What is hindering sustainable mobility?

Have you ever wondered how many ways we are using different forms of transport in our everyday lives? Commuting to work, attending to hobbies, socialising, and reaching out to different kinds of services requires mobility and this is just for getting ourselves around. Additionally, the food and other necessities we consume require various modes of transport before we may use them. Personal mobility is needed to fulfill human basic needs such as food and shelter. For a society to be able to develop individuals also need education and various social services that personal mobility enables. That is why mobility is also a basic need for people and is often declared as a human right.

The global problem we have is the unsustainable way we are trying to fulfill these basic needs. Unsustainable development is often paired with unsustainable consumption – if we just stop consuming the next generation’s future will be guaranteed. This way of thinking doesn’t apply to basic human needs. We can’t just stop eating and similarly, we just can’t stop moving. For a sustainable future, we need to change in many ways not just individually but as a society.

The current state of the transport system is unsustainable. The transport sector produces one-fifth of carbon dioxide emissions globally and this is not the only impact it has on societies. Particle emissions and microplastics affect human health same as traffic accidents. Transport infrastructure requires a lot of space and changes our living environment which affects to quality of life. Poorly planned transport system reduces people’s access to services and that way reduces equality between people.

My research focuses on creating sustainable smart mobility solutions in the future. It is based on two primary tools. Firstly, there needs to be a way to evaluate smart mobility solutions’ sustainability in all dimensions (economic, environmental, and social) and secondly, there needs to be a viable and sustainable business model behind that solution. In my dissertation, I am researching several use-cases in different projects with a framework and a sustainable business model canvas.

Historically, economic aspects of sustainability have been acknowledged well and innovations developed have been market-driven and hence profitable. Nowadays, environmental and social aspects have been acknowledged better, but the focus has been on easily measurable indicators such as greenhouse gas emissions and traffic accidents. These kinds of indicators are relatively easy to convert to money currency which is one of the reasons that they are addressed more frequently than indicators harder to quantify. Social indicators such as equality, accessibility, and affordability are more complicated and they can be measured in various ways which makes them harder to compare.

Business models in smart mobility are mostly based on the servitization of mobility (mobility as a service, MaaS) which has huge potential to change the way we move and the way the mobility affects to world we’re living in. One of the benefits of servitization is that the ownership changes from individuals to organizations. This makes sustainable mobility more accessible and affordable when we don’t need to invest in a vehicle (electric bike, scooter, or car) but we can invest in the trip we make. In this business model, the control of the vehicle also moves to an organisation which makes it easier to affect the sustainability of mobility on a large scale by recycling the vehicles and controlling the usage of the vehicle. The sustainability of this change in business models depends on how the organizations are using their power to move towards sustainable mobility.

Unfortunately, much of the potential is missed because of the lack of far-sightedness. The solutions developed are expected to be profitable in the short-term and that is why many of the solutions have failed. The ones succeeding are not usually environmentally or socially viable. For example, shared cars are sold to end-users as a sustainable alternative to private cars but in many cases shared cars are used by people that don’t own a car in the first place. In other words, trips made by sustainable modes of transport (e.g. public transport) are replaced by shared cars. In addition, the more affordable use of personal vehicles increases the number of trips made possible by these solutions, which also leads to a negative shift in environmental impacts. The same phenomena can be seen in micro-mobility solutions such as electric scooters where trips made formerly with public transport, regular bike, or by foot are replaced by electric scooters. From the point of view of social sustainability, the aforementioned solutions have both positive and negative impacts. Accessibility and affordability increase especially for the groups of people that statistically don’t own private cars so often (e.g. women, immigrants, children) but for example accidents related to transport increase as less experienced drivers get access to vehicles.

Organizations in control of these solutions have enormous power over sustainability. They have the power to choose the materials and fuels for their vehicles and the way the vehicles are recycled at the end of their life cycle. They can also control where, when, and by whom the vehicles are used which affects the safety of these solutions and also the kind of trips these solutions replace. For individuals, selling points are fastness, easiness, and comfort but the external effects on the environment and society are neglected or even hidden from the public. Solutions are marketed as sustainable without the definition or guarantee of sustainability.

For a sustainable future, the problems we have should be designed out of the system to avoid new problems deriving from each problem solved. Transport politics play a major role in this matter and usually lag behind the innovations. This means that regulation, taxation, and infrastructure create unsustainable operational environments allowing short-term solutions for long-term problems. Both public and private actors in the transport system should proactively plan sustainable solutions. If we see that some non-market-driven solution is sustainable in the long-term it can be subsidised similarly to traditional public transport. For private actors, we need to require openness and responsibility about the materials, ethics, environmental impacts, and social impacts of their products and services. Fair competition needs to be enabled but we should not stand up against each other as solving these problems needs everyone. After all, we only have one world.


Researcher's picture
Doctoral Researcher
Civil Engineering
University of Oulu

Valtteri Ahonen works as a Doctoral Researcher in the Civil Engineering Research Unit (CIV). His dissertation studies the effects of different smart mobility solutions on the sustainability of transport system.