While there is little agreement as to the particular benchmarks and standards that make up urban sustainability (Khan, 2006), the traditional pillars of sustainability are considered to be “Social Development”, “Economic Growth” and “Environmental Protection” as initially set out by the Brundtland Commission (WCED, 1987) and later defined by the 2005 World Summit on Social Development (Kates et al. 2005). Those pillars are often supplemented by a fourth, considered to be “Cultural Vitality” (Hawkes 2001), a part of the “circles of sustainability” of UN Agenda 21 (Spangenberg, 2002). Cultural Vitality is a focus away from the social elements of sustainability and towards the intangible human and cultural dimension, their heritage and the differences that exist between various urban areas to be preserved and enhanced (Duxbury and Jeannotte 2012). This involves an adaptation of sustainability according to cultural norms and strategies employed (Nadarajah and Yamamoto 2007). Academics (Banister, 2008; Maoh and Kanaroglou, 2009; Geels, 2012; Tran et al., 2014) argue to the undervalued importance of technology in sustainability and its impact in improving social equity, economic efficiencies, transparency and governance within urban systems.

Both of those “additional elements” of sustainability (culture and technology) are key towards achieving improved innovations that introduce sustainable change through new ideas and products in urban transport. For technological innovations to be adopted and used by society, it must be compatible with the cultural ‘values and norms of social systems’ (E. Rogers, 2003). If technology is deemed incompatible with behavioural expectations, it will face resistance and longer adoption periods with lower implementation rates. ‘An innovation is a combination of heterogeneous elements that link together and reach out across space and time’ (Schwanen, 2015).

Since urban sustainability issues do not “fit” within a single sustainability “pillar”, solutions must present clear synergies between elements, the gains made in one balanced with the sacrifices made in another. Environmental protection and economic growth often clash with each other (Hollands 2008, Litman 2004). Urban transport systems suffer from this phenomenon since transport generally constitutes a negative environmental impact but its positive externalities include greater social equality, economic competitiveness and global desirability (Litman and Burwell 2006).

Urban sprawl, a consequence of unsustainable transport, contributes to a reduced reliance on more energy efficient public transport, leading to higher rates of traffic congestion, pollution and distances driven (Brueckner, 2000; Dieleman et al., 2002; Kennedy et al., 2005) not to mention poor use of land and wasting scarce resources (Newman and Kenworthy, 1999). Some academics consider that those negative environmental externalities are no longer justified by the economic benefits that transport creates (Boarnet, 1997; Helling, 1997; Holvald and Leleur, 2003) since we have reached a point where marginal diminishing returns apply.

This sentiment of unsustainable transport systems is supported by other academics (Kennedy et al., 2005, Litman and Burwell 2006, Banister 2005) who consider that technological innovations are one of the key drivers in transiting to greater sustainability ‘75% of trips, or more, are made by gasoline-fuelled automobiles is inconsistent with global sustainability’ (Kennedy et al., 2005 pp.395). While awareness of negative externalities now exist, such technological changes can be slow to implement due to the complexities involved. For instance, it would take an estimated 20 years to achieve a ratio of 20% of the vehicle fleet running on non-carbon based fuels (Banister 2005).

Kennedy et al., (2005) proposes four “new” pillars of sustainability applicable to urban transport, namely ‘Governance, Financing, Infrastructure, Neighbourhoods’. Those pillars would serve to support and enhance the traditional elements of sustainability. Technological innovations are proposed as a tool to achieve the key pillars of urban sustainability proposed by Kennedy et al., (2005).

 Transport vs Mobility

With over half of the world’s population living in urban areas and the developing world rapidly catching up to current industrial world levels where 80% of population is urban (Grimm et al., 2008, pp. 756), the majority of transport journeys are urban in nature. This urban form of transport is part of a complex eco- system which involves multiple stakeholders from end-users, communities impacted by externalities, city planners, lobby groups, businesses, mayors, states and agencies. Yet, the importance of an efficient transport system in developing the economy and providing social wealth cannot be understated (Schippl and Puhe, 2012). While a dense city is the most sustainable urban form, the efficient transport of goods, services and people is a critical element of a functioning and sustainable society (James, 2014).

