Reducing the speed limit: an easy way to cut carbon emissions from travel

Nothing (much) to do with ICT, although some ICT might help a bit with enforcement. This is an easy win – what the UK Energy Research Centre, a government-funded research body calls a ‘quick hit’ on carbon reduction.

It’s really easy to understand – reduce the speed limit, so people drive slower. Their engines run closer to the optimum speed, so they use less fuel and emit less CO2. No clever unproven technology required, no complex and unfamiliar behaviour change needed – just driving a bit slower. And of course, some side benefits in less road deaths and reduced noise from traffic.

The UKERC calculated that just enforcing the existing speed limit on motorways would remove 1 million tonnes of CO2, and reducing the limit to 60mph would remove almost as much again. Read the report, published in 2006, and weep that no-one has taken a blind bit of notice.

So why do we spend so much time and effort thinking about technology-based solutions that might not work, and/or might cost a great deal? Partly, I suspect, because the kinds of organisations usually called upon to give advice about transport issues tend to like complex technology-based solutions, because that’s the kind of thing that they do. And partly because our democratically-elected politicians are more scared of offending Jeremy Clarkson and his like than they are of climate change. After all, climate change is some time in the future, but a bad headline in the Daily Mail is right now.

Time for a national campaign to lower the speed limit, I think.

Sustainable Travel at Mobile World Congress 2009

I spent 15-18 February at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Although I was mainly doing my real job as Head of Ovum’s Mobile Practice, I was also keeping an eye out for any initiatives about sustainable personal mobility.

There wasn’t much, although there were quite a few location-based services companies offering navigation products and services, and some of the main vendors were continuing to drape themselves in green with wind-and-solar powered base stations.

The personal travel highlights were:

  • Econav, a product offered by the Spanish software company Crambo. This is a GPS-based driver behaviour solution, telling drivers how much carbon their trip has emitted and how they could drive better – accelerate less, brake less, etc. At the moment Crambo offers it as a service on personal navigation devices, including its own product. But it is looking at porting it across as an application for mobile phones, starting with Symbian.
  • Chronomove, an iPhone navigation assistant, which includes multi-mode information, tells you how long your journey will take, and calculates the emissions for you. The product is offered by the French company Senda, and is based on the map data set provided by Naviteq.

I was also rather fond of LocatioNet, which was showing off its ‘AmAzeGPS’ navigation application. Strictly speaking this is nothing to do with sustainability; it’s an ad-funded navigation service, comparable to what you can get on a personal navigation device in that it includes turn-by-turn directions, but free as long as you can tolerate ads from Burger King, KFC etc. Although it’s primarily aimed at drivers, company president Ofer Tziperman explained that a walking version was in the making, and he had clearly thought of the possibility of partnering with a public transport provider that could then use the ad delivery platform to offer messages.

My personal travel ‘lowlight’ was a discussion with one device vendor who had better remain nameless about the absence of any sustainability-oriented products from its portfolio – who then suggested that the WorldMate airline information product was its contribution, since it helped users not to miss flights. I’m prepared to be broad in my definition of what promotes sustainable transport, but not that broad.

Reduce emissions by changing vehicle behaviour

This probably isn’t going to happen any time soon. The idiots who demand the “right” to drive as fast as they like, unregulated and unmonitored, are not going to let any automated system take control of their car — even to save their own lives, let alone anyone else’s.

Still, there is a DFT report about Intelligent Speed Adaptation here. The preamble describes Intelligent Speed Adaptation like this:

Intelligent Speed Adaptation (ISA) is a system that provides, within the vehicle, information on the speed limit for the road currently being travelled on. That information can be used to display the current speed limit inside the vehicle and warn the driver when he or she is speeding (i.e. Advisory ISA); it can be linked to the vehicle engine and perhaps brakes to curtail speed to the speed limit for the road while allowing the driver to override the system (i.e. Voluntary ISA); or it can be linked to engine and brakes without the possibility of an override (i.e. Mandatory or Non-Overridable ISA).

The DFT reports describe technical trials and user attitudes and behaviour.

Adaptive cruise control is, like a lot of this stuff, more aimed at driver safety and/or comfort, than sustainability. Still, it might lead to better “driving”, if only because automated systems might make better decisions about how often they need to accelerate and brake. Here is a widget that you can buy to go in your car.

Finally, the various projects for driverless cars deserve a mention, though I doubt that this is likely to have any impact on the overall sustainability of personal mobility any time ever.

There are some plans to trial driverless cars in Masdar, the sustainable city planned for Abu Dhabi. There have been some trials in Derby too; and Advanced Transport Systems Ltd, a specialist company, has a website with lots of reports, case studies, and some admittedly rather cool pictures. My personal favourite is still the JohnnyCab from “Total Recall” though.


A link to a very interesting paper by John Adams, Professor of Geography at University College London. Very gloomy, but not unreasonably so. Considers the vast increase in mobility since the 1950s, and what that has meant for physical and mental environments. Well worth a read.

Teleshopping vs Local Shopping

No sooner had I said that there’s no research comparing the carbon impact of this than I find some – check out this piece.

