The mobility of families: a key factor in the transition towards emissions-free cities and transport

European Mobility Atlas 2021

Small steps are necessary to implement big changes. More specifically, the steps of society’s youngest members. If the way families move shifts towards a more sustainable (and less car-centred) mode, a considerable reduction of emissions of the traffic sector can be achieved.

FINAL BOELL_Familymobility_06_RZ_1600x900px_300percent_res_web.png

For small children, the number one “mobility device” is their parents. If children experience the way their family is moving around from a passive position in the backseat of a powerful SUV, they are more likely to choose the same path later. Equally, when surrounded by an environment that supports emission-free mobility – for instance, if kindergartens or schools were more accessible to bicycles and public transport – their concept of mobility is sustainably shaped by this perception. But getting to this point is not easy.

When families grow, the purchase of a car becomes a serious option. The emission-free transport needs of all the family seem to be too complicated and unsafe for the fragile new-born. Implementing transformation at this very point in life, however, is essential to meeting the environmental and climate change objectives of the Paris Agreement.

An inclusive city and traffic planning, one that reconsiders the specific needs of all impacted groups, could be a reasonable starting point for a change of paradigm. The so-called “superblocks”, planned and implemented in Barcelona, Vienna and Berlin are highly inclusive pilot projects and they are focused on improving the living quality of their inhabitants. The extended blocks are green, safe for cyclists and pedestrians, and traffic permitted around the superblock perimeter (except for residential services, deliveries and residents).

This infrastructure ensures that the spaces are highly qualified for family use. Family mobility takes place in the tight corset of its infrastructural conditions. If streets are built, cars will follow. A similar thing happens to bikes if bikes lanes are built. This is impressively proven by the pop-up bike lanes that have been built worldwide, as evaluation data now shows.

Another prerequisite for sustainable family mobility is a reliable system of public transport This is true for everyday mobility and holiday planning, both in the cities and the countryside. In fact, even more so in the countryside, where longer distances must be covered, and buses or trains often lack the flexibility and/or frequency that are crucial for families. The European Year of Rail 2021 highlights the importance of rail, promoting it with a list of convincing arguments. For instance, that it is a ‘sustainable, innovative, interconnected and intermodal, safe and affordable’ mode of transport. Looking closely at family-friendly solutions for train travel in Europe, one can indeed find creative and attractive offers, but they are relatively rare.

In Finland, the upper deck of the double-decker restaurant carriages are designed as playgrounds. In the Czech Republic, cinema-style compartments for children provide the opportunity to watch movies. The idea of reanimating night trains in Europe to offer a practical alternative to short-haul flights is definitely a move in the right direction, hitting the nerve of many climate-conscious travellers. Still, an attractive night train for families must fulfil their specific requirements – such as enough space for strollers.

For the everyday use of public transport, changing the means of transport, for example at train stations , can be demanding. Only if one can park their cargo bike or child trailer freely and easily at the station, is the option to cycle to the station and take the train from there convincing. This is especially true for relatively high-priced electric bikes. Being able to take one’s cargo bike on the train is a dream, the fulfilment of which would equally require political will and a boost in train infrastructure.

A shift from the car-centred approach of planners and politicians to a fair redistribution of public space is already taking place in many European countries. Sometimes, even apparently impossible obstacles are overcome. Spain, for instance, has taken a big step by implementing a speed limit of 30 km/h in practically every major city, while significantly re-planning many living areas. The lifting of the ban on child trailers in Madrid and Barcelona has resulted in an explosion of sales. Families are ready to take useful and sustainable options.

When children are born, the life of a family changes in many ways. If the circumstances are adjusted accordingly, emission-free mobility can be a constant in family life. Therefore, from an ecological perspective, this turning point has to be taken into account. If a successful intervention takes place, CO2 reductions in the traffic sector can be achieved. Stable and affordable infrastructure, and the promotion of flexible mobility concepts for families, can motivate parents to jumping on the wagon of sustainable mobility. If this is not an investment in the future, then what is?