Current transport systems for people and freight are environmentally unsustainable [1
]. In 2011, transport was responsible for 23% of global energy consumption [5
] and 22% of CO2
]. Both energy consumption and emissions continue to grow due to a range of mutually reinforcing factors and processes, including a near total—94% [5
]—reliance on oil; population growth; economic development; urban sprawl; the globalization of cultural ideas that tie car use and ownership to social progress, freedom and individuality; and governments’ commitment to road building and investment in other infrastructures for carbon-intensive forms of mobility, such as maritime ports and airports [4
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transport need to be reduced drastically, and the IPCC unambiguously calls for “aggressive and sustained” [4
] (p. 602) measures yet also appreciates the monumentality of the challenges ahead: the growth of transport volumes in non-OECD countries and of intercontinental movements of people and goods risks cancelling out the benefits from technological advances and behavior change occurring across parts of Europe, North America and Australasia. In those regions, the growth of car use and ownership may have peaked [8
] and a rail renaissance, both within cities (metro, light rail) and between cities (high speed rail) [10
], and cycling boom [13
] can be witnessed. These developments seem to take place first and foremost in urban areas. Indeed, across the global North, cities lead the way in moving toward low-energy mobility—here used as shorthand for types of everyday mobility that consume less fossil fuels and emit smaller quantities of GHGs than do conventional internal combustion personal vehicles—for various reasons [15
]: higher population densities make public transport, cycling and walking more practical and attractive compared to car use and ownership; populations are on balance relatively young, highly educated, environmentally conscious and willing to experiment with—or at least support—various forms of low-energy living; and governments are more likely to have the political, institutional and financial capacities to support low-energy mobility initiatives and experiments than are their suburban and rural counterparts.
Whilst encouraging, the currently observable gradual shifts across the global North are unlikely to be sufficient if transport’s contribution to anthropogenic climate change is to be minimized. Across academics from various disciplinary backgrounds a consensus appears to be emerging around two key ideas. The first of these revolves around the need for systemic change, whereby prevailing systems of mobility—i.e.
, not only (vehicle) technologies, physical infrastructures and user practices, but also the cultural meanings associated with various forms of movement, markets, maintenance and repair, forms of regulation and policy making, and formal expertise about transport [18
]—become durably reconfigured. The second is that such change can be triggered by the diffusion of one or more low-energy innovations—new technologies, institutional arrangements or user practices that differ to greater or lesser extent from prevailing mobility systems; examples include IT-supported mobility services (e.g., car/bike sharing), bio-fueled buses and smartcard-based integrated ticketing systems. In accordance with these views, a literature on innovations in transport is emerging [19
], most of which is informed by the theoretical perspectives of strategic niche management (SNM) [21
] and the multi-level perspective (MLP) [18
], although a range of studies have also drawn on cultural approaches like practice theory [26
] and the energy cultures framework [29
The theoretical lens of SNM/MLP is particularly useful because of its comprehensive system orientation but also tends to privilege the temporal over the spatial dimensions of systemic change. Whilst offering useful conceptualizations of the moments at which innovations can break through and the temporalities involved in systemic change, it has less to say on where such processes will happen, why there, and which geographical circumstances will facilitate or complicate them (see also [31
]). This can be considered a shortcoming given the urban character of the processes of peak car, rail renaissance and cycle boom across the global North.
The current paper seeks to contribute to a better understanding of the geographical dimensions of innovations in transport by focusing on the everyday mobility of people and adopting a comparative case study approach. It considers the UK cities of Brighton and Oxford as what Flyvbjerg [40
] calls “critical cases” that enable conclusions which may also apply to other cities with less favorable conditions for systemic change. The UK is an appropriate setting because it was the first country to adopt legally binding CO2
emission reduction targets, which are linked to the 2008 Climate Change Act, and has allocated £738.5 m to the Local Sustainable Transport Fund (2011–2016), which funds a program of locally designed and delivered policy packages aimed at stimulating sustainable forms of passenger transport [41
]. Within this national context, Brighton and Oxford are two medium-sized cities with strong reputations in sustainable transport: bus usage is amongst the highest in the UK, and whilst Oxford is widely known as a city of cyclists, Brighton—used henceforth as synonym for the city’s official name of Brighton and Hove—was among the first to adopt comprehensive cycling promotion policies in the UK. Both cities can be expected to be ahead of the curve in terms of transitioning to low-energy mobility systems and offer potentially fertile grounds for the emergence and flourishing of low-energy innovation in urban mobility. This makes these cities useful sites to examine which local processes and circumstances facilitate, complicate or obstruct systemic transitions toward low-energy urban mobility.
