The triptych of walking, cycling and public transport must be at the heart of ecological transition policies

Claude Soulas, September 2021

Forum Vies Mobiles

While emissions from transport remain at a very high level, all hopes are placed on the « magic triptych » of the electric car, the shared car and the connected car, announced as being « autonomous » very soon. However, there is every reason to believe that this focus on the car, whose knock-on effects and various nuisances (consumption of space and land due to infrastructures and car parks, direct and indirect pollution, etc.) are largely underestimated, will be insufficient and that we will have to turn to another « triptych »: walking, cycling and public transport, by creating new synergies.

One thing is clear: in France, as elsewhere, the transport sector remains the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, at a level higher than in 19901. Considerable resources are being deployed so that « tomorrow everything will be better », but for the moment the trend is not really downwards. And beyond the criterion of climate change (which is rightly becoming more and more important), the ecological transition in transport is proving to be more complex and more problematic than one might imagine. Let us limit ourselves here to three interrelated aspects. Firstly, the priority given to decarbonisation, which masks the importance of other aspects (consumption of space, damage to biodiversity, various forms of pollution, scarcity of materials, social and environmental problems due to their extraction, etc.). Secondly, the excessive focus on the car, which disqualifies alternative modes. Finally, the predominance of the technological approach, which creates perverse effects and rebound effects, and leads to the neglect of organisational aspects and the location of activities2 .

Individual motorised transport : hopes for improvement to be put into perspective

At the beginning of the 1970s, people began to dream of individualising public transport, with modes that were imagined to be as attractive as they were efficient : PRT (Personal Rapid Transit). Half a century later, the dream has taken a diametrically opposed direction, that of the collectivisation of the individual car (carpooling, carsharing). At the same time, the radical innovation of the autonomous car is announced for tomorrow, while an old idea that was very much in vogue at the end of the 19th century is being brought out of the wardrobe: the battery-powered electric car (in 1899, the Jamais Contente, equipped with lead batteries, was the first car to exceed 100 km/hour). It is true that, decade after decade, technical progress has been made; I myself have been involved in work on the electric vehicle since the early 1980s, particularly within the framework of the European expert group COST 3023. It is also true that electricity production in France is highly decarbonised, but are we sure that this is the miracle solution that deserves to be generalised everywhere by 2035? In fact, depending on the use and size, the electric vehicle may gradually become a good solution from a technical point of view, but it is its massive use for individual transport that will become problematic, by reinforcing the organisation of society in favour of this means of transport (there are more judicious application niches for electromobility : commercial vehicles, delivery vehicles in town, electrically assisted bicycles, etc.). The problem is global: if all cars become electric, the fleet will be one billion vehicles, and then two billion or more. It is then clear that the question of the quantities of materials cannot be totally resolved by recycling and the circular economy4 .

Already, in the current situation, the car does not pay all its costs5 , and indirect costs are underestimated6 ; the development of the electric car is likely to significantly worsen the balance sheet by the addition of several factors : purchase and conversion subsidies, massive deployment of recharging stations, shortfall in TICPE (domestic consumption tax on energy products) due to the fact that electricity is taxed less than fuel, etc. The electric car does not reduce the need for infrastructure and parking facilities ; on the contrary, the ecological alibi, with the financial aid that accompanies it, is an incentive not to restrict excessive use of the car, or even to increase it further. It is obvious that the electric car eliminates atmospheric pollution due to the exhaust system (just when the most recent diesels were presented as « non-polluting », which is not really the case), but the evolution of scientific knowledge leads us to take into account other sources of pollution which have been neglected until now: brakes, tyres, coatings. Without wishing to limit ourselves to atmospheric pollution alone : the micro-particles attributable to the billions of tyres in circulation and to brake pads also contribute to the pollution of the oceans and other natural environments. Moreover, while it is quite right to say that air pollution is partly due to sources other than the car, it should not be forgotten that the circulation of thermal or electric vehicles, through the phenomenon of resuspension, is likely to make particles deposited on the ground dangerous, including those emitted by sources other than transport. The problem is therefore more complex than one might think ; there is no question here of overestimating the importance of this phenomenon, which depends on several factors - rainfall, nature of the surface, vehicle speed, etc. - but it should be taken into account. This is not to overstate the importance of this phenomenon, which depends on several factors - rainfall, type of road surface, vehicle speed, etc. - but several consequences should be drawn from it, including an additional argument in favour of lowering speeds in cities. The same applies to the noise reduction induced by electric motorisation, which only bears fruit if the speed is reduced, otherwise the rolling noise masks the reduction.