Here’s the gist anyway:

Shopping locally may not be as good for the environment as having food delivered, according to new research by the University of Exeter (UK). Published in the journal Food Policy, the study shows that, on average, lower carbon emissions result from delivering a vegetable box than making a trip to a local farm shop.

The researchers compared trips to a local farm shop with deliveries made by companies that distribute organic vegetable boxes to their customers. They study also took into account the carbon emissions produced by cold storage, packing and the transportation of goods to a regional ‘hub’. By bringing this data together, the researchers were able to calculate the total carbon emission.

The study found that if the average car journey made to a farm shop is a round-trip of more than 6.7km, then home delivery was a better option even if the competing farm shop used no lighting, heating or chilling. While a delivery van will travel up to 360km to deliver an organic vegetable box, this trip will cover a large number of addresses so the carbon emissions per customer will be surprisingly low.

David Coley from the Centre for Energy and the Environment at the University of Exeter, lead author on the study, said: “People are becoming familiar with the phrase ‘food miles’, but don’t have a very clear understanding of what it means. We need to look more thoroughly at the many factors that lie behind putting food on our tables, before we can say what is better or worse for the environment.”

The study acknowledges that there are many other factors in addition to ‘food miles’ that concern consumers. For example, issues around local economics and the environmental impact of different food production methods.

David Coley of the University of Exeter adds: “Rather than focus on food miles, it would be more meaningful to look at the carbon emissions behind each food item. While the concept of food miles was useful in getting people to think about the issues around carbon emissions and food transport, it’s time for a more sophisticated approach.”

Although the last decade has seen a massive increase in home delivery, mainly as a result of internet shopping, travel for food and household items still represents 5% of car use.

This study was entitled Local food, food miles and carbon emissions: A comparison of farm shop and mass distribution approaches.

Reducing demand for travel

ICT as a substitute for travel is the industry’s first response to the question of sustainability. This idea has been pushed for several years, particularly as a substitute for traveling to work – often called ‘telecommuting’. Indeed, it’s been advocated since before anyone talked about sustainability or climate change – as a solution to traffic congestion, oil supply, and as a tool of regional policy. There is a great number of specialist companies and consultancies, and other initiatives and alliances like Workwise, which exist to provide support for companies that want to introduce teleworking.

It has spawned a vast literature, some of which actually includes some empirical research, like this chapter in the Department for Transport’s “smarter travel” report.

There is much discussion of videoconferencing as a substitute for air travel, and some companies are at least tracking the impact on their own demand for air travel. It’s worth noting that Cisco, which is a great proponent of this approach, has informally confirmed that videoconferencing uses more energy and produces more emissions than a single person travelling across London from one side to the other.

I’m not aware of much serious analysis of the actual impact on emissions of not travelling to work, though there are lots of guides as to how to do it. Among the factors which would need to be taken into account are:

  • the mode of transport for which ICT is substituting
  • the distances being travelled, the responsiveness of the supply of that mode of transport to changes in demand
  • what happens to the ’empty’ space at work that used to be occupied by the commuting worker
  • how the telecommuter’s home is heated or cooled.

If I used to take the bus in to an office, and the bus still runs, and my desk at work still sits there in its air-conditioned space, and I then heat my badly insulated Victorian terrace with an inefficient boiler, I might not have saved any CO2.

It’s worth looking at this report by the Future Foundation, and this one by the Forum for the Future. I was particularly impressed by some research carried out for Orange, which emphasised the extent to which “flexible working” in the UK was dominated by informal arrangements between staff and their line managers rather than by formal arrangements; this rather suggests that organisations are not using the introduction of flexibility to think again about how they could decarbonise their working arrangements and facilities.

Other aspects of ICT as a substitute for travel don’t seem to have been nearly as well researched, even though Eurostat analysis appears to show that travel to work is only about 20% of travel time in Northern European countries – with travel for leisure accounting for something like twice as much. ICT can make it easier for us to shop without travelling, but I’m not aware of any evidence that this is having any significant impact.

There are a few other curiositites. DFT has paid for some consultancy which led to a report on Synthetic Environments in Transport about the use of things like Second Life to model transport experiences – but nothing about using these as a substitute for travel. And there’s a slightly unusual report about ‘virtual pilgrimages‘ here.

Changing drivers’ behaviour

Even when travellers decide to make their journey by car there are some ways in which ICT can help to make the trip more sustainable. Sometimes this is about acting directly on the vehicle rather than trying to influence the behaviour of the driver; I’ll deal with this approach elsewhere.

In terms of acting on driver behaviour, there are a number of options. Firstly, there is trying to improve driving style – sometimes called ‘eco-driving’. Mostly this is just common sense: drive slower, try not to accelerate or brake too much, and so on. ICT can help by providing the drivers with information and feedback about what they are doing. For example:

The EcoDrive product implemented in some Fiat models, and based on the ‘Blue and Me’ in-car electronics system, is an example. Here, the driver plugs a USB drive into a slot in the car, then subsequently transfers the data to a PC where an application can analyse it, present graphical information and give tips.

