Personal mobility – A sustainability journey

Most people will think ‘cars’ when reading this blog’s headline, but there are many other forms of personal transportation. In the Netherlands, many people use bicycles to go to work. In neighbouring Belgium, people will think twice before considering riding a bicycle inside a city, because of a lack of bicycle paths and because Belgian car drivers are not accustomed to sharing the road with cyclists. Italians, and especially those in crowed cities, love their Vespas because public transportation is not well organized, fuel costs are high, and the climate is favourable. In the United States, people don’t mind driving long distances and in some cities, such as Denver and Houston, it is almost impossible to go from one place to another without a car. In general in the US, cars and fuel are more affordable than in Europe or Japan. In some Chinese cities, such as Beijing, people think twice before using bicycles because of health reasons. This is despite the fact that China used to be known as the “bicycle capital of the world” and had put car restriction policies in place to control congestion and smog. Personal mobility modes and choices vary greatly between countries and within countries.

Over the next 2 years or so, this blog will focus on drivers of sustainable personal mobility, including:

  1. Projections of cars worldwide: According to International Energy Agency (, an OECD organisation, by the end of 2010 the number of cars in use surpassed 1 billion. By 2035 this number could double. What drives car ownership? Population growth, urbanization, and economic growth are all factors that contribute to increased levels of the number of cars.
  2. Unsustainability of personal mobility: In its 2007 report, the IPCC estimates that transportation contributes to about 13% of CO2 emissions. While this includes public transportation, shipping and heavy trucks, it is a significant contributor to climate change.
  3. Regulatory factors: such as EURO norms and CAFE standards, taxation of cars, toll roads, congestion charges, fuel prices and their implications.
  4. Technology and efficiency: the evolution of ICE cars, hybrid cars, and electric vehicles, driverless cars, new forms of personal mobility, e.g., Toyota i-Road microcar, battery storage, fuel cells, electric vehicle charging, etc.
  5. Social trends: different ownership models including leasing, bicycle sharing (Vélib, petit Vélib) and car sharing (Zipcar, Car2Go, Uber) schemes. Personal mobility sharing schemes are growing exponentially, especially bike sharing. See map (

These are some of the dimensions that we will be exploring in this blog. Anything major missing? Let me know.

12 thoughts on “Personal mobility – A sustainability journey

  1. I look forward to reading your furture posts, learning in the process and being inspired to also make changes in my personal approach to transportation. I wish you the very best with what should be both a rewarding and engaging exercise.

    I am particularly interested in the social and behavioral aspects of personal transportaion. Many (including I ) drag along with us on a daily basis and on many of our outings, between half and a full metric ton (which is what I assume a typical motor car weights) of steel, glass, rubber and liquids. Surely this makes very little sense. Sensible or not, a set of conditions including; well-ingrained behavioral patterns, a sense of entitlement and not having to pay the “true” or fully inclusive price for this priviledge must surely all contribute. It is also true that a lack of public infrastructure which is the result of various factors including (ironically) the ubiquity of high environmental impact private means of transport (read cars and SUV’s) drive the use of these inefficient and damaging means of transportation.

    Make no mistake – I like my private car and the indepence as well as flexibility which it provides and I like it very much. The problem is that around the world hundreds of millions of fellow earthlings share exactly the same sentiment and passion. Worryingly, this “club” grows daily. Developed nations have been the polluters in chief for much of the 20th and 21st centuries and personal transportation has been at the heart of this “crime” – granted, not the only contributor, but an important one nevertheless. As the middle classes grow in developing countries people are simply doing what those in developed nations have done for decades – acquiring one of the most visible signs of progress – a personal internal combustion driven vehicle.

