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Speed – it’s what drives mobility

Arie Bleijenberg, author of 'New Mobility', considers the role of the car in the evolution of future mobility

Any contemporary discussion about the future of mobility will be heavily laden with terms such as smart mobility, autonomous driving and mobility as a service. These IT-driven innovations will undoubtedly create progress, but the ‘old’ driving forces behind mobility will also have a considerable impact on mobility growth in the coming decades. This article focuses on some of the developments that are already emerging.

Arie Bleijenberg is the author of the recently published ‘New Mobility’

A ‘car world’

In Western Europe, it was as early as the 1950s that cars took over from public transport as the most frequently used means of transportation. Since then, the volume of car traffic has increased tenfold, while cycling and public transport have seen scarcely any growth. The private car is now by far the predominant means of transportation, accounting for three-quarters of all passenger mobility. Before the car, rail was the favoured mode of transportation. The rail era lasted for 80 years, from around 1850 to 1930, and for many decades it provided more than 80% of our mobility.

What, then, can history tell us about the future – will the car era last forever, or will there be a shift to another dominant mode of transportation?

In search of an answer, this article takes as a starting point the driving forces behind the tremendous growth in mobility since the early 19th Century. At that time, almost everyone only ever walked; now, people travel on average more than 40 kilometres (25 miles) per day using a variety of transport means. Interest here lies in our understanding of the forces shaping our mobility patterns. In the 1990s, the negative side of mass car use – pollution, collisions and congestion – generated societal and political worries. Attempts were made to slow down or even halt car growth. Despite these widely supported intentions, road traffic continued to grow unabated. Clearly, the power of the forces driving our mobility was underestimated.


What lies behind the car’s enormous success? Affordability and comfort obviously play a major role, but it could be argued that the single most important contributing factor is speed. After all, speed is what it’s all about when it comes to mobility. From Point A to Point B, the car is almost always faster than other modes of transportation. Only on the shortest trips is it faster to cycle – particularly in towns and cities, where car speeds are generally slow. For longer distances within urban districts, and for links between city centres, the metro or train may be quicker door-to-door. But public transport is very rarely faster than today’s car journeys and on most trips, public transport takes at least twice as long. The relatively high speed of door-to-door travel is the main reason why cars account for three-quarters of our transport movements.


The huge importance of speed emerges clearly from transport history, which can be regarded as a continual decline in ‘friction of distance’. Until the industrial revolution, travel speeds were relatively slow and had not increased for many centuries: 5kph (3mph) on foot, and 8 to 15kph by horse and carriage, horse-drawn barge and sailing ship. At 30kph, the steam train was a major step forward and signalled a fairly abrupt end for the slower barge. Electric trains were even faster, and after the construction of motorway networks from the 1960s onwards, the speed of the car also shot up. With the emergence of buses and cars, the horse and carriage faded into history. Today, the car takes us from door to door at an average speed of 40 to 45kph.

Hence, speed is the strongest factor driving mobility. Surprisingly enough, higher speed does not mean that we save time, because what we gain from greater speed travelled is greater distance travelled. Large groups of people travel a similar and constant amount of time per day, every day: roughly 1.1 hours per person, on average. This average is independent of income levels; the average was as true in previous centuries as it is today; and it holds true in most conurbation types, in most parts of the world. This ‘law of constant travel time’ has an inevitable consequence: faster transport leads to mobility growth.

The car system is now mature

Average car speeds continued to increase until the end of the last century. This was due mainly to the construction and extension of motorway grids, where driving speeds are far higher than on urban and secondary roads. Because of the high attainable speeds, motorways attracted high volumes of traffic, causing average car speeds to rise. In wealthy regions where motorway grids are now largely in place, average car speeds are no longer rising and have settled at around 45kph. No further car speed increases are expected, and in all probability, the average speed will even decrease marginally in the coming decades, as urbanisation continues across Europe.


