From 2014 to 2017, the City of Aarhus in Denmark ran the Smart Mobility project, which consisted of 22 mobility management pilot projects. The pilots developed, tested and evaluated different ‘soft measures’ and their impact on commuting behaviour. Their evaluation has delivered a wealth of knowledge and expertise on how to influence people to commute differently.
Aarhus is going through a period of economic growth. The city is attracting new jobs and businesses, and new neighbourhoods have been built to accommodate its new residents. Despite these positive developments for Aarhus, this growth has a downside. Increased traffic volumes and higher numbers of commuters cause congestion and a high demand for the limited number of parking spaces. City life and the environment suffer from increased traffic.
The Aarhus municipality is trying to address these challenges in several ways, including:
- investing in some large infrastructure projects, such as cycling infrastructure and the Letbanen light rail;
- encouraging residents to change their travel behaviour through ‘mobility management’.
Mobility management uses ‘soft measures’ such as information and communication. The core of mobility management is knowledge of different target groups – their everyday lives, habits, needs and preferences, as well as their eventual behaviour changes. Unlike new infrastructure, mobility management measures do not require large, long-term investments (e.g. instead of expanding traffic capacity, these measures use methods that aim to optimise the use of existing infrastructure).
Aarhus’s mobility management projects have the primary aim of changing commuting habits. At the same time, the city’s promotion of active modes – walking and cycling – reflects the city’s health agenda with its focus on improving social and mental wellbeing. Feedback from participants, who increased their activity levels by cycling, confirmed that such measures can have positive results for physical and mental health.
Between 2014 and 2017, the City of Aarhus ran the Smart Mobility project, which consisted of 22 pilot projects aimed at different target groups. The pilots tested small-scale solutions in ‘a laboratory setting’. Their development, testing and evaluation provided knowledge and expertise on how and why different mobility management measures can be successful.
In spring 2014, the Aarhus municipality set up an organisational structure. Because mobility management affects many aspects of society, Aarhus municipality chose to involve different disciplines and departments. A core team of three was formed, consisting of an anthropologist, a landscape architect and a civil engineer. A project group that met on a monthly basis brought together staff from municipal departments working on climate, health, environment, communities and co-creation, youth and innovation. The project was partly financed by the Danish Transport, Construction and Housing Authority.
The Aarhus city administration defined four target groups, because different groups of citizens face different challenges in their daily travel behaviour. The target groups were the municipality’s own employees (mainly those in the Technology and Environment department of some 250 employees), residents in selected urbanised areas (Klostervangen, Vestervang and the Øgade quarter), residents in a suburban area (Beder-Malling) and young people.
For several pilots, participants shared their experience – positive and negative – in blogs (e.g. Superpendlerne, Early Birds and Medvind). The blogs ran for the period of the pilots and the candid accounts were a way of gathering information on the experience of participants with their new way of commuting.
This case study will elaborate on two of the 22 pilots: ‘365 days by bike’ and ‘Super commuters’.
365 days by bike
In this pilot, 30 local residents were offered an electric bicycle (e-bike) for a year as a substitute for their car – which had previously been their primary means of transport – for commuting journeys. All participants, recruited through social media, were located in Beder-Malling, a suburban area south of Aarhus. The distance of their commuting trips to Aarhus varied between 12 km and 17 km. The pilot ran from 27 April 2015 until 27 April 2016.
E-bikes were delivered by a local retailer and the participants were able to test different models. Throughout the project, they had access to repair and maintenance services at a local bike repairer. In the winter, the commuters were able to change their tyres and were given powerful lights. The participants also agreed to track their journeys with a mobile app.
Smart Mobility checked the health of the participants six times, including at the beginning of the project, which was an important motivational factor for the participants. At the local sports centre, the participants were checked on their general condition – weight, fat percentage, body mass index and blood pressure – and they met with physiotherapists.
During the period of the trial, participants communicated with each other and the Smart Mobility team in a closed Facebook group. At the start of the year, the project team expressed excitement about following the experiences of the participants closely, including in the autumn and winter when it would become dark, cold and wet.
The coloured jackets worn by the participants of the Smart Mobility project became an important item. Not only were participants able to recognise each other on bike paths, it also made them visible to other Beder-Malling residents who became increasingly aware of the project. All participants emphasised that the jackets gave extra motivation during the start-up period as they could follow and motivate each other.
During this pilot, 18 participants replaced their car with other modes of transport – a combination of a foldable bike, bus and train – for their commuting trips to Aarhus. The participants, all from the suburban Beder-Malling area, were recruited through a social media campaign.
Initially, the project team struggled to find participants, possibly because of the autumn period during which the pilot was to run (9 September 2015 until 9 December 2015) or because the residents did not consider that a combination of a foldable bike, bus and train was a convenient alternative to their car. In the end, mostly young families registered for Super commuters to the surprise of the project team. Young families usually have full schedules with many activities and bus travel might not give the desired flexibility.
At the start, Smart Mobility asked the participants to reflect on their reasons and motivation to sign up for Super commuters. An important reason was to avoid the rush hour, which was described as stressful, time-consuming and annoying. Many expressed the desire to challenge their everyday routines and habits, and some expressed concerns that they might lose the freedom and flexibility of their car:
‘Driving a car gives me the freedom to decide over my own time. But I hope – and possibly I’m imagining this – that the bicycle will give the same freedom.’
Based on commuting routes and the need to keep the foldable bike as light as possible, the bikes were equipped with locks and lights, but did not have a luggage rack or gears.
On the Superpendlerne blog, the participants wrote weekly reports about their experience (e.g. what they missed most about their car, how other people reacted to them commuting differently and how the change of habit affected their family life).