    Does this change “new bike lane by new bike lane”? Is there enough time for a gradual evolution towards a new status quo? I do not think so. So what to do? Big question. Looking forward to your insights.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. We all like the freedom personal mobility, especially cars, provide us. And people in developing countries want to have the same freedom of movement. We will explore both social and behavioral aspects of personal transportation and how to influence them. Why is India developing from a 2-wheeler to a 3-wheeler to a 4-wheeler economy, while China skipped the 3-wheeler phase. Why are cars in Europe and Japan more fuel efficient than the average US car (apart maybe from California)? All these things we will aim to explore in this blog. More to come soon …

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an interesting topic for a blog.
    Changing mobility behaviour is hugely complex. There are so many variables that need to be aligned in order to make the change. For example, I am driving to the office every day in a car as it is quicker than public transport and excluding the cost of a car, on par with the cost of a train ticket. So, how can I reduce my footprint? Well, I can go hybrid, e.g. Tesla. This is still an expensive alternative, but I do like the technology, even the design of the car and it´s zero emissions. However, all I do is pushing the emissions back to the electricity provider. Then again, at least this way emissions have a point source to control instead of 1 billion exhaust pipes. There are also benefits to looming emission taxes and no extra penalty when purchasing the car, which is normally based on the manufacturer´s CO2 emission factors. For me a real alternative. Except that I am not too convinced to upgrade my 9-year old car and am still holding out for a cheaper alternative from Tesla, which is on the horizon.
    So, what will make me change? I will wait for a cheaper Tesla and hopefully by that time the traditional German brands will also offer a real alternative. At the moment everyone offers hybrids, but it is highly debatable whether it is indeed a quantum leap like Tesla.
    Of course it is also a highly emotional decision – not just financial. I want to have a premium car with all the comforts and safety specifications.
    All other mobility options are too much of a stretch or huge inconvenience to me. What I need is an alternative where I can make a smarter decision, not a radical decision that will impact my life in more complex ways. Unless home office starts to become company policy or I find a job close to my house. But none of these two are likely to happen in the near future.


    1. Thank you. Internal combustion engines (ICE) have dramatically improved in terms of fuel efficiency, but the problem is that more and more people can afford cars and want to enjoy personal mobility. Toyota with the Prius pioneered the hybrid drive and has today a full range of hybrid cars. It is important to note that Tesla is not a hybrid car and it was never intended to be. Tesla positions itself as a premium full electric car. As a result these cars are expensive and not affordable for the average American. Renault/Nissan brought a full range of electric cars to the market – 4 cars in Europe and the Nissan Leaf in the US. BMW brought the I3, a full electric family car (seating comfortably 4) to the market (in fact my wife drives one and loves it). The European electric cars are much more affordable than the Tesla. In this blog, at a later stage, we will do some break-even analysis between three comparable cars based on different technologies: ICE, Hybrid and Full electric and explore who the winner is. We will look beyond pure economics, however. In Europe, people tend to drive long distances to go on holiday and full electric cars are currently not practical for this purpose. So middle income families may have one electric car and one ICE powered or hybrid car. We also need to take into account how the electricity which powers the electric car was generated – coal, nuclear, CCGT or renewables – will all have an impact on the environmental footprint of our addiction to driving cars. Happy to have caught your attention with this blog. See you soon back on sustainable personal mobility.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. All very interesting and enlightening thanks. Couple of enlightening take aways for me – most notbaly the fact that if one opts for say an electric vehicle, the enviromental impact of generating that energy does not go away, it is simply shifted elsewhere. Recognizing that most electricity is still generated in environmentally unfrieldly ways, this is a sobering thought. Will the fundamental aassumptions we hold about transportation and mobility not need to change though? Surely continuing to clogg out cities with vehicles which frequently carry only one or two passengers is not a truly sustainable way to manage mobility?


    1. Electric cars are the future. There is little doubt about that in my mind. However, many challenges remain to be addressed.

      Some of the challenges we will explore include: How is the electricity generated that is used to power electric cars? How to we scale electric cars given that in the US cars stay on the road for an average of 12 years versus an average of 9 years in Europe? Will populous emerging markets, e.g., India and China leapfrog technologies? How do we enable faster charging of batteries?

