Governance in niche development for a transition to a new mobility regime

Potter, Stephen; Valdez, Alan; Cook, Matthew and Langendahl, Per-Anders (2015). Governance in niche development for a transition to a new mobility regime. In: International Sustainability Conference 2015, 25-28 Aug 2015, University of Sussex.



Urban mobility is a difficult sustainability challenge; measures to reduce transport impacts produce only marginal reductions in overall energy use and CO2 emissions. Even fuel switch to electric vehicles and measures to manage traffic produce insufficient improvements. Seeking transport sustainability within the existing socio-technical regime involves policy approaches for dense cities to provide high-capacity, corridor-based public transport, expecting people to arrange their lives around such transport systems. Yet this socio-technical regime ill-fits modern mobility needs.

The reluctance to use public transport stems much from this 150 year old regime configuration. The social-technical landscape has shifted significantly: travel patterns are increasingly dispersed in space and time – not funnelled into traditional corridor peak-hour movements. The key is not getting people to return to travel patterns of 100 years ago, but in a transition to a socio-technical transport regime that delivers sustainability compatible with the 21st century social-technical landscape.

An opportunity may be emerging for socio-technical configurations in niche environments to effect transitions to alternate mobility futures. Autonomous vehicles are rapidly approaching market application. Since 2011, small autonomous pods have operated on segregated tracks at Heathrow Airport. In 2014 a similar system opened at the Suncheon Bay tourist area in South Korea.

Since 2011 there have been public street trials of autonomous vehicles in the USA and in 2015 they became street legal in the UK. The Milton Keynes (MK) ‘Pathfinder’ project focuses on two-seat pods which do not need segregated tracks, but will run on cycleways and footpaths, mixing with cyclists and pedestrians. Trials will start in 2015, on short distance links from the railway station to destinations in Central Milton Keynes. This project forms part of the wider Milton Keynes Future Cities Programme and Open University-led MK:Smart project.

This paper draws on these trials in MK to show through case study research how autonomous vehicles applications are moving beyond protected niches and, along with other developments, hold the potential to stimulate a major transition in public transport systems. The vehicles are small and each journey is individual to the passenger(s). Services do not run along corridor routes, like buses and trams, but are based on alternate rule-sets to the existing regime with individual journeys customised for each user. Such developments may therefore stimulate transition to totally different sorts of public transport systems and ultimately, socio-technical mobility regimes, by offering much more to users than any corridor system can provide. Rather than people adjusting their behaviour to bus routes, schedules and operating times, they travel directly, whenever they want, on services running 24/7. Thus these new regimes could be more compatible with lifestyle and economic trends that comprise 21st century socio-technical landscapes. As such, they provide credible alternatives to the private car, and so hold potential to deliver major sustainability gains.

But such transitions face major challenges from entrenched actors within the existing regime. Taxis, minicabs and bus operators would be threatened. If the Uber cab app is being blocked by incumbent actors, they look likely to be powerful opponents of autonomous vehicle based cab services. However, MK provides an interesting innovation context where there are several overlapping smart transport niches in different stages of development. As well as autonomous pods, demand responsive minibuses are planned and inductive changed electric buses are in service. If these projects build links to each other (niche accumulation), demonstrate economic value and reproduced beyond their original experimental spaces (niche proliferation), there is potential for them to overcome incumbent resistance. In Milton Keynes, these processes could be getting close to reaching critical mass, opening up the possibility of moving closer to radical regime transitions.

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