Smart Mobility’s 22 pilots have shown that, to change travel habits, it is essential to give residents the opportunity to try out new experiences so they can overcome barriers and prejudices. This became very clear in the blogs, where participants explained how using e-bikes overturned their perspective. For example, many never realised the distances that they could cover with an e-bike, and some never imagined that e-bikes could become a substitute for a car. A 28-year-old female participant wrote that she would never ride the distance of her commuting trip on a regular bike:
‘It's either an electric bike or a car.’
The pilots also changed the perception of the image of e-bikes. Some associated e-bikes with retired people and with a certain sense of ‘cheating’. A 27-year-old male participant wrote:
‘At first, I found it an enormous taboo to ride that bike, but now I think it's smart to do it. I'm saving a lot of time.’
The high purchase price of an e-bike is a barrier for many people. Therefore, the trial was a good opportunity to become familiar with an e-bike. Of the 30 participants, 18 bought their e-bike at the end of the project, while some others bought another type of bicycle. The participants described their e-bikes as ‘smart’, ‘fast’, ‘heavy’, ‘helpful’ and as ‘a realistic alternative’. Some came across technical problems when water got into the displays, others said the display was so bright that it dazzled them when riding in the dark.
All participants tracked their journeys through an app, which appeared to be an important motivator. The app registered a total of 128 154 km covered by the project’s participants during the trial. However, after Christmas (i.e. eight months into the ‘365 days by bike’ pilot), the participants did not track the distance they travelled as much anymore and, for the remaining 4 months, did not seem to be as much of a motivator A participant wrote:
‘At first, it was motivating for me to keep an eye on the rankings and to maintain the rank I had. It was a great motivation in the first half year’.
A boost in mental health and wellbeing was felt by all participants. Those with previously low levels of physical activity indicated that they not only moved much more because of the trial, but that they also felt mentally and physically energised. At the same, those who already exercised regularly reported that they exercised or moved less since they started using the e-bike, as one participant wrote:
‘More active on the bike, less time for other exercise’.
The project co-ordinators of the Aarhus municipality regard the format of the pilot as a good business case for investment in health.
The ‘Super commuters’ pilot did not bring about behavioural change. All participants switched back to using a car as their main mode of transport for commuting, even those who reported a positive experience from the trial, such as physical exercise and fresh air. The main reason was that public transport was not able to offer the same flexibility. Waiting times and delays made the participants return to the car, as this participant described:
‘Because of long and late working days, combined with few and inflexible departure times in the evening, my bike was standing in the shed for several days this week... It was simply too time consuming to go by public transport, while I already was absent from the family due to work.’
Also, the rush hour appeared to be another obstacle:
‘Now that the autumn sets in, I am experiencing increased public transport pressure. It is often difficult to find a place for my bike! My regular bus is hopeless, so I experiment a bit with departure times – I leave for work later and come home later. I tried the train, but it is crowded in the morning, too.’
The physical infrastructure appeared to be another decisive factor that determines whether a folding bicycle can be an effective means of transport. The train appeared to be far more attractive than the bus because it offers more space for the bike and travellers do not have to lift their bike into the vehicle.
The relationship with fellow travellers was mixed. Although the participants felt strong concerns about bothering passengers in crowded buses, they were often met with curiosity from other passengers. The folding bike appeared to be a good conversation starter. The participants also mentioned fresh air, relaxation and overtaking cars stuck in traffic jams as positive aspects of their journeys.
All in all, the rush hour and low bus frequencies led to delays and increased the stress of having to plan ahead. This did not fit into the busy life of the young families that participated in the pilot. In its report, the Smart Mobility project team concluded that today’s expectations and priorities for families and individuals – spending time with partners and children, work, education, leisure activities, holidays – require flexible mobility. However, at the beginning of the project, the team noted that the participants had also expressed the desire to have peace of mind, wait less time in traffic jams and exercise more. Consequently, achieving such aims cannot be fully met with changes to the way in which people commute.
This case study described two of the 22 pilots of Smart Mobility. The 365 Days by Bike pilot shows a clear potential for transferability and upscaling. Particularly positive experience with, and the potential of, the e-bike make it an interesting measure for replication elsewhere. Already during the project, other inhabitants of Beder-Malling reacted to the pilot and started to use e-bikes for commuting. The City of Aarhus especially emphasises the project’s potential for improving physical and mental health, and suggests that health departments could play a larger role in implementing such measures in the future.
On the contrary, the Super commuters pilot did not create a change in the commuting habits of the participants. This does not mean that it has little transferability potential. The pilot has shown that the context and physical infrastructure are essential to the success of the measure. While the bus was generally deemed to be too crowded and not frequent enough, the train was considered a far more attractive option for commuters with foldable bicycles, especially if this would allow working on the train. Therefore, a project like Super commuters could be successful in other contexts (e.g. where commuters travel to business districts by train or light rail).
Smart Mobility has produced a range of documentation, including a catalogue, project reports, press releases, links to press coverage and blogs. The 37-page catalogue describes all of the 22 pilots, including an evaluation and assessment of their potential. For now, the documentation remains available only in Danish.
The results of four pilots – 365 days by bike, Super commuters, Peacefulness of the Latin Quarter and The Southern Hinge – have been described in four comprehensive reports. They provide a wealth of information on the behaviour and motivation of Aarhus residents.
The City of Aarhus has been approached by several cities that were interested in Aarhus’s experience with the Smart Mobility project.
Charlotte Kjær Petersen: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gustav Friis: email@example.com
Liv Maria Stender Boisen: firstname.lastname@example.org
Project website: www.smartmobilitet.dk
Images: Courtesy of Aarhus Kommune