Increased densification as well as technological innovations are driving changes in use and behaviours of travel, in particular user perceptions. The traditional approach to transport has been that its demand is derived from necessity and cost rather than desire, it is unpleasant “wasted” time for users who are assumed to use the transport infrastructure as a means of reaching a certain point and are thus foregoing time and any other productivity or desirable aspects of the journey itself (Banister 2008). If this principle is accepted then every effort should thus be made into making the journey time shorter. Yet, the speed of transport is not always the primary criteria used in decision-making of preferred forms of transport (Shaw and Hesse, 2010).

Concepts of mobility have gone beyond the utilitarian view of transport as a mean of reaching a destination but morphed into creating an experience or parallel activity for its own sake. Mobility takes into account secondary elements of travel beyond mere transportation, elements such as the rise in demand for leisure based travel, productive uses of time during travel or simply a time to reflect (Banister 2008). The boom in Information & Communications Technologies (ICT) has considerably shifted the paradigm of “transport” towards “mobility” as it has allowed for greater work flexibility, better use of time spent on transport (through online services) and the reduction in the need for travel (online shopping, video conferencing).

The Role of Technology in Urban Transports

Technology has driven radical transformations in our urban environments, economies and socio- technical arrangements (Graham and Marvin 2001), it plays such an important role within our urban makeup that cities compete in achieving an ill-defined “smart-city” status. Hollands (2008) argues that the term “smart” is often misused and misunderstood as marketing hype based on superficial technological criteria rather than as a tool for real transition to improved social and economic inclusion. The label of “smart” cities evoke a certain set of (invariably positive) assumptions based on ‘information technology, business innovation, governance, communities and sustainability’ (Hollands 2008) and their interconnected relationships. He finds that a core theme of smart cities is their reliance on ICT and their desire to attract ‘creative classes’ (Florida 2002) to the detriment of other communities.

Technology isn’t the “answer” to urban transport challenges but it can mitigate negative externalities such as carbon emissions, noise and air pollution, affordability, infrastructure requirements, congestion, population segregation, poor land use as well as reinforce positive impacts such as access, economic efficiency, social inclusion, health and well being. Schippl and Puhe (2012) identifies sectors in which technology can impact the urban transport sector:

 ‘Technologies that affect oil-dependency, efficiency, and emissions of vehicles and could basically be labelled as alternative fuels and propulsion systems. Technologies that affect the way transport modes are being used which could basically be labelled as ICT.’

Both forms of technological innovation can improve resilience to economic shocks by providing more targeted, flexible and affordable transport solutions that reduce dependency on volatile oil prices. Technologies allow for new forms of ownership concepts. If sufficiently convenient and affordable, users will consider temporary access more beneficial, further distancing the user with the social prestige of transport ownership, reducing ongoing costs and allowing for greater financial flexibility (Schippl and Puhe, 2012). Technological innovations allow for “individualised collective” transport methods with low barriers of entry and which are less regulated by state or municipal authorities such as peer-to-peer or business-to-consumer sharing platforms. This has caused considerable self-analysis within decision makers as to the continued role of public authorities in transport regulation and financial support (Cramer and Krueger, 2016).

While electric vehicles are an important socio-technological innovation that adapt existing product components, it does not change the overall architecture of the product. Autonomous vehicles are this next radical innovation – which isn’t wholly original since automation is used in aviation and robotics – but is sectionally diffusion-based (Schwanen, 2015) and can be applicable not just to private cars but also public transport. There are fears that such innovation could be competence destroying as it may lead to a gradual obsolescence of skills and industries.