Royal Sun Alliance offers a product called ‘Greenwheels’ as a complement to its conventional insurance, with the data being gathered and transmitted via an in-car telematics box and analysed and presented by a web application.

Nissan’s ‘CarWings eco drive’ (offered only in Japan) is again similar, and again is web-based, with the addition of something like a social networking dimension, so that drivers can compare their own driving style and fuel consumption with those of others – a nice idea, though I can’t help wondering whether some would-be Clarksons will aim to have the worst profile rather than the best.

Another tool aimed at persuading drivers to do better is Pay As You Drive (PAYD) insurance. This isn’t specifically aimed at making drivers reduce their emissions, but it does shift them towards a more usage-based cost model – one of the reasons why it’s so easy to decide to use the car for journeys is that most of the cost of car usage is up-front payment rather than usage based, and if you don’t use the car you are ‘wasting’ this. There are quite a few different PAYD systems around.

In the UK Norwich Union introduced a telematics-based PAYD system, signed up a few customers (I was one of them) and then withdrew the product – probably because it wasn’t working all that well, either technically or commercially. However, the company (under its new Aviva brand) is preparing to introduce PAYD in France.

In the UK new entrant Coverbox is offering a similar telematics-based product with several different insurance companies, though it appears to be designed not to attract low-mileage drivers.

There are live products in other countries – summarised in the Wikipedia article at . Note that not all are GPS-based – Progressive Insurance’s MyRate in the US (some states only) uses telematics info but not GPS to capture driver behaviour. GMAC (General Motors insurance subsidiary) has a similar product based on odometer readings and GM’s OnStar platform – though this appears to be a fairly blunt segmentation tool rather than a real behaviour-based tariff — there are discounts for users who drive less than 15,000 miles per year.

Other ICT products that have the potential to push drivers towards more sustainable driving styles (even though this isn’t the main intention) include the whole apparatus of speed reduction, including all the speed measurement systems like cameras but also the notification systems that warn drivers about the cameras. Driving more slowly reduces fuel consumption – perhaps an argument for reducing the maximum speed limit, which would deliver clear sustainability and safety benefits without needing any new technology!

Also worth a mention are route planning/satnav tools such as TomTom and traffic information systems like TrafficMaster. Both of these are aimed at making it nicer for drivers, and neither has any explicit sustainability or emissions reduction objective, though TomTom has made some claims about saving fuel; but it’s probably fair to say that if drivers complete their journey without getting stuck in traffic then they ought to be driving for less time and use less fuel. Of course, this might tempt them to make journeys that otherwise might not get made…

Finally, There are other ‘intelligent car/intelligent road’ systems, like advance hazard warning systems, which use ICT and are aimed at modifying driver behaviour but are driven by safety rather than sustainability. Even these ought to scrape onto our list, because accidents lead to congestion and thereby leads to increased fuel consumption and emissions (though again, reduced accidents and congestion might lead to more journeys being made).

Sustainable Transport and ICT – a framework

In terms of sustainability, personal mobility matters. According to the very clear and concise report “One Planet Mobility” by WWF, it accounts for 26% of global CO2 emissions – the comparable figure for the EU is 19.4%, where it also accounts for 31% of final energy consumption. So if we are going to deal with the twin problems of climate change and peak oil, we are going to have to do something about transport.

There are lots of projects about ICT and mobility. It’s a vast subject, and hard for any one person to cover in its entirety. Of course, most of the projects are nothing to do with sustainability. They are driven by other agendas, including road safety, the economic benefits of minimising congestion, and improving the experience of drivers. More recently some of these initiatives have been re-positioned as “green”, some more convincingly than others. More worringly, the area is littered with what I can only call “zombie projects” — initiatives which seem to start but never conclude. The web is littered with many of these; a common tell-tale is a “news” page with nothing on it from the last five years.

Nevertheless, there are also many projects where ICT is genuinely attempting to make mobility more sustainable. I’ve grouped these into six broad categories, and plan to write something about the activities in each. I am aware that not everyone groups things in the same way, and I have had some intelligent push back on the categorisation. Still, I plan to use it for the moment.

My categories are:

  • Reducing demand for travel – primarily about using ICT as a substitute for traveling

  • Influencing travel mode choice towards more sustainable modes – by providing the traveller with information or other resources that make those modes either easier or pleasant to use

  • Changing driver behaviour – so that even those who are using less sustainable modes do so in the best way possible

  • Changing vehicle behaviour – so that vehicles (mainly cars) use less energy and produce less emissions per mile/km than they would otherwise

  • Increasing vehicle loading factors – so that vehicles are used more intensively and have lower emissions per traveller-mile/km as a result

  • Improving the efficiency of the overall network – so that the network as a whole is able to carry more travellers for a given amount of time and resource

For the avoidance of doubt, I am aware that there is lots of inauthentic hype and even more untested assertion about ways in which ICT can help save human civilisation from itself. However, I also think that there are some good tools and tricks out there which deserve wider awareness, and which might be even more helpful given a bit of a hand and a favourable policy environment.