Can shared mobility help serve the transport needs of residents in north of the Netherlands and save the planet?

Seven students from five RUG faculties – Economics and Business, Behavioural and Social Science, Campus Fryslân, Law, and Spatial Sciences – have been looking into that question over the past few months and will present their findings to the province of Groningen in mid-April.

They have been conducting their research as part of SMiLES (Shared connectivity in Mobility and Logistics Enable Sustainability) which is a five-year interfaculty living lab looking into sustainability, transport and logistics in Groningen, Drenthe and Friesland funded by NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research) and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management.

The students met with representatives from the provincial government of Groningen in January to discuss the project. Photo by Carina Havenga de Poel

Founded in November 2019, SMiLES is a consortium of 18 business partners (including public transport, telecoms, logistics, and regional governments, among others), 6 faculties at the RUG (in addition to those mentioned above, the Faculty of Science and Engineering is also involved), researchers from the Hanze, a lector and several instructors from the Noorderpoort vocational school, and dozens of students, PhD candidates, post docs and professors.

How can shared mobility work in rural areas?

Christian Nobel

Christian Nobel, senior advisor for sustainable mobility in the province of Groningen, says the provincial government asked the students to advise them on one (complex) question: “How can shared mobility work in rural areas?”

The students who worked on the provincial project are still in the middle of their research, but they have been studying shared mobility as one proposed solution to reduce emissions from the transport sector.

“Just as buses are more energy efficient than personal vehicles, sharing vehicles is more energy efficient than individual transport”, the students explained in a joint statement about their work. “However, introducing shared mobility is not only a measure to mitigate climate change, but also to ensure equal opportunities for all.”

But what does shared mobility mean, exactly? And why is it a challenge to make it successful outside of cities?

Shared mobility

Professor by special appointment Taede Tillema

Taede Tillema, a professor by special appointment at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences and one of the researchers in SMiLES since 2019, defines shared mobility as “public transport, smart transport, and all kinds of sharing initiatives or platforms, like shared cars, shared bicycles, and infrastructure like transport hubs.”

The Netherlands has a strong public transport system, Tillema says, but “there is always a trade-off between what the costs are and how easy it is to use for travellers.”

The increasing need for transport hubs and shared transportation options outside of cities arises from several trends: higher poverty levels in rural areas, centralization of public facilities, scarcity of public transportation, and the energy transition.

“There is always a trade-off between what the costs are and how easy it is to use for travellers”

As populations decline in small villages, recreational and vital public facilities – from pools and movie theatres to schools and doctor’s offices – are closing. Those that remain open have to serve a larger and more geographically diffuse community. Public transport has simultaneously shrunk as costs have risen, and higher costs mean fewer bus and train routes, and fewer stops on the lines that continue to operate.

Public transport as a public good

IT Law professor Aline Klingenberg

IT law professor Aline Klingenberg from the Faculty of Law, who has also been part of SMiLES from the beginning, says the move from nationalized to privatized transport over the years can be explained by changing Dutch legal views on whether transportation and mobility are a public good.

“Forty or fifty years ago in the Netherlands and I think most European countries, we thought that public transport was a task for the government”, Klingenberg says. “We thought that taking care of infrastructure and mobility on every level was a public task. And then, we gradually started thinking that the government should not be doing that, and it should be privatized. Those are societal choices you make in parliament, and that is when the law is changed.”

“We thought that public transport was a task for the government”

But lack of access to reliable and affordable public transport options, also known as mobility poverty, reinforces continued reliance on private cars. “Car use is so habitual and ingrained, especially if you’re living in a rural area,” says Berfu Ünal, project coordinator of SMiLES and associate professor of social and environmental psychology as Campus Fryslân, the newest faculty of the University of Groningen based in Leeuwarden.

So even if people have positive experiences when trying out potential solutions, like car sharing or using e-bikes to reach transport hubs, they may still choose to stick with their own automobiles.

Convenience and context matter

Associate professor Berfu Ünal

“They still find it a bit difficult to get rid of their car and solely rely on shared vehicles,” Ünal says. “Perceived convenience appears to be an important factor. The context matters, and that means the availability of infrastructure for shared vehicles as well as supporting legal and policy frameworks. That should support the behaviour to make it easier and more convenient for people to reduce their car use.”

Another challenging aspect of integrating shared mobility is data, which is what much of the law faculty’s involvement with SMiLES revolves around. “Data is considered the new oil: everyone wants it”, Klingenberg says. Using public transport with a card that checks in and out generates user data, so adding more companies, from e-bikes to car sharing services, into the transport mix will require even more user data.

