Future mobility is electric, shared and autonomous

30 May 2023
While we tend to blame the weather for the UAE's car dependency, mobility habits are also influenced by infrastructure, urban design and convenience, says Masdar City's Stephen Severance


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As the UAE prepares to host Cop28 during its Year of Sustainability, we need to consider the future of transportation across the region. Mobility worldwide is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels, making it a leading cause of carbon emissions – and the UAE is not exempt. 

According to a report by the International Energy Agency, transportation emissions grew at an annual average rate of nearly 1.7 per cent from 1990 to 2021—faster than any other end-use sector. If we’re going to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, transportation emissions need to reduce dramatically.

Making a city’s transportation more sustainable is complex. It’s not as simple as installing more electric charging stations. We need to fundamentally understand how transportation knits cities together.

Mobility habits

In Abu Dhabi, people like driving for several reasons. We like to focus on the weather. It would be hard to convince anyone to walk to and wait at a bus stop when it’s 45C with 90 per cent humidity.

The trouble is that the habits we form in August persist year-round – even though for a significant portion of the year, the weather in the UAE is just as pleasant as it is in European and North American cities with well-used public transportation systems.

Mobility habits in the UAE are driven by much more than weather: they’re also driven by infrastructure, urban design and convenience.

Norway's purchase taxes for a new car are driven by its carbon emissions: big, fuel-inefficient vehicles mean much higher tax bills

Electric vehicles

As I shared on a panel at the Mobility Live conference in May, future transportation, both in the UAE and worldwide, will be electric, shared and autonomous.

Electric personal vehicles provide a reasonably low-barrier transportation alternative in a city such as Abu Dhabi, which already caters to vehicles.

We can learn a few things from Norway, the world’s largest per-capita market for electric vehicles. In Oslo, electric car drivers enjoy toll-free roads, access to bus lanes, free parking and free charging.

Drivers of cars powered by fossil fuels are at a disadvantage: Norway’s price per litre of fuel is far higher than the global average. Additionally, the purchase taxes for a new car are driven by its carbon emissions: big, fuel-inefficient vehicles mean much higher tax bills. 

Shared fleets

Shared transportation is another important solution for the UAE to consider investing in further. Services such as Dubai-based ekar allow drivers to rent cars nearby and pay by the minute or the day. Masdar City worked with ekar to become the first market in the world to use Teslas for this purpose.

The challenge is that to fuel more widespread use, the fleets need to grow. In 2020, ekar had 200,000 active members in the region. ShareNow, a German car-sharing company operating in cities across Europe, has over four million members.

Public transit

Public transportation is far less popular in Abu Dhabi than in many other parts of the world. Now for the chicken or egg question: Would public transit ridership here increase if there were faster, more efficient and convenient routes? Or should we expand routes only in response to rider demand? 

Today, getting from Saadiyat to Yas Island will take 25 minutes in a car or two hours on public transit. Which option would you choose?

Driverless vehicles

An even more challenging – and intriguing – component of next-generation transportation is autonomy. 

Autonomous vehicles can increase safety and fuel efficiency, and reduce the need for long-haul drivers of goods, among other things. 

At Masdar City, we understand that cities cannot be sustainable without clean transportation. This is why we have pioneered two generations of vehicles that are shared, autonomous and electric.

The first generation, our Personal Rapid Transit system, carries passengers underground in pods from our North Car Park to the Masdar City podium and back on a set track. To date, the PRT has carried over two million passengers.

Our second generation of autonomous vehicles, Navya, is a step up from the PRT. It operates on top of the podium and interacts with the public realm, though in a limited way: Masdar City’s podium is open only to pedestrians and golf carts. But as I am fond of showing visitors, there is almost no risk of Navya colliding with either one. 

We’re currently working on our third generation of autonomous electric vehicles that can mingle with regular traffic. Our goal as we test these technologies is to create viable, sustainable solutions that can be rolled out elsewhere in the region.

We need to redesign and retrofit our cities to allow sustainable mobility – of all modes – to become more feasible 

Sustainable solutions

Masdar City has also prioritised walkability. The podium is car-free. Additionally, buildings are placed close together and oriented to the wind to provide walkways that are both shaded and breezy. The podium feels about 10C cooler than downtown Abu Dhabi on any given day.

As one of my fellow panellists at Mobility Live shared, we need to redesign and retrofit our cities to allow sustainable mobility – of all modes – to become more feasible.

This could mean adding more sidewalks, creating safe, separated bike or scooter paths along highways, adding more efficient bus routes, and increasing the number of electric vehicle charging stations throughout the city. 

There will be no one-size-fits-all approach – we’ll need to consider how these systems integrate, particularly along high-traffic corridors. Can a commuter safely take an electric scooter or bicycle to a bus stop and then get on the bus? In Vancouver, Canada, cyclists can hang their bikes on the front of city buses before boarding. 

Walking and cycling are preferred modes of transport in many European cities year-round. While the stereotypical 'mom' vehicle in North America is the minivan, mothers in Amsterdam often use bicycles. Family bikes have ample space between the saddle and the handlebars, and between the saddle and the back wheel to fit a child’s seat. The bikes are sturdy and stable enough to carry bags and shopping. 

Cultural norms 

One could point to European cities’ urban design and history to explain why their transportation differs so dramatically from the Middle East’s. The cities are generally smaller and more compact. Paris, regarded as one of the most walkable cities in the world, is only 10 kilometres across, meaning you could conceivably walk from one end to the other in about two hours.

A lot of European infrastructure also pre-dates motor vehicles. In the historical district of Naples, many streets are barely wide enough for a single car. 

I would argue that European transportation habits are more complex than the urban environment, though. Their governments have indeed prioritised pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. But walking in Europe has also been a cultural norm since before the UAE was founded.

Public and private sectors, as well as government, have a role to play here. But we as a people also need to think about changing how we move. 

Social change theorists say behavioural change requires capability, opportunity and motivation. We’re already capable of using alternatives to private motor vehicles, and significant infrastructure investments will create more opportunities.

What about motivation? We could explore financial incentives, such as in Norway. We could also appeal to people’s need for convenience by creating more public transportation options. I, for one, can’t wait for the passenger train between Dubai and Abu Dhabi – I’ll be one of the first passengers.  

Within the UAE’s Year of Sustainability and in the lead-up to Cop28, we need to consider how high the stakes have risen. In cities such as Toronto and New York, alternative transportation has long been touted as a solution to road congestion that makes cities more livable.

But in 2023, we’re not just looking to save time. We’re looking to save the planet.

We will not achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement without a dramatic shift toward cleaner, more creative mobility options.

I’ll meet you at the scooter shop.

Visit Masdar City here

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