      There are some short term benefits, however. Traditional ICE powered cars are still (despite fuel efficiency improvements) very inefficient. For the average American cars only 2% of the energy is used to move the 1.5 people in a typical car. 75% of the energy is lost through the exhaust (heat losses), about 8% is lost because of mechanical losses (wheel bearings), 15% is used to move the car and only 2% for the on average 1.5 people in the car. Isn’t this a shocking statistic? Electric engines have much lower heat losses and as a result are much more efficient and could change this hugely inefficient dynamic.

      Electricity can also be generated in an very efficient way and provide a virtual inexhaustible source of energy. Fuel cells could provide clean onboard electricity generation.

      I propose to address in my next blog some of mind boggling views about current and future car projections. See you soon on this blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am really excited to follow this blog as this is a topic that’s ‘front of mind’ for me every day in China. Thank you for choosing this subject, I look forward to your posts and the discussion it will generate. Personal transport as it currently exists is not sustainable agreed. It only takes a look through the window in some cases, or at the state of your skin after you’ve cycled through a busy city centre, to bring home the impact humanity’s obsession with car ownership is having on the environment.
    China’s love affair with the automobile though is thriving despite the global recession, and it’s changing the way people live here as well as the environment. Walking around can be difficult and dangerous at times as there are cars everywhere, even on the pavements. Road rules are often not used. I have seen cars going in the wrong direction or even park on motorways. Cars are cheap — often less than $6,000 for a basic, new model. But there are also cars driving around, as everyday town cars that would normally only be seen driven by a chauffeur at luxury hotels.
    Yet powerful social forces obstruct progress toward more viable alternatives. In the US or the UK, for example, the two-car family is the norm, and very few consider it reasonable to try to bring up children without at least one. Then there’s the business sales executive whose luxury car, occupied by just one person, is ‘essential’ in a more complex social sense. Yet other developed countries like the Netherlands and China have a well-established bias in favour of cycling.
    So what do we work toward? More efficient, less polluting and resource-hungry personal vehicles, or a complete shift that embraces public transport and more walking, cycling and car sharing? What would have to change? I am delighted you set up this blog with a view to discussing every aspect of this complex, dynamic, multi-faceted issue.
    I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on this fascinating online resource, which promises to highlight all the arguments and developments over the next two years. Let’s hope it delivers on its initial promise.


  5. This is a very interesting topic; the air pollution caused by motors is a contributor to China’s fog and haze as well, which is mentioned in my blog. As the economy grows in china, more families have their own vehicles; and people often drive out to visit friends and travel, and some very important/long holidays like Chinese national day and spring festival are at the end of years. Therefore the fog and haze issue is getting worse every winter.


    1. As humans evolve, they conquer every space to maintain their survival. An increased human presence is influenced by their capability to travel. It is evidenced that personal mobility modes vary in different geographical regions. In the United States for example, people are inclined to travel long distances using their personal vehicles. In Netherlands, however, people prefer riding bicycles to work, whereas people in Belgium favor motor transport to bicycle riding.

      Over the years however, drivers of sustainable mobility have emerged. It is with no doubt that apart from the natural urge to meet public demand for green sustainability; divergent initiatives have been put in place. An increased incentive to invest in new technology development has been supported by national governments – the introduction of fuel efficiency standards. These regulatory factors include CAFÉ standards and Euro norms that relates to taxation on cars, congestion charges, toll roads and fuel prices.

      In understanding environmentally friendly effect of technological improvement of motor vehicle, different approaches are grouped as follows;

      1.Improving fuel efficiency and proffered types of power trains with respect to ICE. This model enhances efficiency, but being a fossil fuel it has never been considered as a solution.

      2.The use of alternative fuel such as ICE, LNG, CNG and ethanol. Although this model is effective, grave concerns regarding earth’s ecosystems is questioned amidst an uncontrolled demand for bio-fuel and its dependence.

      3.Introduction of hybrid systems are only a dead-end in achieving sustainability. This transient strategy has showcased its indisputable values through accustoming consumers to electric vehicles, thus, decreasing the present carbon footprint and augmenting environmental awareness.

