Our traditional mobility, fuelled by fossil fuels, must become more sustainable. This is a very complex undertaking with many facets. Where does the path lead?
A look back at the history of mankind shows that mobility is a fundamental human endeavour. What's more, it also represents a degree of success for our species, as early migratory movements, which were actually born out of necessity, ultimately led to a global presence. Whereas survival then was directly dependent on being mobile, in the 21st century we are confronted with a similar situation – but in the opposite sense. Today’s unlimited forms of mobility are now posing a threat to our livelihoods. Quite an absurd situation, actually.
Once a hardship, then a pleasure
For centuries, people had to rely on themselves to get from A to B. People were primarily pedestrians, while ox carts were reserved for transporting goods and carriages for the nobility. The roads were bad, and the dangers and hardships were considerable. Therefore, only those who absolutely had to travel set out, or when the government was called to send citizens to war. Even Goethe needed three attempts before he set off on his legendary trip to Italy in 1786.
All this changed dramatically with the first industrial revolution in the mid-19th century. The steam engine on rails increased the speed, the distances became shorter, and the risk of harm along the way decreased significantly. Along with the railway came tourism, also in Switzerland, where increasingly spectacular routes lured people into the Alps, creating destinations that people longed for. Mobility became a technical challenge, and going further, faster, and higher became the credo for mobility. The horse-drawn tram, the steamship, the car, the zeppelin, and finally the aeroplane were all logical developments.
A 90-minute journey every day
Today, we have reached the pinnacle of our mobility options, even if, contrary to the promises of enterprising entrepreneurs, space travel is still out of reach for the general public. Although mobility is usually associated with work-related needs, the numbers tell a different story: 44% of all journeys, regardless of the means of transport, are made by Swiss citizens in their free time, while only 24% are for work-related purposes (Federal Statistical Office, figures from 2015). Similar numbers apply to other European countries. Here’s another astonishing fact: The average time that people spend on the road each day is between 60 and 90 minutes. This value has remained unchanged for many decades, and is neither country- nor culture-specific. On the other hand, the distances covered vary: the Swiss travel an average of 36.8 kilometres per day, however Swiss women travel an average of ten kilometres less. This gender difference is also a constant: mobility is primarily male – and is predominantly done with one’s own vehicle. Public transport is used for only 17% of journeys, even though Switzerland is known as a railway country.
The impact is increasing
63 million road vehicles are registered in Switzerland, of which almost 4.7 million are passenger cars (2021), representing a 32% increase from 2000. Although every eighth new vehicle registered in 2021 was an electric car, this does not compensate for the general increase in emissions. In contrast to other sectors, the transport sector continues to produce more and more climate gases; in Germany, for example, road traffic alone accounts for 95%. The increase in the number of cars on the road, the greater distances travelled, and also the continued high vehicle-specific demand for fossil fuels, are considered to be the main reasons.
Transformation to what?
The transformation of individual mobility as we know it is not only inevitable for climate reasons. In addition to the energy source aspect, there are also the issues of resource consumption, land use, and waste disposal. All in all, the result is a complex, interrelated scenario that can hardly be resolved with the established schools of thought. For example, scientists recommend the expansion of material recycling, and the increased use of renewable raw materials to replace plastics. This also applies to electromobility, where factors such as resource minimisation, battery recycling, durability, and weight reduction are currently of secondary importance. If one were to simply electrify the principle of one’s own SUV passenger car, then congestion phenomena, land consumption, and resource requirements would remain unchanged. Moreover, if the electricity is generated in coal- or gas-fired power plants, the eco-balance would be completely ruined.
One solution could be multi-modal mobility. This means using different means of transport to get from A to B, which add up to an ecological, economical, and time-optimised mix. What’s more, while the cars we use today are universal, specific vehicles would be better. Small, light e-cars with low battery capacity would suffice for city traffic, while other configurations would be suitable for long distances.
Comprehensive, sustainable planning
Pedestrian and bicycle traffic also need new concepts, which are not always mutually compatible. The virtually exploding truck traffic represents an unresolved problem, as does air traffic. Green hydrogen and synthetic fuels are on the distant horizon.
Without a doubt, mobility must become more sustainable. Technology will be part of the solution, but not alone; it is also a matter of reprioritising, on both a small and large scale. The transformation is both exciting and challenging, but it can also bring us entirely new realities.