A top-down approach can be a way of effectively pushing people to stop using their cars, for example by raising taxes or fuel prices, or laws mandating all cars rolling off assembly lines in 2030 must be electric. But it isn’t always realistic, much less desirable, to more or less force people by law to change instead of taking their needs into consideration and thereby engendering more acceptance.

Sustainable solutions to societal issues

For example, someone whose job involves irregular hours or working night shifts can’t use public transport. “You can’t tell someone who’s still really dependent on their car that they can’t use it anymore”, Ünal says. “That’s why we need to make sure that shared mobility is not only a sustainable solution, but also an inclusive solution, particularly for those with limited accessibility and mobility poverty.”

Unequal access to shared or public transport is a societal issue, and the fact that SMiLES is a living lab reflects Klingenberg’s thinking on how laws should be developed. “Law does not operate in a vacuum,” she says. “Lawyers who are just contemplating the law in their office might be interesting for philosophical ideas, but you need to know why you’re doing it and what the problems are that you’re dealing with.”

“We need to make sure that shared mobility is not only a sustainable solution, but also an inclusive solution, particularly for those with limited accessibility and mobility poverty.”

“Systems should reflect the basic principles we think are important in society, like equality, autonomy for people, or privacy protection”, Klingenberg says.

Bundling logistics

Logistics in rural and urban areas is also within the scope of SMiLES, with much research into that topic coming from the Faculty of Economics and Business. Especially when it comes to the “last mile” (or kilometre) of deliveries in city centres, there is work to be done to make that leg of the journey more sustainable.

Switching delivery vehicles from petrol to electric is necessary, but another possible solution is “bundling”, a concept that associate professor Ilke Bakir and assistant professor Marjolein Aerts from FEB have been investigating. Bundling means that “deliveries are brought together in a hub outside the zero-emission zone in the heart of the city and delivered to customers by one carrier – Bidfood in this hypothetical scenario. In this way, customers receive deliveries less often, fewer trucks drive in the city and there is a reduction in the number of kilometers driven,” according to an interview published with Hive.Mobility earlier this year.

Bike courier. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

And cities have to get a move on: Groningen and Assen are among 33 municipalities across the Netherlands that have agreed to become emission-free zones over the next few years.

“To reach net-zero emission mobility, you really need dedicated solutions for those rural areas too, right?”, Ünal says. “That means changing behaviour, which is currently really car-dependent. So our focus is on understanding the barriers for behaviour change and addressing them, for example by designing interventions together with our societal partners like the province of Groningen to how to motivate people to participate in community car-sharing initiatives and reduce their car use.”

Benefits of an interdisciplinary approach

SMiLES represents many of the University of Groningen’s biggest priorities: addressing the societal needs of the northern Netherlands, achieving a sustainable society and facilitating the green energy transition, collaborating with partners in the field, and carrying out research together with other faculties.

Researchers, partners and students in SMiLES all recognise that an interdisciplinary approach is not just a good opportunity, it’s vital when considering such fundamental and complex matters as public transportation and infrastructure.

A benefit of working across disciplinary lines is easier communication among a fairly large group of researchers and public partners, especially compared to working within a single large organization. Tillema also says he appreciates that the connections with researchers outside his own faculty mean a fresh academic network for future collaborative studies.

A fun project

Throughout their project, the students have also recognized the necessity of collaborating with other disciplines and the crucial insights such an approach can yield.

“Public transport and logistics involves so many different aspects that need to be considered”, like behavioural factors that motivate people to try out new concepts, ensuring economically viable (and profitable) business, respecting the legal rights of everyone involved, and incorporating spatial sciences at every step.

“Accounting for the different aspects and bringing together different perspectives was needed to present well-rounded advice to the province of Groningen. To us, this is an exciting and fun project where we are gaining experience working together with students from other faculties, and exploring and researching a very interesting topic.”

“For fresh ideas, you need young people”

Another view that all of the participants in SMiLES share is that facilitating better shared transport options is great, but all the technology and planning in the world won’t have much impact if people don’t actually use it. That requires convenient, accessible and sustainable solutions proposed by researchers that local governments and companies can roll out that people will accept and adopt.

Nobel says that the province appreciates the benefits of working together with student researchers in particular when it comes to sustainable transportation. “For fresh ideas, you need young people. Students can advise us very well because they are not yet stuck in the thinking that many experts and consultants are in. That’s why I like SMiLES so much.”