2. Sociotechnical Transitions and Innovation
Theoretically, the starting point for this paper is the multi-level perspective (MLP), which holds that systemic change requires processes at the sociotechnical landscape, regime and niche levels to somehow coincide and become interlinked [18
]. A sociotechnical regime is a set of rules—cognitive routines, shared beliefs, social norms and conventions, regulations, industry standards, protocols, contracts, laws and so forth—that fulfill a societal function (e.g., everyday mobility) and thereby condition the practices through which the technology, infrastructure, markets, cultural values, user practices, maintenance and repair, regulation and formal knowledge that make up socio-technical systems are reproduced [18
]. Innovation and experimentation occur within a regime but are normally incremental: they tend not to challenge the basic architecture of, and power relations undergirding, the rules associated with a prevailing sociotechnical system, but rather seek to minimize an existing system’s negative externalities. In a transport context they are best exemplified by end-of-pipe innovations [3
], such as fuel economy improvements in internal combustion personal vehicles. Such innovations are typically led by incumbent regime actors.
In contrast, innovations in sociotechnical niches are more radical: they often involve new, non-incumbent actors and potentially challenge—or at least reconfigure—the rules of prevailing systems. This does not mean that regime actors are uninterested or uninvolved; they may participate to learn about new developments and future competition, but their commitment to a given niche’s development may ultimately be restricted [43
]. The sociotechnical landscape is to some extent a residual category [44
]; it gathers all wider contexts and developments over which regime actors have little influence, from anthropogenic climate change to economic crises, demographic shifts and the rise of the Information Age, as well as the transition from welfare to workfare [45
] according to which all adults in advanced liberal democracies should, in principle, be in paid employment (and which becomes easier if they can afford to own a private car). According to the MLP, landscape developments can put pressure on, and eventually destabilize, existing regimes, opening up opportunities for innovations in niches to diffuse and reconfigure regimes [25
The number of studies using the MLP in a passenger transport context is increasing rapidly (e.g., [19
]), although most focus on specific niches, such as electric vehicles [43
]. Nonetheless, at least two studies have discussed a broader range of niches in contemporary passenger mobility. Based on research in the UK and Sweden, Nykvist and Whitmarsh [19
] identify three types: radical vehicle technologies (e.g., battery and hybrid electric vehicles), mobility services (e.g., car/bike sharing, public transport) and mobility management programs seeking to reduce vehicular travel (e.g., promotion of active travel or substitution of physical travel by ICT—telecommuting, e-commerce, etcetera
). Geels [20
] has expanded this classification into six categories, two of which—green propulsion technologies and demand management—are closely aligned with Nykvist and Whitmarsh’s radical vehicle technologies and mobility management, respectively. However, the other four categories refine and extend those by Nykvist and Whitmarsh:
IT-based innovations not only encompass telecommuting programs and the like, but also intelligent transport systems seeking to increase transport’s efficiency through real-time information provision and smartcard-based integrated ticketing;
Public transport innovations, such as light rail systems, and improved information provision and ticketing systems;
Intermodal travel programs that seek to integrate different systems such as car and bus travel (Park and Ride) or car and public transport with public bike sharing schemes; and
Cultural and socio-spatial niches that challenge the normality of private car use through land use developments (e.g., compact cities, smart growth, Transit Oriented Development (TOD), Complete/Livable Streets and home zones), or collective/commercial ownership (car/bike sharing).
