Design principles for sustainable mobility solutions

man about to enter the train
Photo by bruce mars on

The Smart Commuting project collected and evaluated empirical data in the three case districts: Basel-Stadt, Growth Corridor Finland and Korneuburg. From these regions, we regard Basel as the most successful in promoting sustainable commuting. For this reason, a more detailed analysis of the Basel data was made by our sustainability experts in ZHAW and these results are now presented as best practice case from our data.

Mobility behaviour of commuters

When comparing commuting distance with commuting time, it became apparent that the data variability regarding the distance is far bigger. This supports the assumption that people mostly think and decide time investments when planning their commuting trips. Therefore, faster commuting modes tend to increase the mean commuting distance while not lowering the mean commuting time. Especially for a long distance travel, faster services should, therefore, be established with care, as these faster connections also increase the number of commuters for whom this connection is attractive. As the classification of commuters based on a cluster analysis of the survey showed, the long commuting distance is associated with a lower probability of enjoying the journey. At the level of spatial planning, attempts can be made in order to lower distance to work by providing affordable housing near work centres or a stronger mix of industrial, commercial and residential housing.

Focus on the reasons why people commute during peak hours

One of the main sustainability issues within the current commuting regimes are the peak hours. Therefore, it is necessary to identify the reasons, why people actually need to commute during peak hours. By far the most chosen answer is “requirement of the job” with more than 60% of all respondents selecting this option. This is an important result suggesting to focus on such policy measures that would have the strongest effects on a more sustainable commuting regime. In addition, important reasons are “childcare” (15.7%), “company culture” (18.7%) and “habit reasons” (16.1%). This leads to two promising areas were participatory processes in commuting could be located: mobility management within companies and improving childcare close to the living area or working place of employees.

Promoting active mobility

Considering the reasons why respondents use a bicycle for commuting, it becomes clear that the factor “sport” is on the top of the list with almost three-quarters of all respondents mentioning this reason. Nonetheless, the reason “faster” is also a very strong incentive for using bicycles (58.9%), as well as the aspects of “flexibility” (63.8%) and being “cheaper” (40.8%). In addition, the profiling of commuters suggests that it is more likely for users of active modes to enjoy their travelling than for such with no predominant mode of travel.

As almost every household in the Basel area (95%) has a bicycle, the support of this very sustainable form of transport can be considered as a “low hanging fruit” in terms of the sustainable transport. A clear strategy for improving bicycle use is therefore needed. This comprises, for example, improving the infrastructure for safe active mobility, communicating and promoting the sport and health aspect while considering fact that active mobility commuters enjoy their commute more than commuters using other forms of transport.

Another strategic focus of future-oriented mobility strategies could be electric bikes or E-Bikes. For example, around one-fifth of the surveyed households in Basel possess one or more E-Bikes, and a bit under one-fifth of the respondents use an E-Bike on a regular basis for their commute. This may indicate that E-Bikes are specifically bought for commuting activities. Promoting E-bikes by marketing events, creating (financial) incentives, special parking spaces for E-Bikes and power sockets can further promote this technological trend, which can clearly be considered as being more sustainable than the car.

Ensuring accessibility to mobility in rural areas

In Basel, an analysis regarding the mean satisfaction with the current commuting mode was performed. A “mobility satisfaction index” was created by calculating the mean values of different satisfaction items such as comfort, price, and time asked in the survey and taking the overall mean of these means. This overall satisfaction index was then calculated for every municipality in the Basel area. It became apparent that the satisfaction is definitely higher within the larger municipalities, generally fitted with better mobility services. While this insight for itself is not surprising, it highlights a big issue that during the next years, the biggest growth in terms of jobs and citizens will occur in the surroundings of the larger areas. The issue of low satisfaction with the commuting situation is therefore likely to get even worse if no countermeasures are taken. Future mobility strategies should, therefore, focus on the development of new mobility services in the outskirts and rural areas. This could be achieved by improving the access to the public transport network and by promoting less traditional forms of transport means such as call-a-ride, ride-sharing, carpooling, MaaS and so on.

Promoting flexible and user-oriented alternatives

Car users appreciate the high flexibility and the short travel times provided by the car. More than a third of all respondents also stated that they needed the car to transport goods, which is an aspect that new mobility systems like MaaS or new sharing systems can easily offer, especially by combining different and more sustainable modes of transport. When creating new commuting strategies and offers, user-oriented services that address the commuters’ demands and are harmonised with their daily activities is needed. As our results show, commuting is often combined with other activities. Apart from the already mentioned purchasing activities, ‘social activities’, ‘leisure’ or ‘sport’ are very often combined with commuting travels. A large number of commuters stated that they already frequently search the internet for information, i.e., timetables or route information. This shows that users are open to regular advice on the best travel alternative via their mobile phone or the Internet, which is a promising prerequisite for the use of MaaS. Therefore, legislators and policymakers would do well to create the conditions for the establishment of such user-oriented and tailor-made mobility solutions. This can be done by the opening of booking systems or promoting market entries for new companies and start-ups.

Effective parking strategies

Another important often mentioned aspect why people use a private car is the factor “free parking space at work”. This should be taken into account when performing, e.g., mobility management in companies. Policymakers could also address this by not allowing free parking spaces in towns and at work, as long as it is in their authority. Parking management should be used as a tool for supporting sustainable commuting wherever possible. This is especially the case when new buildings are built or when companies are relocating or expanding their activities. People who live or work in a building with an underground car park might also be forced to use these parking spaces instead of cheaper, but space-consuming over-ground parking lots.

Increasing the attractiveness of public transport

Public transport users in Basel consider their mode of transport more often as a cheaper alternative compared to other modes of commuting. In addition, respondents appreciate the ‘reliability’ and the possibility ‘to avoid traffic jams’ thanks to public transport. The factor ‘weather’ is also quite popular among the respondents. In addition, the factor ‘faster’ seems to have a positive impact on the attractiveness of public transport. The factor ‘possibility to work during commuting’ is still a relevant reason for some users. The survey also comprised a question about factors that would motivate participants to use more public transport. On top of the list is the item ‘cheaper tickets’. These results show, which factors the users value in the public transport and thus where the focus should be placed on a planned increase of attractiveness of the public transport. Employers can also be included in these measures, especially regarding ticket costs. In Switzerland, many companies already support their employees by reimbursing tickets.

User groups: Young age groups

In the survey data, it became apparent that younger age groups use the car less. By default, this corresponds to a trend, which also has been observed in other studies. Young people showed a decreasing interest in private car-based mobility, which showed itself, e.g., with a lower driving licence possession. However, it may be that a peak in this development is reached. In the last Swiss micro-census (2015), it became apparent that the reduction of driving licences among young people stopped. In the Basel commuter survey, similar effects were also seen. However, efforts should be done to build upon this trend, especially as young people seem to be more interested in mobility alternatives: regarding the openness towards mobility alternatives, the group with the highest openness towards these alternatives is the youngest one. Our analysis suggests that age is significantly related to a higher openness to car-/ridesharing. As a car- or ridesharing is still neither widely accepted nor used, there is a need for awareness raising. Policies or information campaigns would gain the most response when targeting young people, which are already open for sharing systems and these services can then widen their customer base with an increasing awareness of the whole society due to word-of-mouth marketing.

Next: General recommendations for decision-makers