This is a question Active Travel England’s new head, Chris Boardman, posed recently and it wouldn’t be outlandish to assume that the instinctive answer for many would be: cars.

For decades, our towns and cities have been built or renovated around them to ensure that the private vehicle was the primary mode of transport. Only in the last five to 10 years has there been a large awakening to the negative externalities of our car-dependent lives: air pollution, congestion, sedentary lifestyles, lack of social interaction and acres of public space reserved for cars. These are just some of the drawbacks that local authorities are now trying to unpick, as they try to shift our streets from being places for cars to places for people.

COP26’s transport declaration stated plainly that: “alongside the shift to zero emission vehicles, a sustainable future for road transport will require wider system transformation, including support for active travel, public and shared transport.” Cities are already acting. Low emission zones are becoming the norm across the UK, European city centres are creating large car-free areas, pedestrianised streets are transforming urban spaces and sustainable modes of transport are booming and taking priority.

However, with 75% of Europe’s population living in cities, the automotive industry will want to maintain its presence and voice within this vast and largely prosperous demographic. But how can companies do this in an age of purpose-led consumerism? Here are a few thoughts.

Active Travel

If we want to reach our net zero carbon emissions, we have to change how we move – especially for short journeys. In the UK 59% of all journeys five miles and under are done by car, a distance that can be covered by micro-mobility. Automotive companies need to encourage their customers to travel these smaller journeys by active modes and help turn down the temperature on ‘road ownership’ as the vulnerable road users are prioritised.  

In 2018, Ford began this journey by creating more harmony and empathy between cyclists and motorists on our streets with the experiment ‘WheelSwap’. Their desire to drive behavioural change and understanding of vulnerable road users has kickstarted a more holistic approach to driving responsibly. Ford’s dalliance with micro-mobility company Spin, had allowed them to better understand customers’ travel habits and behaviours in urban areas.

More car brands need to embrace active travel in similar ways, purposefully using their resource and audience to increase the propensity to cycle or walk. New French media regulations require car advertisements to encourage methods of active travel, and Renault’s latest advert does this wonderfully. Will we see other countries impose this advertising disclaimer?

Charging for the community

The book ‘Curbing Traffic’ argues that “the rise of automobility has inextricably changed the concept of a street from a place to stay, into a place to pass through.” In 1974 nearly a third of Americans reported spending time with their neighbours at least twice a week, almost 50 years on and that number has halved.

As authorities and car charging providers scramble to keep up with the pace of EV adoption, the automotive industry can play a part in reshaping streets to become social places again. I was inspired by the ingenuity of ‘parklets’ that became commonplace across the world during COVID-19, taking the space of car parks and transforming them into areas for the entire community to enjoy.

Arup’s prototype design for an EV charging point (below) shows the value in repurposing space to benefit a neighbourhood as well as its environment. According to GreenBuilt Alliance, if a small amount of tree cover is included in these spaces at mass scale, we can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50-85%. Electric charging companies, in partnership with local authorities, need to make sure their purpose extends beyond the charging cable to create areas that rejuvenate neighbourhoods

The last mile conundrum

Commercial vehicle providers need to offer more than just electrified fleets now that there are over 14 million parcels generated each day. Cities are being strangled by delivery vans, particularly in the UK where one study reported van traffic has grown by 71% over the last 20 years, compared to 13% growth in cars.

Businesses are favouring electric cargo bikes over vans for last mile deliveries due to their speed, low emissions and ability to dodge congestion. With potential load capacities of 350kg and pedal-assist motors aside, electric cargo bikes also demonstrate health and well-being benefits for their riders, which can contribute to healthier and happier workforces.

While Ford’s Last Mile Delivery provides a connected platform bringing different modes together for the final journey to the customer, is it time for commercial vehicle providers to truly embrace two-wheel manufacturing too? Volkswagen teased an e-cargo bike in 2018, whilst car brands have long had an affinity with pedal-powered machines.

Our cities, and their leaders, are on a journey to reducing car dependency in our everyday lives. This societal shift will require a fundamental rethink from the automotive industry on how they engage with customers in a multi-modal world.