02.11.2010, Frank Geels and Rene Kemp

Transport sector is NOT in transition

Sustainability gains in transport appear to be much smaller than in the agri-food and energy domains. The modest sustainability improvements in the last 20 years are due to strong lock-in mechanisms and deep inertia in transport systems, which relate to sunk investments in infrastructures, plants, and skills, user patterns and life styles, vested interests that resist major change, and beliefs from established actors. This is one of the major conclusions of the new automobility transition book.

Although the car-transport system faces persistent problems (congestion, parking problems, safety, climate change, and urban space), we conclude that the cracks (see lyrics transition song) in the regime are still relatively small. This does not mean that the problems are small, but that important regime actors are not (yet) fully committed to acknowledging these problems nor to placing them on agendas with a high sense of urgency. There is no broad debate about the need for transformative change. No powerful societal group is calling for it. Those who do are marginalized. Pressure for change in sustainable directions is therefore not great and currently not oriented towards large-scale systemic change. While the regime still has substantial stability, one crack may be occurring at the local level where many cities have begun introducing car restraining measures such as one way streets, parking restrictions and tariffs, traffic calming schemes, and the creation of traffic-free pedestrianized centers, which challenge the ubiquity of cars in certain places. Because some cities also play an active role in stimulating alternatives such as bus lanes, bicycles and road pricing, they can be seen as a new actor that challenges some of the established regime elements. A second crack may be that the growth of car mobility (in terms of passenger miles) seems to have come to a halt in developed countries such as the UK, where it seems to decline somewhat. These two cracks indicate that the automobility regime may not be as strong as it used to be, although it is still dominant compared to other transport modes.

Promising niche-innovations have appeared in four broad areas: 1) green propulsion technology for cars, which relates to sustainability and CO2 pressures, 2) intelligent transport systems (ITS), travel information provision and ICT, which relate to congestion issues, 3) public transport and inter-modal travel, which are often seen to relate to congestion, 4) cultural niches and user innovation, often related to ICT possibilities. The first two niche areas currently receive most attention, money and deliberate innovative activity from powerful actors such as the car industry, computer and telecom industry, transport planners, and policy makers. Niche-innovations in these two areas therefore have relatively more momentum than in the other areas. Although niche activities in the green propulsion area have increased substantially in the last five years, it remains difficult to predict which technology will win and how long this will take.

Our conclusions are 1) that the automobility regime is still dominant and stable, although maybe less so than fifteen years ago, 2) that there are only (moderate) cracks in the regime, and 3) that promising niches have limited internal momentum (for green propulsion technology and ITS/ICT this momentum seems bigger than for the other niches). Combining these insights, we further conclude that the interaction between niches and regimes on its own is unlikely to lead to a big transition or system change in the next 20 years (i.e. until 2030). Over a longer time frame (e.g. to 2050), however, bigger system change is possible if, firstly, certain landscape trends become bigger (e.g. Peak Oil, climate change) and are translated into tougher policies, and, secondly, promising niches are by then more developed and turned into feasible solutions.

