Towards a European Standard for Impact Assessment of Sustainable Urban Mobility Planning

In this opinion piece Dirk Lauwers, Professor at Ghent University and University of Antwerp, shares some 'inside-out' reflections based on his involvement in the development of Sustainable Urban Mobility Indicators (SUMI).

This opinion piece by Dirk Lauwers, Professor at Ghent University and University of Antwerp, originally appeared in the European Transport Regulation Observer ‘Towards a Common European Framework on Sustainable Urban Mobility Indicators’ (November 2020)

‘You can’t manage what you can’t measure’ is a key message that managers in private business are familiar with. In urban mobility planning it sounds quite new. At least at the European level impact assessment in urban mobility planning is only now coming into the picture. Of course evaluation of policies and measures is a part of the SUMP methodology, version 1.0, dating already from 2013. But only in 2018 with the launching of the SUMI project a harmonised methodology, a set of indicators and tool for impact assessment for sustainable urban mobility planning in the EU were developed. The tool and methodology are based on the ‘Indicator set for urban sustainable mobility’, developed by World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) in 2012.

As I was involved in the development of the WBCSD tool (as the leading expert for the Ghent University team that developed the methodology and tool for WBCSD) and member of the academic board for the consortium assigned for the SUMI study,  this comment consists of some ‘inside-out’ reflections.

Within the SUMI project a review and “Europeanisation” of the worldwide oriented WBCSD indicator set was elaborated. Two aspects seem important:

  • specific strengths and weaknesses in European cities regarding data availability
  • orientation of the indicators on measuring European SUMP objectives or targets (including EU policy goals)

The WBCSD approach includes 22 indicators. Based on a pilot study involving 46 European cities the SUMI study came to the conclusion that ‘many indicators have proven to be either time-consuming to calculate due to the effort needed to collect data for certain parameters, or have even proven to be impossible to calculate as for certain parameters data were simply not gathered as it was too much effort, too expensive or not available at all’. So the original set was reduced to a set of 13 core and 5 non-core indicators. In fact – apart from rejecting some of the WBCSD indicators – a new core indicator was added: traffic safety of active modes. It relates to the focus of the EC on promoting walking and cycling in cities and the ‘Vision Zero’ ambition for road traffic fatalities.

Avoid blind pragmatism

Of course a cost-efficiency approach on getting and processing the data is a legitimate consideration. On the other hand a purely pragmatic way – to withhold only easy to obtain indicators – is of course not acceptable. The late professor Bernardo Secchi – used to say: ‘there’s nothing against pragmatism; what we have to avoid is pragmatism without a vision, that’s blind pragmatism’. Though I do not want to suggest at all that the SUMI study blindly rejected some indicators – on the contrary the selection was done on a very sound basis – it might be relevant to highlight the underlying vision of the WBCSD approach. It consisted of a holistic approach of sustainable urban mobility. The methodology used was based on a systemic approach of the mobility system and a multidimensional view on sustainability, the well-known triple P (People, Planet, Prosperity) approach. Each of the WBCSD indicators explicitly refer either to dimensions of the mobility system, either of sustainability.  My concerns in this perspective refer as well to the need of system approach of urban mobility as a profound consideration of the sustainability of urban mobility.

Multilevel action needed regarding the mobility system  

In response to the Covid-19 crisis many cities developed an accelerated set of measures for a pandemic-proof mobility. Reflections on these policies concluded in the existence of a relation between these urgent measures and the long-term oriented sustainability objectives. Based on the sustainable mobility paradigm that in the academic world is seen as most authoritative (formulated by David Banister) four levels of actions can be distinguished:

  • AVOID (travel), by telework, distant learning etc.
  • SHORTEN (trips), by developing multifunctional and walkable and bike-able neighborhoods
  • SHIFT (mode), more walking, biking and public transport trips, fewer car trips
  • IMPROVE (technology), more less polluting vehicles, smarter traffic management

What the pandemic has also revealed is the importance of qualitative urban public spaces: green spaces such as parks, as well as space for walking, cycling, sporting but also for terraces and other social activities.

It would be wise to check what indicators can be used as proxies to measure progress on these action fields.

Multilevel sustainability boundaries for urban mobility

Contemporary scientific insight not only distinguishes the different dimensions of sustainable development, it recognises boundaries for development. The conceptual model used is the so-called doughnut model developed by Kate Raworth. This concept goes beyond the 3P approach that was the basis for the WBCSD methodology. Minimum and maximum thresholds should be respected. Of course this has consequences for the indicator choices and definitions. The indicator ‘affordability of public transport for the poorest group’ refers to the basic mobility that should be available from social point of view. Maximum values for greenhouse gases obviously refer to global and EC targets on climate emissions. Scaling of all the indicators is crucial in this perspective.

These considerations do not detract from the policy recommendations already formulated in the SUMI report.

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