High stakes for diversified non-motorised modes

In such a context, the development of alternatives to the private car is not given its due value. The Forum Vies Mobiles recently published a plea in favour of walking7 , which is very well argued and supported, but which in places shows a certain «  rivalry  » between cycling and walking, whereas other authors sometimes tend to oppose cycling and public transport. On this subject, the debate would benefit from being broadened to include all the alternatives and particularly the synergies between the most ecological modes of transport. This would allow us to go well beyond the current fashion for shared vehicles, which puts the spotlight on particular practices implemented by large globalized private firms, as is well explained in a relatively recent book8 . Among the alternatives, there is of course first and foremost walking and its various derivatives, more or less in vogue depending on the era and context: roller skates, roller blades, skateboards, scooters, etc. Currently, the electric scooter is at the heart of media concerns as a « new mobility ». It is, however, a motorised vehicle (albeit a low motorised one), which, depending on its speed, can create a hindrance for pedestrians - another one, since in some areas walking is hampered by the lack of suitable infrastructure, and in others it is hindered or made dangerous by vehicles. There are, however, a variety of non-motorised scooters that are much less publicised, including «  hybrids  » (in the sense of «  composites "), combining a central part comparable to that of a classic scooter and a front part resembling that of a bicycle (large wheel and handlebars equipped with brakes).

The bicycle is also widely available, in variants that broaden its uses and range, and therefore its potential: the classic or fast electrically assisted bicycle (speedelec), the self-service bicycle, the fast recumbent bicycle, the cargo bike, the carousel bicycle, etc. Just as for walking, and even more so than for bicycles (which could also increase their potential outside cities with suitable facilities), in order to assess their potential, it is necessary to take into account their adaptation to all types of territory, whether urban, peri-urban or rural. Another point in common with walking  is that in order to truly realise the potential of this means of transport, it is necessary to combine measures targeted at cycling with a whole range of measures aimed at moderating car traffic and its development. Here is one example among others : unlike the sometimes well adapted urban mini-roundabouts, the large roundabouts designed to make car traffic flow more smoothly (and to improve safety, in the absence of other speed moderation measures), the proliferation of which is very costly in France, virtually prevent the use of bicycles and walking, and hinder the circulation of public road transport (buses and coaches), because these modes were not integrated into the design process.

Public transport adapted to many situations

Contrary to certain preconceived ideas, public transport has an important role to play not only in dense areas, but also in all types of territory. Of course, the network and frequency of service cannot be the same in all areas, but a few foreign examples show that if coherent short-, medium- and long-term packages of measures are implemented (hence the importance of planning), sparsely populated areas could be much better served. While we cannot be exhaustive, we will shed some light on the complementarity between active modes and public and rail transport, but we will first stress the need to intervene at all levels to both increase the contribution of public transport and control costs.

Several pitfalls must be avoided. We must not rely too much on simplistic solutions such as increasing the number of car park-and-ride spaces: once a certain threshold is reached, this solution becomes costly, disqualifies other modes of transport and has perverse effects on urban planning (we can of course find « even worse » than park-and-ride facilities, for example, when car-pooling, which is adorned with all its virtues, becomes a pretext for setting up new car parks entitled « car-pooling areas »). After being neglected for decades, the bus has often been presented as a universal solution over the last ten years, whereas in certain niches, guided transport (rail or urban) of very different kinds is relevant, provided that it is planned for over time. For example, the fashionable idea of running buses or coaches on the motorway is not necessarily the right solution when we could take advantage of the rail stars, especially if we think in the medium or long term. At the same time, the need to keep costs under control must remain in the minds of planners, but the problem should not be exaggerated (let us not forget the costs avoided): reductions in transport services, which lead to « infernal spirals », should be avoided, and whenever possible, it would be desirable to implement a frequency of services in order to improve the legibility of the offer. Free travel should be avoided, and more generally, in order to contribute to the necessary investments, under-pricing is not desirable, even if it should be noted that one reason for the relative under-pricing of public transport is the response to the under-pricing of individual motorised transport.

Technological improvements are not necessarily the most fundamental aspect, but they do have a role to play ; for example, the automation of certain lines can make public transport more attractive, including during off-peak hours and even at night, while controlling operating costs.

Actions on urban planning become more difficult in a context where road infrastructures have for some decades had more and more influence on the location of housing, shops or businesses (often chosen according to the possibilities of implementing car parks and access to major roads), but if one decides to do so, a certain number of levers can be implemented in the long term by taking inspiration from different concepts that favour (or disqualify less) the use of public transport and active modes9. Considering that, despite possible improvements, urban planning can never be « perfect » everywhere, there is a great potential for cycling as a means of transport 10 11 .

Complementarity between public transport and non-motorised modes is underestimated

In France, the complementarity between cycling and public transport has long been neglected. For example, the PREDIT report on « passenger intermodality », published in 2000, simply « forgot » to mention bicycle and public transport intermodality 12 , although work on this subject was carried out in some foreign countries in the 1990s. In Germany, the University of Dresden organised the first international symposium entirely devoted to the more complex theme of « the interdependence of bicycle use and public transport » in 2008 13 .