Behavioural Innovations

E. Rogers (2003) argues that the perceptions of innovations by society are key to their adoption. If desirability is not created organically and taken-up by trend-setters, adoption levels will be minimised. This can be exemplified by the infatuation of the USA for the automobile in the 60’s and 70’s through its perceptions of wealth, freedom and style, leading to the decline of public transport (perceived as the premise of the poor) and the emergence of city planning designed for individual transport to the exclusion of any other form of transport, including pedestrian (Glaeser et al., 2008). Furthering Rogers societal elements, Evens (2002) states that ‘technology has to be utilisable and understandable to the communities that it is supposed to serve’. It is not enough for technology to meet the needs of the people and match its set of values and believes, it must also be accessible, affordable and easy to use.

Innovation cannot separate the technological aspects from the behavioural aspects, both are integrally linked. This can be visualised through the “hype disappointment cycles” explained by Melton et al., (2016) whereby if certain expectations are not met, disappointment is created and the technology fails, to be potentially picked up and transformed later when circumstances change.

ICT are examples of radical innovations with the “sticking” power to spread quickly and achieve rapid penetration rates as it fulfilled roles traditionally held by multitudes of actors (i.e. Uber which has rapidly become a global phenomenon) but further incremental improvements are delayed by infrastructure bottlenecks, which are capital intensive, require physical work and can take decades to catch-up. Smartphone technology was widely adopted by society and has the ability to transform urban transport use behaviours (Tseng et al., 2013) thus meeting the requirements for both technological and behavioural innovation. Beyond the obvious ICT benefits of individualised access to network, trip planning, congestion avoidance and real time information that smartphones can provide, there are a wide range of supplementally derived benefits. Smartphones have, for instance, dramatically reduced costs and time required to carry out road inventories, negating the risk for expensive specialised equipment and instead allowing not just professional mappers to be more efficient but also for the user to participate in the exercise allowing for scarce resources to be deployed elsewhere and competencies to be built (Higuera de Frutos and Castro, 2014). The lack of easy-to-access real time information on the carbon footprints of specific journeys has been a clear barrier to greater awareness and thus choice making by transport users (Browne et al., 2011) but the introduction of carbon calculator apps is allowing progressive behavioural adaptation to take place (Brazil and Caulfield, 2013).

In a number of cases, it is not necessarily the technological innovations themselves that drive changes in behaviour and use of transportation networks but rather the (re)-introduction of infrastructure combined with a desire to use previously existing technologies. Cycling is a clear example of this. Bikes have existed ever since the mid-1800’s but greater awareness in the health benefits of cycling (Evans et al., 2000) the environmental impact of fossil fuel dependent transport, a paradigm in the social and cultural perceptions of cycling and marked improvements in cycling infrastructure (Huijbregts et al., 2011) were essential to allow municipal bike-sharing programs to flourish and for corporate donors to finance their implementation allowing for brand association. Another example is the revival of tram systems throughout the US but in particular Detroit, a city where the introduction of radical new technology (the car) led to the dismantlement of public transport systems which is now being gradually reintroduced (Glaeser et al., 2008).

The fragmented and complex nature of urban governance is a key challenge in the adoption of technologies, in particular if it requires adoption beyond pure transport systems as was the case with the (now very successful) Octopus card in Hong Kong which functions not just on public transport but also with retailers, tax authorities and e-commerce systems (Chau and Poon 2003). With often conflicting jurisdictions (for instance between transport and land-use planners) and interests regulating the multiple forms of both the means of urban transports and its infrastructure. Achieving a census can be a lengthy and complex process that often does not reach an optimal conclusion (Kennedy et al., 2005). Jordan (2008) argued that there exists three forms of governance – hierarchies, markets and networks – which often conflict with each other and are in a constant state of flux. In order to bring them together, greater interdependencies and integrations must be implemented with a simplified chain of command. Miller et al., (1998) supports this position and furthermore states that often land use and transport planning are not sufficiently valued by senior municipal officials, leading to a lack of clear direction and governance. There are exceptions to the rule: some Dutch cities have for instance achieved far greater integration and governance within their transport planning systems (Hall, 1994) leading to faster implementations of new projects, at cheaper cost to users and tax-payers and a better perception of public transport. This issue of fragmentation amongst decision makers doesn’t just apply to civil servants but also in the field of sustainability experts who focus on key skills within one of the particular “pillars” of sustainability to the detriment of others (Gibson, 2006).

