Ecologic transition in mobility and transport. The role of urban proximity

Call “Proyectos estratégicos orientados transición ecológica y transición digital 2021”, Ministerio de Ciencia, innovación y universidades. 
1/12/2022 – 1/12/2024

Any attempt to advance in the ecological transition and towards climate change mitigation needs to consider transport and daily mobility. Transport consumes one-third of all final energy in the EU and the vast majority of this energy comes from fossil fuels. Transport is responsible for more than one-quarter of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions and is a major contributor to climate change. Most worrisome, transport emissions seem to be immune to policy efforts to diminish them and in fact they have increased since 1990. This situation makes changes in the transport sector arguably the most important achievement towards the goal of ecological transition, climate change mitigation, adaptation.

In this context of stark need for new solutions aimed at lowering our transport-related emissions and our dependance of private transport, the concept of urban proximity is gaining momentum. With the realization that technological fixes and appeals to individual responsibility are not enough to lower or even flatten the increase in transport emissions, new voices are appealing to a sustainability-by-design approach through the promotion of urban proximity. Since people travel to meet opportunities that are dispersed in space, bringing origins and destinations closer together affects the demand for travel as it enables individuals to reach daily needs using active modes such as walking and cycling. Planning for short distances thus unlocks the possibility that a number of trips are transformed towards cleaner more sustainable forms of travel, either by changing modes of transport or by reducing traveled kilometers. This makes proximity a prime example of emission and pollution-control and prevention policies together with building towards a more circular economy, reducing the use of fossil fuels and materials associated with automobility. Beyond that, proximity trips also contribute to climate change adaptation by making the whole transportation system more resilient, and less car-dependent, and they have also positive implications for social justice and public health.

Because of that recent years have seen cities around the world pushing for hyper-proximity policies under different labels, such as superilles (superblocks), 15-minute cities, 20-minute cities, 30-minute cites, complete neighbourhoods, the city of short distances, or China’s 15-minute community life cycle (Hou & Yungang, 2017; Li et al., 2019). All of these urban planning initiatives seek to use the power of nearness and proximity in order to lower transport-derived externalities while maximizing local accessibility for all. Notable examples of such policies include Barcelona’s superilles, Palma de Mallorca, which is adopting the 15-minute city rationale, Valencia, which has announced its first superblock project and 15-minutes neighborhood, along with Madrid and Granada’s latest urban plans. To date, however, only scant case study research in the body of literature – some of which has been authored by our group 1–5- has addressed the potential and the limitations of such an approach and its potential to lead the environmental transition. More importantly, there has been no attempt to benchmark the real environmental effects of proximity on daily mobility, car use, emissions, and environmental impacts. To date all benefits of proximity are based on theoretical assumptions that have not been backed yet by the necessary scientific evidence. Cities cannot continue to plan for proximity if the theoretical pathways towards lower environmental impacts, along with associated social and health benefits have not yet been tested and validated.

The present project sets to resolve some of these research gaps. It aims to do so by systematically analyzing the nature and impact of proximity conditions and policies in 5 Spanish cities (Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Granada and Palma de Mallorca) and by using tracking devices test their efficacy in actually changing everyday mobility patterns. The main research question is how effective spatial proximity policies and interventions at are generating short-distance travel and driving the ecological transition. Our main hypothesis (H1) is that concentrating the spatial layout of basic everyday destinations will indeed have a positive impact on environmental transport impacts, by changing modal choice, traveled distances, and time invested in travel.