However useful these classifications of niches may be, they are complicated by three sets of issues. One is that regimes are non-singular in transport [20
], especially in cities and more so in continental Europe than in the UK and certainly the USA, Canada and Australia. In many Danish, Dutch and German cities, for instance, there is now a decade-long tradition and sometimes dominance of the provision, regulation and consumption of multiple forms of transport deemed environmentally sustainable—rail, bus, also cycling—which complicate the distinction between regime and niche [13
]. Many cycling-related, TOD or intermodal transport innovations cannot be considered radical in those cities, although they might be labeled as such in other geographical contexts [3
]. Moreover, what counts as an incremental or radical innovation depends on how place-specific regimes interact with each other (see also [50
]). In geographical contexts where mobility systems configured around car, public transport and cycling compete with each other—or are encouraged to do so because of wider, modally organized institutional set-ups—, publicly financed bike sharing and/or commercial car sharing schemes may be seen as radical innovations and often face an up-hill struggle to assert themselves. Yet, in places where multiple regimes are more symbiotic than competitive, publicly funded bike sharing and/or commercial car sharing schemes are more incremental innovations, enabled by incumbent actors seeking to exploit synergies.
Additionally, the dynamics of niche innovation cannot be reduced to merely replacing or reconfiguring one or more regimes because of their purportedly unsustainable character. Many niches are not only about creating and expanding social networks, creating shared expectations and visions, and collective learning about technologies or regulation, as much of the strategic niche management literature would have it [22
]. They are often political, in one of two senses. Niche innovations can be grassroots innovations [51
] or urban experiments [35
] whose very point is to challenge the ways in which regime actors—and others closely aligned to them—go about addressing the climate change challenge. In the urban mobility context these innovations may be exemplified by community-led initiatives configured around shared cars [53
] or focused on cycling. Niche innovations and experiments can also be politically in a strategic sense. This is because they are being framed and used by political and economic elites to enhance the global competitiveness of cities and city-regions in a (post)neoliberal world. This, for instance, was Hodson and Marvin’s [31
] interpretation of the attempts to create a hydrogen economy in London under Mayor Ken Livingstone in the 1990s and the subsequent demonstration projects with hydrogen-fueled buses.
Thirdly, there is a tendency in the recent transport-oriented literature to focus on specific niches and to do so in isolation from other innovations. As in the MLP literature more widely, the emphasis is often on new technologies, such as electric vehicles (EVs), or innovations in which new technologies play a significant role, such as most recent bike and car sharing schemes. Whilst the latter two can also be seen as socio-cultural innovations insofar as they promote a shift away from individual ownership, there has not been much attention for innovations in which technology plays a very limited role, such as walk/cycle-to-school initiatives or cycling cafes and hubs for cycling training, maintenance and/or storage. Such innovations can nonetheless be of critical importance to low-energy transitions, because they directly seek to reconfigure elements of sociotechnical systems other than technologies and transport infrastructures as conventionally understood, such as cultural values, user practices and maintenance and repair. As protagonists of cultural approaches [26
] would rightfully argue, those innovations can play an important role in changing the meanings associated with particular ways of moving around the city, enhancing users’ skills and confidence and ultimately normalizing low-energy mobility in the city. Moreover, most studies so far have looked at individual or at most several innovations rather than on larger numbers as Nykvist and Whitmarsh [19
] and Geels [20
] have done. This focus on single or at most several innovations is problematic insofar that innovations may reinforce one another (symbiosis) or rather out-compete each other, and such relations may be place-specific. Moreover, innovations may be “entwined becomings”, meaning that one could not obtain its distinctiveness without the realization and evolution of others. Consider, for instance, a smartcard-based integrated ticketing system facilitating not merely the transfer between rail and bus, but also the storage of privately owned bikes at the train station of origin and the use of a shared car at the destination side to overcome the first and last mile challenges, respectively. Focusing on many initiatives and their interdependencies can thus offer a more systemic perspective on innovation in passenger mobility.
This paper addresses the above issues through an analysis of a large number and diverse range of innovations and their linkages in geographical contexts where multiple regimes—auto-, bus- and velomobility—compete, coexist and intermingle. It moves beyond classifications used previously [19
] to consider not only the geographical scale but also the involvement of specific types of actors and political entanglements. It also explores how the last two dimensions are critical to the mobilization of such resources as funding.