Technology by itself could also be a barrier to creating better social equity as not everyone would have access to the technology, be able to afford it or the capacity to understand / use it. An example of this can be found in Limain the 90’s, where the adoption rates of internet access benefited the wealthy far more than the poorest segments of the population who were ‘50 times less likely to have the internet’ (Graham 2002, p.43). Defining who can access a city’s ICT (either through design by only networking certain high-value neighbourhoods or by excluding those who are IT illiterate) can lead to urban segregation, economic polarisation (Peck, 2005, pp 381) and social injustice (Harvey, 1973). Legacy technologies can also act as a barrier to newer technologies, in particular if dependent on costly infrastructure or heavy sunk costs as is the case with diesel technology delaying the adoption of electric vehicles (Schroeder and Traber, 2012).

Finally, sustainability in urban transport differs greatly on the circumstances in which they are viewed. Public transport for instance, as a public good, has a social equality and poverty alleviation remit that may conflict with certain sustainability benchmarks. Running bus or train lines which are economically unsustainable in themselves but who provide remote or disenfranchised communities with access to economic and social opportunities is essential. This leads to pricing mechanisms which are not market driven but set through social needs which in turn may lead to inefficient funding or unsustainable business plans for public sector transport agencies (Banister, 1998). This is based on the premise that public transport should be managed and run by public authorities for the public good and that there exists strong economies of scale in doing so (Mees 2000). On the other hand, Nijkamp and Ursem (1998) for instance, state that there are ample free market solutions that will replace public goods where there is a demand for it and technology would assist in generating demand. While this author believes that this may occasionally be the case in highly unregulated markets where low cost and highly flexible solutions can be implemented through market forces, it will continue to negatively impact certain communities and eventually displace them towards places where greater densities justify a transport infrastructure, which may in turn lead to increased gentrification of those “transit-oriented-development (TOD)” nodes. While Ryle (2014) researched the phenomenon in the US and found no link between TOD and gentrification / displacement, no conclusive peer-reviewed studies on this topic have been carried out in emerging markets. The free-market argument is also unlikely to be as powerful in more developed and regulated economies where the barriers to entry are very high. Technological innovations in ICT may assist in making certain forms of urban transport more accessible and affordable to a greater segment of the population. Peer-to-peer networks, sharing solutions and more affordable fuel sources may bridge the affordability gap but will never make transport truly equitable. Autonomous vehicles are the current innovation hype but while the concept may be technologically advanced, the behavioural innovations required to make it successful still severely lag behind (Howard and Dai, 2014).


While technological innovations and their underlying behavioural changes are a key part of a transition to more sustainable forms and uses of urban transports they will only support and facilitate this transition but not ensure it. There is as of yet a ‘lack of clear vision and the seductiveness of following the high mobility option’ (Banister, 2011 p.1544) which would allow to maximise the potential of socio- technological innovations. Achieving a sustainable provision of urban transport relies on a host of other complex and interrelated non-technical and non-behavioural elements which need to function holistically to be successful. Such elements include modifying the design and quality of the urban form such that technologies with great negative externalities (such as cars) are naturally excluded to the benefit of more sustainable forms of transport such as walking, cycling or public transport (Banister, 2008). A ‘multi-level perspective’ which allows for non-linear analysis such as that proposed by Geels (2012) is useful to map the interactions between the various actors and dimensions that are required to achieve sustainable systemic change.


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