combined with optimum public transport and other mobilities.
"We give governments information before they make huge infrastructural decisions. We talk a lot about decarbonising transport. We talk about engines and electric vehicles etc". But in terms of shared mobility we need to look at what we have now, she says. And that is basically starting with your smartphone and your integrated transport platform.
The ITF is not just focusing on renewable energy or engine technology but about how business models can work within the framework of a system. It is really important, she says, for policy makers to keep business stakeholders informed.
It is obvious, even to me, that future mobility has to be grounded in financial feasibility for public and private enterprise. But it is also clear that the transport sector can do a lot in reducing emissions.
"Sometimes ways of reducing carbon emissions can be simple and easy to do - eco driving for example," Sharon says. She emphasises how we need to be mindful of the potential we have today to overcome many of our problems.
One positive trend would make the likelihood of vastly reduced individual car numbers seem less of a pipe dream. "The younger generation don't regard cars as status symbols. They are not as important to them but they need to have the option." Additionally: "We conducted surveys and focus groups and when people understood what the options were they were prepared to look at them."
I mention the relevance of all this 'city talk' to rural Ireland. She agrees there are big differences in needs between urban and rural but that's where the role of the government comes into play.
Larger numbers of older people, many of them in rural areas, need to have the opportunity of mobility too. Can we let them have more freedom at reasonable cost? Maybe but who would pay for it? Are we prepared to subsidise? What business plan would work? As Sharon says it really is up to the politicians.
But she does sense "a greater focus and urgency on shared mobility and decarbonising transport" in general.
"My message is that there are a number of things we can do now that are not reliant on tomorrow's technologies.
"We can learn from each other - mistakes included." In that case we should have something of a head start.
I can't wait to see the volume of cars in Dublin and on the M50 reduced by 97pc. We'd settle for 20pc now. But can it be done? In many ways, it's up to our policy makers. Over to you, minister.
• The Electronomous 2018 summit takes place at the INEC, Killarney, Co Kerry, today and tomorrow.
Sharon Masterson will be a major contributor with more than 20 years' experience in the transport and technology sectors after working in public, private, IGO and start-up environments. She heads the Corporate Partnership Board of the International Transport Forum at the OECD. Previously she held senior management positions with blue-chip companies (Groupe Air France, Würth) in Germany, France, Ireland and Benelux.
"In terms of urban mobility, Sharon is one of the most influential figures in the business and we're thrilled that she has confirmed for Electronomous 2018," Jeff Aherne, director of event organisers Cartell.ie, says. "Sharon is responsible for creating the very cities we are going to be living in and moving around in the future, and it's going to be really interesting to hear her thoughts on what that future looks like."