Solve ‘Last Mile’? Turn motorists into pedestrians and cyclists
Last Mile: it’s the Holy Grail of urban mobility. Experts have been looking for the easiest, most sustainable way to deliver people and goods into inner cities. Yet the answer is blindingly obvious: walking and cycling. Yes, this may require some infrastructure realignments and investments. But those come with huge ROIs.
The ‘Last Mile Problem’, in a nutshell: traditional transport modes like cars and trains almost get you where you need to be. But city centres are increasingly inaccessible to fossil-fuel-powered vehicles; and trains and other tracked transport are limited in their flexibility by the very rails on which they glide.
Some people seem to be expecting drone technology to solve our Last Mile problem. But if the electric scooters clogging up so many cities today teach us one thing, it’s that technology may not be the solution. The answer may be decidedly more low-tech: walking and cycling. A few decades ago, that idea would have been laughed out of every mobility-focused meeting. Car was king. But since then, our combustion-centric mindset has produced crippling levels of congestion and pollution. As a result, the concept of turning motorists into cyclists and/or pedestrians is sounding a lot less far-fetched today.
Of the many arguments for turning commuters off motorized transport, health is the most immediate one. Research published in the British Medical Journal in 2017 shows significant health benefits of walking or cycling to work.
- Cycle commuters scored significantly better for heart disease (46% less likely to develop it; 52% less likely to die from it), and cancer (45% lower development risk; 40% lower death risk).
- Those who walked to work had a 27% lower risk of heart disease, and a 36% lower risk of dying from it.
- Longer distances meant greater health benefits, but even those who cycled only part of the way lowered their health risks.
Or, to approach the topic from the opposite direction: a 2014 study by Public Health England shows that physical inactivity directly contributes to one in six deaths in the UK and costs businesses and wider society £7.4 (€8.3) billion a year.
Walking and cycling are not only good for the individual, but also for the environment: by replacing vehicles that are still mainly powered by internal combustion engines, they help improve air quality and reduce emissions and noise levels.
In light of such obvious benefits, the study called on the UK’s local and national governments to promote commuting on foot or by bike. There’s plenty of room for improvement. Only 3% of Brits cycle to work, and just 11% walk. On the other end of the scale, 43% of the Dutch and 30% of Danes cycle daily.
Indeed, the uptake of cycling varies greatly per country. In Germany, 11% of all trips are done by cycle. In Denmark, it’s 18% and in the Netherlands 27%. In the UK, it’s no more than 2%. Such differences are often, and all too easily, ascribed to differences in culture. But they are also, and perhaps primarily, due to differences in infrastructure.
Dedicated bike lanes, never mind ones that are separated from motorised traffic, are as absent in the UK as they are present in the other northern European countries mentioned. Plenty of habitual cyclists who move to the UK, give up the habit.
The Dutch capital Amsterdam and Copenhagen, the Danish one, are often touted as the best examples of cycling cities – ‘copenhagenisation’ has even become a verb that expresses urban efforts to improve cycling.
But even these two beacons of biking have had to work at their (well-earned) reputation. Only a few decades ago, they too were car-centric cities. Only by developing and maintaining clear strategies that focused on improving cycling infrastructure were they able to turn the tide.
There is a whole range of inexpensive ways to improve walking and cycling infrastructure: upgrading and connecting sidewalks and cycle lanes, and addressing the security concerns of pedestrians and cyclists, to name but two. Measures like these can have a significant, quantifiable effect on traffic, a study by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (Canada) shows:
- Improving walking and cycling conditions led to a 15% decrease in demand for parking space in the area affected.
- Up to 20% of drivers in the area affected reported their trips had become shorter, by up to 20%.
- Overall traffic volume had gone down as a result, by up to 4%.
Improved walking and cycling also generated a cascade effect, the study states, as walkers are more likely to cycle, and vice versa; and both are more likely to use a mix of smart mobility modes, shared and/or sustainable.
This is where ‘Last Mile’ comes into the picture: improved walking and cycling infrastructure will not just benefit commuters, but also improve access to urban centres for others. In the first place for consumers – providing a much-needed boost for the ‘bricks-and-mortar’ retail sector, struggling to fight back against online shopping.
But also for delivery companies – the latter dispatching their wares from transfer stations on the city’s edge, using newer, smaller, post-fossil vehicles to do so, such as the electric cargo bikes already used by various postal services.
Compared to the massive investments required to set up road or rail infrastructure, the amounts involved in setting up adequate walking and cycling environment – often consisting of no more than a clever tweaking of the existing infrastructure – is relatively cheap.
And it would reap significant benefits, financial ones as well as health ones. According to the 2016 Highways England Cycling Strategy, getting the English to cycle as much as the Danish would
- Increase mobility of the nation’s poorest by up to 25%
- Save road space by 33%, helping to reduce congestion
- Save the National Health Service £17 (€19) billion within 20 years
- Increase retail sales by 25%.
So, how exactly did countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany achieve their status as bicycle-loving countries?
Various studies produce one specific recommendation: to make cycling a safe, convenient and practical to get around cities, provide separate cycling lanes along busy roads and intersections. Building on that basis, provide ample bike parking, integration with public transport, traffic-calming measures, plus education and promotion for cyclists and motorists alike.
The flipside of promoting cycling (and walking) is that the aforementioned countries are also increasingly taxing fossil-fuel-based mobility and actively making it inconvenient to drive petrol and diesel cars into city centres and park them there. Experts agree that success in promoting cycling (and walking) depends on doing both: encourage walking and cycling; and discourage driving.
While that may explain the reluctance of some governments to take a more active role in promoting walking and cycling, the fact is that restrictions on motorised traffic are already happening, for a variety of reasons – ranging from environmental and health concerns to the rise of shared and multimodal mobility.
Promoting walking and cycling is the smart way to respond, both from a societal viewpoint and for the benefit of a leaner, greener and more cost-effective corporate mobility strategy. Plus, it would finally solve that persistent ‘Last Mile’ problem…