The fact that the average car speed has not increased in 20 years in Western European countries has virtually halted any rise in travel distances and, with it, the growth of car traffic. This is a logical upshot of ‘the law of constant travel times’. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, car traffic grew at around 4% annually, while today that figure is less than 1%, with a further decline to zero under way. The statistical data presented in Figure 1 underlines the rise and subsequent stabilisation of car use. Per capita car mobility in the EU is now at the same level as it was a decade ago. From now on, only population growth leads to increased car traffic.

The sky’s the limit

The end of the growth of car mobility does not mean the end of two centuries of pronounced growth in mobility; the baton will be passed to aviation, as can be seen from the data presented in Figure 1. For some time now, air travel has been the fastest growing means of transport and already accounts in Western Europe for around 20% of passenger mobility in terms of kilometres travelled. These are considered kilometres travelled abroad, particularly in overseas air space. This is why kilometres flown do not yet feature in national mobility statistics and mobility forecasts, and are not yet an integral part of mobility policy.

The strong growth in aviation is another expression of our desire for speed. At an average door-to-door speed in the range of 250kph, air travel is much faster than travelling by car, despite the often long waiting times at airports. And because people will spend more time flying, their time for car driving will diminish somewhat, this being a consequence of the ‘law of constant travel time’. In 2050, this will equate to only a few minutes, equivalent to 10% less time spent travelling by car.


The wave of urbanisation affecting most countries will also change our travel behaviour. The UN expects that in 2050, 82% of the European population will live in cities, an increase of 10% since 2010. Due to the proximity of other activities and the low average car speed, people in large cities now travel more by bicycle and rail than their counterparts in the countryside or in smaller towns. The combination of shorter trip distances and different mode choices results in a reduction in car mileage for city-dwellers of 30% or more. In fact, large cities can only become accessible – and thus have a thriving economy – with the combination of roads, rail and cycling, as can be seen the world over. Table 1 presents a summary overview of the marked differences in mobility patterns between urban and rural areas.

Figure 2: Average daily travel distance in km per person for the population of Western Europe 2010-2050

Interestingly, the new wave of urbanisation is partly to achieve an outcome similar to that of the desire for travel speed. Both contribute to better accessibility, namely the opportunity to engage in different activities in different locations. Short distances improve accessibility; higher speed does the same. Cities have, in general, better accessibility than rural areas, because the proximity of different activities outweighs the low average travel speed in urban areas. This makes cities attractive for both companies and people, despite the mostly congested roads. The continued rural-urban migration proves the unwavering attraction of the city.

Towards 2050

Building on the desire for speed as the main driving force behind mobility growth, and combining this with ongoing urbanisation, a projection can be made for the year 2050. Figure 2 shows projected mobility for people in Western Europe. Car mobility stays roughly aligned with current levels, mainly because the average car speed will not increase further in countries with mature motorway grids.

By around 2050, people in several Western European countries will be travelling more kilometres by air than by car. Today this may be hard to imagine, but if European aviation continues to grow by 3% to 4% annually, with car travel scarcely growing at all, the maths is simple: in 30 to 40 years’ time, air travel will have replaced the car as the dominant mode of transport. Simply extrapolating current trends through to 2050 results in the changed mobility behaviour shown in Figure 2. Slowly but surely, spatial developments will also come to adapt to one of the defining characteristics of a rise in air travel: mass transit from a small number of airports. Another inevitable consequence: further urbanisation around major airports.

Rethinking mobility

Clearly, major change is in the air. Car transport will soon no longer be growing in wealthy countries with a mature motorway grid, the knowledge economy is turning major cities into the main motors of economic prosperity, and the pace of urbanisation is accelerating. This is where contacts, innovation, enterprise, employment and economic growth all take place.

With all these changes afoot, we need to think differently about mobility. The old narrative was shaped during previous decades of industrialisation and the emergence of private car transport. In the book New Mobility – Beyond the car era, this writer develops a new mobility narrative which reflects the changes that are currently under way. Rethinking mobility is necessary if we are to understand these changes. The new narrative forms the basis for a mobility policy that works – one that invigorates the economy and improves our environment. What used to seem logical is no longer necessarily so today.

This article appeared in the Q2 2017 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue

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