      By making sustainability an imperative part of fuel economy standards narrative, fuel economy would not have been witnessed in Japan and Europe. This could have probably occurred in the U.S., therefore, personal transportation modes would have tremendously reduced. These regulations can potentially reduce fuel consumption to a greater degree.

      Otherwise known as Bicycle Transit, Public-Use Bicycles and smart bikes, bike sharing has been an efficient strategy in improving personal mobility and overall sustainability. Undeniably, the extensively publicized use of Paris’ Vélib’ system has generated a great degree of interests in the innovative approach to sustainability (Midgley, 2011). Presently, it is estimated that 375 bicycle schemes operate in 33 countries, as observed in the rapid increment of bicycle use since 2008 (Midgley, 2011). This may have outstripped growth in dissimilar urban transportation modes.

      The next two decades anticipates the number of vehicles to increase by two billion. Can the earth sustain such a population? No- at least not as they presently exists. Motor vehicles offer unprecedented freedom, convenience, flexibility and comfort. They have transformed modern lifestyle and have been an industrial marvel since their inception. As such, what drives car ownership? A number of factors propel the need to own a vehicle including urbanization, economic growth and urbanization. While much of the present growth is witnessed notably in developed world, growth in poorer nations is however stirring. Since increased vehicle ownership occurs hand-in hand with rapid urbanization – the pressure is severe in cities.

      Whereas transportation includes all form of mobility, it is a key contributor to climate change. Unsustainable use of personal mobility has risen considerably. In its 2007 report, IPCC articulates that transportation contributes about 13 % of the C02 emissions (Pachauiri & Reisinger, 2007). While mobility is an imperative human aspect, it can be shaped to different means, from setting international standards, incorporating social trends and integrating technological innovation. It follows that humans play a key role in creating sustainable mobility in promoting a safe and sustainable environment. Attaining this vision requires cooperation among legislative bodies, infrastructure developers, automotive developers and the general population.


  6. Interesting as ever, prof. Sasha …

    I thought about your topic just this week when I saw not one, not two, but three new Tesla roadsters with UK plates in the midst of French Alps. It would seem the well-heeled Brits are finding the green luxury desirable. And clearly, the range of these vehicles is not 50km any more!

    While changing personal habits and love of independence and travel on planetary level could prove a mission impossible – could we perhaps change people’s attitude what is a desirable/fashionable mode of transport? A gentle steer towards a greener option could reap positive results.

    Surely George Clooney in Roadster commercial would go a long way to this end?

    Yours greenly,


    1. Thank you for your comment on my blog. The Tesla Roadster is the first full electric premium sports car that Tesla brought to the market and I had the opportunity to drive it in California back in 2009 and again during the summer of 2013. Tesla effectively pioneered the development of parallel configured lithium ion battery packs that provides the Roadster a range of about 320km in ideal conditions. Tesla has already announced that it well release a Roadster with a 400 mile range (600+ km range). It is however a highly impractical car with very limited luggage space (although there is an optional ski rack), very difficult to get in and out. Given the 320 km range, it must have taken them 2 to 3 days travel the UK to French Alps distance, unless the cars where shipped to the French Alps for the entire ski season.

      While I remain a strong supporter of full electric cars, one has to consider how the electricity was generated in the first place. I referred to that in my reply on November 17th, 2014. The Economist in its December 20th, 2014 edition, makes the same point. The graph in the article is telling … (

      The future will likely hold a broader set of drivetrain technologies. Toyota has recently launched, the Mirai, a hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicle, and BMW will offer its entire fleet of cars with an electric drivetrain (with or without range extender) as an alternative to the traditional ICE engine. Tesla, Toyota and BMW have all opened their green technology patents to help accelerate technology development and deployment clock speed – fascinating.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Prof Sasha, I don’t know if this is relevant, but may be interesting. I saw a comment on another blog I follow:

    Please see the comment from Michael Edwards at the bottom. He says he is working for the UK Government’s Foresight Report (series of science-based reports) – he is interested in how settlements could be planned to minimise car usage and is asking whether anyone is researching this.


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