Whose Mobility Transition is Electric?

New questions raised at the first Bristol stakeholder workshop

We held a stakeholder workshop in Bristol in mid-October to start our investigations into how an inclusive transition to electric mobility can be achieved and accelerated in medium-sized European cities. After an engaging session, we gained insights into questions not only of who is included in the transition to electric mobility, but also whose transition to decarbonised or sustainable mobility is electric.
We had representatives from the public, private and third sectors who work at all different geographic scales, from neighbourhood to national. This diversity is indicative not only of the complexity of policy-making, but also of the groups and interests who have a stake in the transition. 
Indeed, we were told of groups of people who cannot be categorised by their mobility interests, but who still are involved in the transitions to sustainable and electric mobility. Even those who form civic organisations focusing on other issues, from jobs and skills to creativity and health, find themselves being asked about mobility issues. Mobility connects us all, and the urgency of transitioning to sustainable mobility is all-encompassing.
And yet, there is far from universal agreement on the nature of the problems that the urgent transition is required to solve and the role of electric mobility in solving them.
In Bristol, road congestion, poor public transport services, areas of urban sprawl, and air pollution trapped by topography were all raised as related and relevant problems. Public, private and shared electric vehicles (EV) may be part of the solution, but our workshop uncovered some scepticism, with participants wondering whether they are more likely to be a distraction from policy and investment in active travel.
There was also scepticism around whether electric mobility could ever be inclusive if it is not affordable. Electric cars, and indeed bicycles, are assumed to be so much more expensive to purchase than the fossil-fuel or mechanical alternatives, that even for groups like taxi drivers, who use their vehicles for a living, felt that enforcing a switch was exclusionary. If affordability of electric mobility is viewed as a problem in what is often seen as a relatively wealthy provincial city in the UK, it again begs the question as to whose transition to sustainable mobility is electric. 
The question of affordability, as well as questions around what are the benefits of electric mobility and whether they solve transport and related problems in Bristol, meant our workshop participants perceived a lot of uncertainty around identifying and understanding business models and target markets for different forms of electric mobility.
For example, electric car clubs were seen as poorly integrated into the street-scape and not necessarily attracting users who would benefit most or who would reduce their car ownership. Tax incentives are available for e-bikes, but they are still much more expensive than traditional pedal bikes, whilst private e-scooters aren’t yet legal on the roads, but attract residents from more deprived neighbourhoods as the most affordable form of electric mobility.
On the other hand, privately-owned e-scooters might not be the most inclusive form of electric mobility for other groups with other needs and other knowledge, who are asking questions about safety, infrastructure, and health impacts. For a mode that was introduced in the UK suddenly and without any policy framework, answering these questions may take some time.
And so we ended our workshop with new questions rather than simple answers into whose sustainable mobility transition is electric – and why.
20 October 2021