Smart Mobility: Utopia within our grasp

As British writer George Orwell said with penetrating irony, “Nearly all creators of utopia have resembled the man who has a toothache, and therefore thinks that happiness consists in not having a toothache…”. For those who are forced to spend hours every day stuck in traffic in congested, polluted cities, Utopia is a place where traffic flows freely, there are plenty of free parking spaces and cars are quiet and emission-free.

The victim of this “road toothache” is the average Italian driver; mobility in Italy is no longer sustainable, according to a report compiled by Bain & Company called “Smart Mobility and Italians.”

 

A sombre outlook for “traditional” mobility

One piece of data stands out above all – there are 620 cars on Italy’s roads for every 1,000 citizens. In France and Spain, the two most culturally similar nations, the figures are 500 and 480 respectively. The situation is critical in the big cities above all, especially for commuters. This has a negative impact in terms of both the economy and quality of life. On average, every commuter wastes between 60 and 90 hours in traffic every year, with a total cost to the economy of around five billion euro. “A sombre outlook,” says the document, especially for a country where tourism plays such a significant economic role.

Rome and Lazio present a typical example. The Italian capital is the world’s 13th most congested city, with 71 cars for every 100 people, compared to 32 in Madrid and 45 in Paris. Rome is the destination for a total of 75% of the region’s commuters, while in Piedmont and Veneto the proportion of motorists heading for the regional capitals is 52% and 17% respectively. Furthermore, in 60% of cases the driver is the only person in the car.  

The situation is far from ideal, and the prospects for the near future seem to offer little hope of improvement. In fact, the average time for travel to work has increased from 29 minutes in 2001 to 32 in 2011. In other words, things are looking even worse.

 

A light at the end of the tunnel

“There is, however, one sign of changes to come,” says the report, and that is e-mobility, which could come to the rescue of the environment by giving cities clean air and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Italy is taking part in the e-mobility revolution, although it lags slightly behind the countries that are leading the way in Europe.

According to the Bain & Company survey, when asked “Would you buy an electric car in the next five years?” 78% of Italians were open to the idea (55% “perhaps” and 23% “definitely yes”). Their environmental awareness is confirmed by the reasons given, with 75% of those willing to consider switching to an electric vehicle saying they would do so in order to pollute less.

The figures reflect the facts – according to the “E-Mobility Revolution” study, carried out for Enel by The European House – Ambrosetti, the number of new e-vehicle registrations in Italy between 2005 and 2016 grew by an average of 41% a year. For cars in particular in 2016 alone the total increased by 60% compared with the previous year.

 

Sharing and digital

E-transport, however, is only a partial solution, addressing the problem of pollution but not traffic. Potentially decisive methods for decongesting cities do exist, however, in the form of car sharing (drivers share a vehicle, using it at different times) and carpooling (passengers use the car at the same time, with a single driver).

These solutions have already proved their effectiveness and are becoming more widely adopted, providing economic, environmental and practical benefits like significant savings in the time and energy taken to find a parking space. Together, e-mobility and sharing systems can maximise benefits. For example, a car sharing company that replaces its entire fleet with e-vehicles is sure to have a more powerful impact than a single buyer.

Italians, though, still seem attached to the idea of owning their vehicle, which they perceive as a status symbol. The E-Mobility Revolution study revealed that only 17% have used single car sharing services (like Car2Go), 15% have used carpooling services (like BlaBlaCar) and just 7% have joined carpooling groups.

The phenomenon is analysed in a document called “Car Sharing in Italy: a tactical solution or strategic alternative?”, also authored by Bain & Company in collaboration with ANIASA (the Italian Car hire Association) and Toluna, a market research company.

The picture that emerges shows that Italian users of shared mobility services adopt a pragmatic approach, as is the case abroad, but display little loyalty and only use them occasionally. It also seems that they regard these services not as a replacement for their own car but rather as an alternative option to public transport.

 

How to progress

Well-entrenched habits are always had to break. As is often the case, signs of change are appearing among the young. While only 3% of the over-50s have used car sharing at least once, this rises to 25% for the under-30s.

But this is still not enough. In order to change a practice that Italians are so closely wedded to means offering advantageous conditions in return, emphasising all the benefits of sustainable transport: e-mobility for the environment and car sharing for quality of life.

As for e-vehicles, it is crucial to provide an adequate charging infrastructure network. While Italy is still lagging behind other countries in this regard, it is on the right path – figures from the E-mobility Report by the Milan Polytechnic show that in 2016 alone the number of public charging stations rose by 28%, reaching a total of 1800 (20% of the total). The target for 2020 is to install between 4,500 and 13,000 regular charging stations and 2,000-6,000 stations with a power output in excess of 22 kW. Another decisive resource is rapid charge technology, which can make all the difference, especially for public infrastructure.

A number of measures must be taken in order to make car sharing competitive, but they all depend on digitalisation - price levelling between car sharing services and public road and rail transport, and integration on a regional level, unifying services between the various municipalities in a metropolitan area. On a political level there should be tax incentives for companies that adopt sustainable mobility initiatives.

These are just a few of the recommendations put forward in the Bain & Company report, but if they are implemented then Italy’s cities will see fleets of silent, cost-effective e-vehicles operating as part of car-sharing schemes. Seen from the point of view of a driver stuck in traffic on a smog-choked highway, it may look like a Utopia – but it’s a Utopia that’s within our grasp.

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