The past, present and future of shared mobility

Towards the end of 2015, our teams at TRL made some predictions about the future of shared mobility. TRL’s Chief Scientist, Shaun Helman, reviews the prediction and looks ahead at the prospects for shared mobility.

Published on 05 March 2021

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TRL's Prediction

Already familiar in the world of entertainment, the concept of paying for access instead of ownership will take an even greater hold in the transport sector. Where before, consumers may have seen car ownership as a status symbol, we are now experiencing a growth in people wanting to be able to take advantage of different types of transport for multiple purposes – whether taking a weekend away, commuting for work or moving house. As a result, car manufacturers and car sharing clubs, as well as public and private transport companies, are all racing to develop the next great innovation in shared mobility.

Did they get it right and what's going on in the industry now?

Overall, the prediction was accurate. Shared mobility services are certainly more common. Most people assume that shared mobility is a form of vehicle sharing service for personal transport – Uber is a classic example. While there has been a large rise in services of that kind in the last few years, the wider aspect of shared mobility is not about a taxi, it's about being able to integrate data to enable an entire journey with potentially different modes. Although Uber is really just a taxi service, it’s built into an app and can provide people with access to their service conveniently. Importantly, companies like Uber are beginning to integrate their platforms to include other services, such as bike and car shares, and public transport.

The data sharing that's going on now is aimed to enabling consumers to plan their journey from their house to wherever they're going and back again. This is achieved using a variety of modes and finding those modes through the use of that data. We are seeing a lot of innovation in these areas, and not just on the data sharing side, but also in the different modes that are available; for example electric scooters should, at some point, become part of the new mobility mix.

Arguably another example of shared mobility is something simple, and that's the growth in the home delivery market. For many people (especially since the Covid-19 pandemic) it's normal to order things online and have them delivered to their house. If you consider what is happening here, with a delivery van travelling around your area every day – that is shared mobility. It's part of the sharing economy because that one van delivering all those packages has 200-300 people sharing that service, and not needing to travel somewhere themselves to pick up their delivery.

Looking to the future, it’s possible to imagine even more seamless integration of data and innovation, with vehicles used for the transport of people and goods simultaneously, in response to the demand.

What’s coming in the future?

It would not be possible to predict the future without giving some consideration to the impact on transport that COVID-19 has had and will have. What’s most interesting from a shared mobility perspective is that the buses and trains we once thought were central to getting around are no longer considered the only solution, and in some cases may be perceived as undesirable by travellers.

A prediction for 2021 is that the year will be characterized by the attempt to nudge consumers back towards public transport. The other focus will be getting those who don’t want to return to such services to ‘get more innovative’ rather than just reverting to private car use (literally the opposite of shared mobility). We will see further attempts to encourage people to start thinking about mobility in a totally different way. In the long term, that’s what is needed; for people to be using a variety of services and ways of getting around rather than relying on personal use of a vehicle that most of the time is too large for what is needed, and brings with it other external costs for society (missed opportunities for active travel, air quality problems, and so-on). With continued innovation in terms of data sharing and new mobility services, providing better options for consumers – options that are better than their private car – will be something we need to see over the longer term.

A final thing we have learned from the global pandemic is that another alternative to private car use is simply not to travel at all. As a society over the last year, we have learned a lot about home working and how we can enable it to happen. In the long term, this may be a great way to decarbonize, and to improve the air quality in city centres. There will always be people who cannot work from home of course, but for those who can, there is a case to be made for employers being much more flexible, to ensure that the transport system is not being used unnecessarily.

How is TRL involved?

TRL is working on several projects in shared mobility. One of our facilities is the Smart Mobility Living Lab in London – a testbed that’s set up to test technology in any real-world setting.

Recently, encouraged by the pandemic, TRL has been working with the Department of Transport to understand how electric scooters will be involved in the future transport mix. This mode of travel has the potential to bring a kind of semi-active travel mode to those who might not want to fully engage in an active mode like cycling. The work has focused on testing the safety of these scooters and understanding how they are going to fit into the mix.

Finally, TRL has been involved in some really innovative work around a new technology called Hyperloop. Hyperloop is a passenger transport concept with magnetic rails in tubes – Elon Musk is a champion of the technology, and a number of companies are now developing first-to-market prototypes (including Richard Bransons’ ‘Virgin Hyperloop One’ team). TRL has been supporting a similar concept in the form of a package delivery service to work on decarbonising logistics (Magway). In this case, instead of having lorries driving up and down the country, there will be a network of tubes through which packages of goods are transported between hubs.

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