The Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute (VTI) is playing an important role in a major new research programme to find radical solutions leading to fewer trips and more efficient travel, along with tools to enable better use of roads and vehicles.
The programme, called Sustainable Accessibility and Mobility Services (SAMS), is a multidisciplinary effort in which the main partners are the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and VTI. The programme is funded by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (Mistra) and will run for four years, with an option to extend it for an additional four years.
Two VTI researchers, Professor Jane Summerton and Research Manager Karolina Isaksson, are part of the programme’s management group. “The SAMS project has to do with how we can transport ourselves in smarter, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly ways, especially in cities”, said Summerton.
The goal is to develop knowledge of various mobility services that could reduce climate impact while preserving accessibility for the users. This involves, for instance, apps that display door-to-door travel arrangements that could facilitate more uniform flows in public transport systems. These apps could contribute to more efficient use of existing vehicle fleets and infrastructure through incorporating new modes of shared mobility, such as internet connected carpools. The research project’s stated goal is for Sweden to have made major progress in its transition to sustainable mobility and accessibility by 2030.
Sustainable mobile services
The VTI researchers have been tasked with reaching a better understanding of the factors that promote behavioural changes for greater sustainability among various user groups, such as identifying elements that could impede changes in travel behaviours.
“Digitalisation offers major opportunities to design smart and sustainable mobile services”, said Isaksson. “Among other things, we want to look into just how great the potential is for these new solutions to have a practical impact, and to understand how they work from a user perspective”.
People’s daily lives are consequently a key starting point. How, for example, can various technically innovative and sustainable solutions such as ride-sharing services or the self-driving cars of the future be combined? How can they resolve everyday challenges such as getting the kids to their athletic activities while getting the weekly shopping done?
According to Isaksson, the rapid technological development in the area of sustainable mobility and sharing services offers both opportunities and challenges. It is often assumed in public discussion that new technical solutions always lead to greater sustainability. But if this is to be so, the operators who have authority over issues such as planning, land use and traffic management must take action.
Legal issues and new technology
One important aspect to be studied concerns how different institutions and organisations, such as municipalities and government agencies, embrace the opportunities afforded by new technologies. This concerns the ways municipalities undertake their planning processes, and how the Swedish parliament and government agencies handle basic key issues concerning driving forces and accountability.
“There are, for example, legal issues to be resolved. Who bears the cost if a shared vehicle breaks down, and who is responsible if a self-driving vehicle is involved in an accident?”, asked Isaksson.
One significant part of the SAMS project involves identifying and promoting behaviours that can be considered “disruptive”. This refers to innovations that could radically alter and transform patterns of thinking and, in the long run, perhaps even markets. These innovations must also be able to contribute significantly to achieving the goals of SAMS, i.e., simpler, more sustainable travel and greater accessibility.
“Technical solutions that relieve us of the need to travel offer one such example”, said Summerton. “These preferably pertain to services available to large numbers of people and could contribute in a major way to achieving our sustainable mobility goals”.
Societal and individual perspectives
“Major initiatives and a great deal of research are underway to move the transport system toward sustainability. However, this research is often characterised by a focus on technical and digital aspects. VTI is looking to contribute perspectives from the behavioural and social sciences”, said Summerton. “Much of what VTI will be doing in this project involves exploring how such perspectives could help bring about change processes at both the societal and individual levels. It’s about finding new services in the mobility field that will lead to major changes in how our cities organise their service offerings, and how people travel”, Summerton concluded.
One of VTI’s roles is to create conditions favouring the linkage of technical possibilities to real societal and social needs. One important issue is that of involving groups that might otherwise be overlooked in sustainable mobility efforts.
“For example, groups that are not normally involved in setting the agenda – perhaps people from so-called vulnerable areas – what are their needs, and what are they like? What conditions do they face in availing themselves of new mobility services?” asked Summerton.
Strong social norms
According to Isaksson, ways of reaching groups that currently travel heavily by car even though they could use more sustainable options are also of interest: “There are strong social norms that affect travel in general, some of which are tied to the car as a status symbol and symbol of freedom”.
Isaksson believes that the issue of how to reach those groups that are not currently supportive of the movement toward sustainable travel is important. Those who already walk, cycle, or take public transport are well positioned to avail themselves of the new opportunities.
“If we are to work effectively toward achieving our climate goals, we have to figure out how to reach a broader group of people. We also have to consider how we can bring them along without the changes degrading their quality of life”, said Isaksson.
The ability to identify groups with little access to mobility services, such as those living in sparsely populated areas and whose only option is the car, will be an important part of the effort.
“What options are available to those individuals and groups? It is important for us to address those issues as well”, said Isaksson.