#1: Mobility should revolve around people, not the mode of transport
What we still see today is an unbalanced distribution of space and environmental impact VS effectiveness of modes. In other words, the large & polluting modes of transport still dominate and claim the public space. In the graph below of the Sensible Transport Institute, you can see exactly the m² occupancy and CO2 impact of each mode.
The car is still king in Belgium and it is deeply woven into our cultural fabric. It will take time, effort by public and private entities, and radically new alternatives to create a viable mobility mix that works for people, planet and profit. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. In Paris, for instance, we see a great initiative that promotes a more balanced mobility diet. By 2026, the city wants to remove half of its 140 000 surface parking spaces, and give the citizens the opportunity to vote what should come in its place.
#2: New forms of mobility have a difficult business model
Even though there are plenty of initiatives like MaaS and shared mobility to get people out of their cars, and onto soft mobility alternatives, the adoption of these services is still quite low.
Looking at shared (micro)mobility providers for example, there is intense competition because of the multiplication of new entrants.
Furthermore, shared mobility services are only efficient if the network can be sustained. To illustrate, the Velo city-bikes in Antwerp need to be dispatched between the different stations throughout the day to make sure people can use them. Shared mobility services also seem convenient for occasional transportation needs, but struggle to meet daily mobility requirements, as highlighted by the low usage rates 13 . Hive, Wind, Tier, ZipCar, Drivenow and Jump are examples of shared mobility providers who faced these struggles and left the Brussels mobility scene.
Finally, these providers are challenged by significant acquisition costs and limited loyalty. Indeed, once convinced of the added value of a personal mobility solution (e.g. e-bike or e-step), users often tend to acquire their own and drop out of the client base.
Given that building a strong initial client base requires a lot of time and money, it is not surprising to see providers focus on large corporates to rapidly capture important revenue streams
#3: The pandemic reshuffles the deck
As with many other industries, the pandemic really shook the mobility industry at its core. It is one of the most affected industries, because all of a sudden, many people no longer had to move. Across the population, we had the revelation that there are many things we are able to do online. The big question is: how much of this new behavior will stick?
A 2020 survey done by Espaces Mobilité with over 3000 Belgians showed that
- 43% declare that their mobility will change
- 35% intend to use the bike or step more
- 29% indicate that they might use public transport less
- 22% believe that they might use their car less
So how do these expectations meet with reality?
We see that cycling is more adopted in urban areas, with Brussels seeing an increase of 64%. Consequently, the city doubled down on cycling lanes and redistributed 30km of cycling lanes.
As for car traffic, morning congestions are making their comeback as people are slowly driving to the office again. Moreover, more than 53% of the employers claim that they will keep offering company cars, despite increased home-working. So we can presume that cars will still be the dominant mode of transport.
In the long run, increased home-working will have a negligible impact on congestion. A study by the national planning agency predicts only a decrease of 1,6% in congestion by 2040 if people start working 2 days/week from home.This implies that we need to look at other means of transport, and go to the office in a more flexible way.
Public transport took some heavy blows amidst the pandemic, but they do see their passenger numbers increase again. Yet, the big elephant in the room is whether we will see the same amount of commuters and we don’t know to what extent this new behavior will sticks. What we do know is that the public operators ask themselves the same questions and are looking for ways to reinvent themselves.
#4: Imbalanced costs and value
Transportation accounts for 11% of the budget of Belgian households. Over the past 20 years 11 , this share has remained relatively stable and is consistently the third most important household expense. The costs are mainly related to personal vehicle usage fees 12 , which can be compared to the operational costs incurred by mobility service providers.
The price of mobility is a complex equation and service providers in this field are often unable to take all elements into account.
It is impossible to charge users a fee that covers the full extent of the operational costs, the cost of the externalities (such as congestion, noise, accidents, CO2 emissions etc.) and the value users attach to the service (i.e. their willingness and ability to pay). Therefore, mobility providers (both public & private) typically require support from public authorities, simply to be able to operate. This support, often tied to specific agreements, can be direct through subsidies for example, or indirect, such as free parking for shared mobility services.
#5: Suboptimal solutions and user experience
Users often get caught up in suboptimal offers and connections that tend to deliver a limited user experience.
A first manifestation is the restricted availability of offerings and connections. Beyond the dualspeeds of mobility, a good example hereof is in multimodality, which caps at 2% of the total amount of movements in Belgium 23 . The detailed breakdown of this share is quite different for urban compared to rural trips. According to SPF Mobilité/FOD Mobiliteit & Vervoer, the train is involved in 78% of these trips, indicating that multimodality in Belgium is mainly about connecting the train with other means of transportation.
Second, connections may not be popular amongst many citizens because they can be complex and/or generate stress. For example, people who combine the car or the bike with the train need a parking spot, a way to carry their bike onto the train and the possibility to safely store their bike at their destination. Such a challenge becomes even greater when important connections are not necessarily as straightforward as in other countries. In Japan, for example, multiple connections and short changing times are formalities thanks to the country’s legendary punctuality. Similarly, Switzerland’s track record with public transport results in greater usage of public transportation than cars in big cities. The country even holds the world record in kilometers travelled per person per year by train.
Third comes the unreliability and lack of resilience of mobility solutions. People who are unable to use free floating mobility services due to maintenance or technical issues will need to walk the streets until they find another available solution. Similarly, feelings of frustrations and inconvenience can pile up when transportation services breakdown or are cancelled and no alternatives are offered to the user. What’s more, events such as the COVID-19 pandemic highlight the difficulties faced by mobility providers to adapt their services.
The result of all these situations is ‘constrained user experience’. According to a mobility study conducted by AG Insurance, only 51% of those who commute on public transportation are satisfied compared to an unanimous 100% satisfaction level of commuters who use an electric bicycle.
Furthermore, the same study shows that half of the respondents find public transportation unreliable and only one out of four feels it enables them to go wherever they want. Attitudes are more positive towards the bicycle and the car: 49% of respondents agree that the bicycle is synonymous with freedom and independence. This number reaches 73% for cars, a means of transportation that six out of ten respondents consider necessary to move around, further highlighting the high reliance on cars.
Nobody has a glass ball that allows them to look into the future. But if we look at what’s happening today, it becomes obvious that we need to adapt. Sooner, rather than later.
However, these obstacles are extremely tough and deeply rooted into our society, that there is no quick fix and no single company can provide the answers. That’s why it is, more than ever, important for mobility players to closely work together and from this collective intelligence, define and implement a mobility mix that is fair, future-proof, viable and puts the user in the first place.