Car shipping
20 April 22:37
When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now every time a comment is added I get four emails with the identical comment. Is there any manner you possibly can remove me from that service? Thanks!
Flor Avelino and Toon Zijlstra
10 November 18:49
The Socio-spatial Mobility Transition When you focus too much on the regime and/or the dominant trends, you might undermine the influence of counter-movements and niches.... In our chapter in the automobility transition book, we argued that we need a socio-spatial perspective on mobility, in which we acknowledge undercurrent counter movements that challenge the automobility regime, and socio-spatial mobility niches such as modal shift, deceleration, sustainable urban planning and localism. On the one hand, the analysis in our chapter may give rise to skepticism. The counter-movements and socio-spatial niches that we discuss have been around for decades, and even though they have deviated from and challenged the automobility regime, they could not prevent the far reaching and ever-growing dominance of the car in contemporary society. On the other hand, our analysis can also be interpreted in a more optimistic and hopeful manner. First, the current car regime would probably have been even more widespread if it weren’t for these counter-movements and niches. Moreover, many of the ‘old’ counter-movements and niches have known new and recent revivals (e.g. Shared Space, Slow City, the Transition Towns movement). When we consider the growing sustainability discourse in political and business circles, combined with the ongoing sequence of financial and ecological crises, one can reasonably expect that these counter-movements and niches will persist, grow and play into current ‘crises’ and subsequent ‘cracks’ in the regime. From our socio-spatial perspective ‘greening the car’ hardly qualifies as a niche. Rather it is seen as a technology that allows the current regime to respond to landscape pressures (i.e. technocratic environmentalism), and thereby strengthens the regime rather than challenging it. In this perspective, ‘greening the car’ is a continuation of the current regime and not a transition towards sustainable mobility. Although ‘green cars’ might bring about the changes and rebound effects needed for a transition to more sustainable energy system, they do not address the socio-spatial problems of the transport system. As such we question the functionalistic focus on socio-technical subsystems. Many ideas that may seem ‘innovative’ within the limits of the transport sector, are in fact in line with prevailing neo-liberal trends involving further acceleration, privatization and environmental policies based on market principles. The dominance of the car is not merely a regime characteristic within the boundaries of the transport sector. Rather it dominates and impacts our physical and discursive space across sector-boundaries, which gives rise to countless ‘unsustainability issues’ in other sectors as well. Many aspects (e.g. spatial and social) are ignored if we discuss transport without taking other sectors or ‘functional subsystems’ into account. Moreover, we argue that transition research should dedicate more attention to ‘radical socio-spatial niches’ that pro-actively challenge the dominant automobility paradigms, move beyond technology-oriented solutions and tackle automobile dependency at its ‘socio-spatial roots’. Whether or not one believes that these niches will or might be ‘successful’ in the future, our point is that the relative success of radical socio-spatial innovation is an empirical question that deserves to be studied accordingly. In the same way that Adrian Smith analyzed radical niches in agriculture and housing construction (2006, 2007), we need to further research counter-movements and radical niches in the field of mobility, and question to what extent they provide concepts that have been, are being or can be ‘mainstreamed’.
Derk Loorbach
5 November 13:34
From my perspective, the analysis made by Geels and Kemp suffers from a lock-in into their own socio-technical multi-level paradigm. They seem to be unable to take into account or at least seem to largely underestimate possibilities of fundamental regime shift, 'soft' drivers of such shifts and/or the role of governance and agency. The authors seem to only consider transition pathways that are primarily technology driven (e.g. greener cars and/or more ICT), basically optimisation and not transition pathways. t hey claim public transport and modal shifts are not taking place (perhaps a valid point), but are not including changes in related domains and how they might impact the mobility system. Take for example the changes in urban and regional planning where a shift is taking place from suburbs and new built locations towards creating more density in cities. Related to the increasing focus of cities on sustainable mobility this could lead to a fundamental shift in at least urban transport. another related shift can be witnessed to emerge in terms of cultural attachment to a personally owned car. there are those that argue that the increasing link between mobility and ict (self-steering cars that can be called upon by mobile phone) could lead to a much more functional instead of emotional approach towards cars. e.g. mobility could increasingly be seen as a service that should just efficiently take you from a to b instead of a personal right. a number of other factors play a role here: prices of mobility, inefficient space use and so on. this brings me to the point of agency,, there is a steadily growing community of people that look for alternative solutions and are less attached to the car as personal right or something that should be owned. this aso spills over into governance and entrepreneurship, relating to mobility plans, main offices being relocated next to stations, city centres that become car free and so on. these factors combined with landscape developments (resources, energy, climate etc.) could in my perspective very well provide the ingredients for a transition in the near future. the only thing is you have to look outside the borders of the socio-technical mobility system and outside the world of mobility studies to see this, perhaps.
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