More generally, beyond intermodality alone, beyond the bicycle and its derivatives, when optimising networks, synergies and complementarities between all active modes and all public modes should be better taken into account, in the different types of territory. This would make it possible to act on three major issues :

1°) The economy of public transport is sometimes handicapped by the heterogeneity of the load : some lines are overloaded in their central part and underloaded at their extremities. The development of active modes, if necessary in synergy with other measures (fares, information, incentives, facilities), can relieve the load on the busiest sections of the lines and increase the load on the least busy sections by organising bicycle or pedestrian feeder services on a larger scale and at a lower cost than with car park-and-ride facilities. Similarly, it is also possible to consider a better smoothing of the load according to periods or days.

2°) The greater the distance between stations, the greater the commercial speed and consequently the more attractive public transport becomes and the lower the costs (investment costs and operating costs). The importance of this criterion of commercial speed is of course widely known, but interstations have remained too short because of arguments that can now be relativised or questioned, such as the arduousness of terminal journeys for the elderly. Indeed, the criterion for accessing stations should no longer be distance but a combination of travel time and enjoyment of the journey. By making cities more walkable and more cycleable, we can win on both counts. Work carried out as part of the Franco-German project BAHN.VILLE 14 « Rail-oriented urban planning and intermodality in German and French urban regions » has shown that a significant percentage of people can walk more than 1.5 kilometres to the station if the paths are properly designed.

3°) A problem similar to that of the previous item concerns the sinuosity of certain bus or tram lines, which has an impact on commercial speed: there has sometimes been a tendency to make « catch-all » lines to serve different traffic-generating centres as closely as possible, whereas the situation could be improved by taking better account of complementarity with active modes.


A strong coordinated development of walking, cycling and public transport is not currently on the agenda, at least not to a sufficient degree to significantly reduce the use of the private car in synergy with measures to organise the territory and activities. Some trends are even going in the « wrong » direction and there are many obstacles. For the years to come, it will be important to consider alternative scenarios for the ecological transition of transport 15 , and not be satisfied with the traditional « run of the mill » scenarios. A paradigm shift could become possible due to several factors

The interactions between the different criteria to be met are complex. In recent years, the consideration of the need for social equity has been a pretext for not increasing fuel taxes, thus creating an incentive (yet another one) for everyone to drive a lot, with windfall effects for the richest, whereas it would be possible to implement redistributive means. The problems of purchasing power have not been solved, however, with a reinforcement of car dependency in certain areas, notably due to the suppression of local services, and with incentives to buy new, more expensive vehicles. I spent the first part of my life in a rural environment in a family of farmers who could not afford to buy a car. Of course, the context was very different then, but it helped me not to underestimate the potential of alternatives to the car outside urbanised areas. For example, a lot of travel can be done by bicycle, sometimes for distances well over 10 or 20 kilometres, even without the help of technology. Nowadays, the spread of modern derailleurs and increasingly efficient electric assistants should make it possible to make even longer journeys, but the main obstacle is a development that is too focused on the car, combined with road traffic that is often a disincentive and incentive policies for alternative modes that are too weak  »

1 How to save energy in transport and reduce car dependency , Jean-Marie Beauvais, Transports, Infrastructures et Mobilités, issue 513, January 2019.

2 Contrasting visions for the energy-efficient city and its facilities, based on multimodal, multidisciplinary and multihorizontal thinking, Claude Soulas, Labex Futurs Urbains international symposium, Marne-la-Vallée, January 2013.

3 Cost 302. A - Technical and economic conditions for the use of electric road vehicles (EUR 11115) - Final report - 1987 - 486 p.

4 Illustration, through the classic legend of grains of wheat placed on a chessboard, of the unavoidable limits of the growth of metal consumption and the contribution of recycling to their supply, Jean François Labbé, Annales des Mines / Responsabilité Environnement, July 2020.

5 Do road users pay a fair price for their traffic? Bergerot et al, Direction Générale du Trésor, April 2021.

6 Shoup D (2011), The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup, APA / Panners Press, 2011.

7 In the post-Covid world, have we not (yet!) forgotten the walk? Jean-Marc Offner, Point de Vues, Forum Vies mobiles, 7 July 2021.

8 Les mobilités partagées / régulation politique et capitalisme urbain, Maxime Huré, Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2019.

9 Transport et urbanisme, Jean Laterrasse, Editions ISTE, 2000.

10 Final report, PREDIT PORT-VERT project «  Multiple options for feeder and transfer to transport networks / Multi-aspect approach to various intermodality formulas, Soulas et al, December 2010.

11 Final report of the PREDIT GREEN project, Bicycle evaluated as a feeder in the territories, Papon et al., 2015.

12 Actions fédératives intermodalité voyageurs. Information - Communication. Final report of the definition group, PREDIT, 2000.

13 Interdependencies of bicycle and public transport use / Meetbike, Dresden, 3-4 April 2008.

14 Puccio B, Pretsch H, Soulas C, Wulfhorst G (2003). The Bahn.ville project : rail oriented development and intermodality in French and German urban regions. European Transport Conference. Strasbourg. October 2003.

15 Soulas C. et al (2009), Prospective 2050 : des scénarios alternatifs, in collective work «  Paroles de chercheurs 2 / Sur nos territoires… l’écomobilité ", INRETS collections, November 2009.