The IMET initiative spoke with Karen Vancluysen, Secretary General of the POLIS network, about her vision for mobility in the city of the future and how POLIS supports peer-to-peer exchange on the road to transport innovation and sustainable urban mobility.
What is your vision for mobility in the city of the future?
Throughout the 20th century, cars became the dominant means of transport in urban areas. The health, environmental and economic impacts of this car-dominated reality weigh heavily on our cities, citizens and local governments. A recently published report by EPHA estimates that in 2018 an average inhabitant of a European city suffered a welfare loss of more than €1.250 associated directly or indirectly with poor air quality, with over 400.000 premature deaths caused by air pollution in the EU in that year alone.
Over the last decade, citizens have been deprived of good urban space, other more sustainable transport modes were relegated to narrow sidewalks and bike lanes or got stuck in traffic on the wide roads monopolised by cars.
My ideal city of the future is the complete contrast, with streets for people instead of cars, where the air is clean and lush green areas dominate the urban landscape. It is a place where multi-modality in transport is the norm and intramodality is seamless, and the preferred travel modes are public transport, biking and walking.
"My ideal city of the future (...) is a place where multi-modality in transport is the norm and intramodality is seamless, and the preferred travel modes are public transport, biking and walking."
Luckily, the same vision is slowly penetrating different levels of governance and more allies voice the same vision, so I am hopeful for the future.
How do you contribute to this vision?
For over 30 years, POLIS has led European cities and regions on the road to transport innovation and sustainable urban mobility, through peer-to-peer exchange, policy and advocacy and involving our members in EU-funded research & innovation activities. Today we have a network of over 80 member cities and regions from across Europe.
Facilitating peer-to-peer exchange between our members on the transport topics that are important to them puts us in a unique position to create – and maintain- momentum for positive change. This exchange makes local authorities feel they are not alone, there is a realisation that someone else is thinking the same and moving in the same direction. This has proven even more valuable over the past months, when we helped members navigate through the current health crisis from a mobility perspective and facilitated exchange of good practice between them, as there was no roadmap or recipe to turn to for this unprecedented situation.
What changes/improvements at EU level, regional and local level do you recommend in terms of policies related to white paper topics (intelligent mobility, energy decentralization, please mention concrete examples, such as projects, programmes, adopted policies, etc.)?
I think that the IMET White paper very clearly outlines the challenges we face- or could face- once electrification has gained more ground. What is important is to look at the situation holistically. Today, we tend to focus on one aspect and forget to consider the whole picture.
Let’s take charging infrastructure as an example. The debate today is centered on whether there will be enough charging points in the future. While I absolutely agree that this matter should be addressed, we should not forget aspects that are intrinsically linked to it. At POLIS, we depart from the idea that a transition should take place from private car ownership and use in cities, to a multi-modal approach with public transport and active travel as the backbone, complemented with shared mobility services. This is not only for air quality and decarbonization reasons but also to address the traffic congestion concerns European cities face on a daily basis, to improve road safety and to have streets for people instead of cars. The vehicles that will still be employed, will have to be clean and shared.
"At POLIS, we depart from the idea that a transition should take place from private car ownership and use in cities, to a multi-modal approach with public transport and active travel as the backbone, complemented with shared mobility services."
Now, let’s return to the charging infrastructure, needed for those vehicles. The roll-out of charging infrastructure has to meet a range of criteria in addition to numeric targets; for example interaction with urban spaces. The infrastructure that the cities will roll out needs to be harmonised with the local environment. In the beginning, when e-mobility had just started to enter our urban areas, many cities adopted the ‘on-demand’ approach, where a citizen could request a charging point if certain criteria were met. With the currently still limited number of charging points this might not be an issue yet in most cities, but if we want our mobility to be 100% electric in the future, the locations where charging infrastructure is being rolled out have to be thought through, thus avoiding an ad-hoc approach.
There is also a growing understanding that the charging infrastructure will have to be shared between all modes of electric vehicles, ranging from e-bikes and e-scooters to electric cars and vans or even buses and trucks. Therefore, it must accommodate both individual and commercial mobility needs. I am happy that these concepts are being explored and further developed. POLIS is involved in the eHubs project, where 6 partner cities work on setting-up plazas where citizens can choose from different shared electric mobility services, while ASSURED is looking into charging infrastructure for heavy-duty commercial vehicles.
"If we want our mobility to be 100% electric in the future, the locations where charging infrastructure is being rolled out have to be thought through, thus avoiding an ad-hoc approach."
Second consideration in the deployment of charging infrastructure is the energy that is being used for e-mobility. To increase the sustainability of e-mobility, energy that is being produced and consequently consumed at the charging points needs to be clean. The IMET White Paper rightly suggests decentralised energy system, focusing on small-scale electricity production. What one should indeed consider is how and by whom this energy is managed. This is a big question that still remains unanswered. European initiatives like CleanMobileEnergy are trying to find smart solutions for managing the grid. The local grid approach can help grid stability, shaving off the peaks and allowing consumer to become prosumers. In the framework of the SEEV4City project, POLIS, together with Northumbria University and AVERE have produced a set of recommendations for the harmonisation of energy and mobility plans as well for V2G and smart charging infrastructure .
Last but not least, user-friendly charging infrastructure that is interoperable, price transparent and easily accessible can considerably boost the shift towards and acceptance of e-mobility. The recently launched project eCharge4Drivers, where POLIS has an active role, focuses on charging experiences in urban areas and interurban corridors and will demonstrate additional convenient charging options within cities, including mobile charging services, charge points at lamp posts, networks of battery swapping stations for light electric vehicles, and a transportable charging station service to cover temporary needs.
"User-friendly charging infrastructure that is interoperable, price transparent and easily accessible can considerably boost the shift towards and acceptance of e-mobility"
On a policy level, following the mandate provided by the STF 2019 plenary, POLIS and TNO have substantially assisted the European Commission in the development of ‘recommendations for public authorities on procuring, awarding concessions, licenses and/or granting support for electric recharging infrastructure for passenger cars and vans’. The report, developed under the EAFO 2 project, due to be published before the end of this year, contributes to the ongoing AFID revision.
What are the next steps?
We aim to contribute to the ambitious and necessary objectives of the Green Deal. What is now needed is to create a sense of urgency and awareness of the importance of this transition toward sustainable mobility, and how it can help to build better cities for the future. This is also reflected in the Urban Green-Deal Makers POLIS Pledge launched at the 2020 POLIS conference, where cities and regions show how important they are in decarbonizing the transport sector.
Reaching the Green Deal goals will have to be done through a diverse and wide-ranging set of different measures going well beyond just electrification. For electromobility in particular, we believe there is a need to advance the harmonisation of energy and mobility plans with a more inter-sectoral and inter-departmental cooperation, with clear long-term roadmaps to achieve sustainable mobility.
From POLIS’ side, we will continue to bring cities together, to facilitate the exchange with the industry, and ensure the cities’ voices are heard on the EU level.