In the wonderland of sustainable mobility

We are in a strange world where the word sustainable mobility has assumed a multitude of interpretations. Mobility is stuck so much to a passenger car that as common citizens, we have stopped thinking any differently.  

Let us try and examine some realities... 

Even in large cities, more than half the trips happen on foot, bicycles and public transport. Most of the road, probably more than 80% is occupied by private cars, accounting for just one passenger per car. The investment in good roads, and flyovers etc., specifically in cities, is the largest chunk of development budgets.

If we need sustainable mobility, we need to look at several parameters for more comprehensive understanding of the problem:

0. First think of whether you need to move at all

1. Find best ways to move people rather than vehicles
2. Reduce pollution to a minimum
3. Ensure options for mobility are available to all the citizens equally irrespective of their economic status
4. Ensure that your mobility system is designed to avoid accidents
5. Traffic congestion is minimised
6. Consider high quality mobility for masses and not just the car owners
7. Reduce CO2 emission to the minimum

Our current view, as has been espoused across the western world (especially North America) and also followed blindly by us in India just calls for electrification of cars as the primary modus operandi for solving the sustainable mobility puzzle. 

What are some of the noteworthy facts around EVs?

  1. On an average 82% electricity is generated using fossil sources. While the mix has changed a bit, aggregate fossil consumption continues to increase.  
  2. For a typical battery electric vehicle - a much touted TESLA and the likes, one lifetime use of batteries in a Battery EV Car moves around 250 tonnes of earth to get to the required rare-earth metals. All of this is done today using heavy earth moving equipment, run on diesel. A whole lot of this mining causes other side effects, including loss of pristine habitats and hence associated biodiversity.
  3. The mission mode to increase the number of EVs in the growing car market in India is likely to create unprecedented load on the grid, requiring possibly higher base load. This base load electricity production can come only through coal based power plants.
  4. Increasing private cars push the need for added infrastructure, creating a pull for continued public investments for the car owners at the expense of everything else. And even then this investment has not solved the real mobility problem. The energy use and emissions associated with the infra development specifically for such private vehicles is not even attributed to car owners. 

Did you know that most of the energy generated by the battery of an EV is used to carry the load of the car itself rather than the person? It takes only 1.3% of the total energy to carry the weight of one person!

A typical small passenger EV weighs around 1200 kg (which is around 20% higher than the petrol car) and if it carries say a 60 kg person, it is carrying around 20 times the weight of the passenger. Considering the energy mix at the generator, it is around 35% to the grid and around 75% to convert battery electricity to motion. This means effective conversion efficiency is around 26% today. This means, if one person is using a car only around 1.3% (0.05 × 0.26 x 100) of the energy is used to move a person. Even with solid progress in the energy mix, this number is unlikely to cross 2.5% soon. It is an utter waste of energy, especially if it can be avoided.

The 1-2-3-4 principle

Interestingly, the sustainable mobility policy acknowledges these challenges and even then we continue to promote the passenger car industry, now notably EV. EVs could be a solution to the point-pollution problem, and possibly to CO2 emissions problem at some future date, but certainly not the comprehensive solution to the mobility problem.

Considering this analysis, I propose a simple but effective option for optimal energy use (and its translation to CO2 emission) ... a 1-2-3-4 principle.

  1. For reasonable distances and just one person wanting to move around - walk or cycle.
  2. If two of you must move together and distances are not too comfortable for cycling, use a motorised two wheeler.
  3. If the number is three of you wanting to move together some good distance in the city, use an auto rickshaw.
  4. If you are four and want to drive long distances, only then consider using a car.

The 1-2-3-4 rule will help all of us to be healthy and use energy effectively.

What can corporates do to incorporate sustainable mobility policy in their companies?

One of the important cogs in this thinking is how corporates incentivise or dis-incentivise their employees for a certain mode of mobility:

  1. Employees are rewarded with negotiated car loans and other favourable policies to own a car. And now even EVs.
  2. Those using public transport or company buses have to pay for the services and are not even acknowledged.
  3. Those very few who use bicycles, do that at their own risk and have no incentives - monetary or otherwise. 
  4. A large chunk of commuters on the road are people who work in corporate companies. 

Should corporates deploy sustainable mobility policies, a lot can change. These policies could also be budget neutral if deployed carefully. Here are some ideas for the corporates to consider:

  1. Incentivise bicycling, walking and public transport. Reimburse all their commute expenses, provide for better accident insurance cover. Provide bonuses. These modes automatically promote better health as well. 
  2. Special showers and changing rooms for those opting to use the sustainable options like cycling. 
  3. Provide last mile shared commute facilities for employees using public transport.
  4. Support distributed working locations and work from home options based on how the company operates.
  5. Charge for parking 4 wheelers and even motorised 2 wheelers. The proceeds could be used to incentivise other more sustainable modes.
  6. Provide training sessions to employees for them to understand sustainability and sustainable mobility.
  7. Encourage top officers to use bicycles - employees should look up to such options and aspire for these.
  8. Special acknowledgement afforded to those using sustainable mobility options.
  9. No specific incentives to those employees wanting to purchase cars. 

Progressive corporates could even dis-incentivise car ownership, while helping with shared mobility.

In summary,  

Citizens, corporates and policy makers should understand and appreciate the true nature of the mobility challenge from a holistic sustainability lens. Understand that EVs are only one of the pieces of the puzzle and solution. And finally corporates consider themselves as an important part of the mobility puzzle and offer to contribute to the solution!

By Ajay Phatak
Educator, Ecology & Sustainability, Trustee, Ecological Society, Entrepreneur

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