Using a case study approach and informed by the sociotechnical transitions literature, this paper has demonstrated that many innovations contributing to reduced GHG emissions and energy consumption from everyday mobility have been realized recently in Brighton and Oxford. Activity has been particularly pronounced since 2010, focusing on different transport modes—and sometimes at intermodal mobility—and involving many different actors, both incumbent and new. Examples of the latter include start-up companies specializing in low-energy mobility, not-for-profit organizations and collectives, and local universities. It is tempting to conclude that in both cities an innovation-based systemic change toward low-energy mobility futures is underway. Yet, the admittedly very basic statistics in Table 1
also suggest that, at least for commuting, private car use (in internal combustion vehicles) remains by far the most important form of transport. There is still a long way to go toward urban mobility that is genuinely environmentally sustainable.
There is also a clear geography to the innovation patterns characterizing both cities, in a double sense. Place-specific and path-dependent trajectories of innovation in each city can be identified. There is considerably greater emphasis on commercial car sharing; cycling oriented retrofitting of road infrastructure; and travel planning focused on residences, workplaces and educational institutions in Brighton. In contrast, there has been greater activity in electric mobility in Oxford, partly because of greater air quality issues and more concerted action from local government on these. The second sense relates to how innovation activity in each city is relational and embedded in wider geographical configurations. In both cities most activity is funded by money that comes from national government sources, but Brighton’s local government has so far been more proactive and more successful in raising money from specialized funding programs oriented at cycling and/or sustainable transport run by national government and the EU. This appears to be changing, however, and Oxford has recently become more proactive in obtaining supra-local government funding. Whilst this is to some extent the consequence of wider processes of state restructuring in the UK (cf.
]), the findings also demonstrate the importance of understanding cities as at once relational and territorial [58
] rather than as bounded, sealed-off and independent containers in which innovations unfold.
In fact, the financial arrangements discussed in this paper are one source of vulnerability and uncertainty when it comes to future innovation activity and the continuation of transition trajectories. This is because national and EU funding is to be obtained via competitive bidding processes, the outcomes of which cannot be guaranteed in advance. Whilst this study suggests that success in obtaining grants and project delivery seems to breed success, the consequences of failure in obtaining the next tranche of funding are not insignificant. Not only will particular lines of innovation activity have to be cut short, local governments will also lose staff and hence expertise and human capital. This may reduce the speed of sociotechnical transition as well as the trajectories followed, even if the broader direction of travel towards reducing energy consumption and GHG emissions may remain unaltered. Another vulnerability that has surfaced relates to fluctuations in political support for particular types of innovations. As has been suggested, support from local politicians has been important in driving forward cycling projects and the expansion of car sharing in Brighton and to a lesser extent cycling-related innovations in Oxford. Whilst very important, such support is also precarious: it is tied to electoral cycles and can also shift in-between election periods (for instance, under influence of local media campaigns or the actions of pressure groups). It is beyond this paper to explore the temporalities of political support in both case-study cities; suffice to say that there have been significant fluctuations in Brighton in particular, and that these have at times threatened the survival of specific innovations.
The above reflections on vulnerabilities and cities’ situatedness in wider spatial configurations of finance—as well as regulation and expertise—raise another issue. As previously discussed, both Brighton and Oxford are in many ways privileged when it comes to the emergence and flourishing of low-energy innovations in the everyday mobility of people. If low-energy transition trajectories and (future) innovations are already prone to precariousness, vulnerability and uncertainty in those cities, what can be expected for others where conditions are less favorable? This question obviously demands empirical scrutiny but, as far as the pace of transition processes is concerned, the findings for Brighton and Oxford do not bode particularly well for smaller and medium-sized cities (up to ±0.5 M inhabitants) at the heart of urban areas with much weaker bus- and velomobility systems in terms of physical infrastructure, regulation, formal expertise, financial resources, cultural values and user practices. It would appear, then, that cities have a significant role to play in reducing GHG emissions and energy consumption in transport in advanced liberal democracies like the UK but expectations about what they can achieve should be realistic. By no means should cities be heralded as actors who can bring about significant change semi-autonomously. This is to deny both the social, political, cultural, technological and other struggles that characterize cities, and the critically important role that national and supranational (EU) level actors play in shaping their innovation and low-energy transition trajectories.