Could emissions data encourage people out of their cars?

Sep 2020
Paul Coster

I recently took a leap from the world of energy to start Modal. We’ve developed first-of-a-kind technology that detects train journeys made by individuals (in real-time) using open transport data. Our tech is used by our popular app for train commuters, All Change.

As we know, the transport and energy sectors are tightly linked; transport is the UK’s largest contributor to greenhouse gases (GHGs) (at around 30%). The Department for Transport (DfT) is therefore creating the Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP), which will help ensure the transport system plays its role reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

One of six key priorities of the TDP is to get people out of cars, encouraging a shift to other modes of transport such as walking, cycling and public transport. The DfT notes that data has a “key role as an enabler for the UK’s green transport revolution… so that people, businesses and places can be informed about the carbon emissions associated with their journeys”.

While Covid-19 has encouraged more walking and cycling, the chart below illustrates that it has decimated the use of public transport.

As the chart shows (100% is average pre-lockdown levels), there was a sharp reduction in all journeys over national lockdown. Only car journeys have significantly increased in recent months. All Change journeys suggest that most train commuters continue to remain at home.

A major challenge over the coming years and decades is to reverse the trend of Covid-19 and encourage people out of their cars. Given that 85% of the UK population is concerned about climate change, could it help to have greater awareness of our transport emissions through personalised data?

The chart below, displaying data sourced from the BBC, shows approximate ‘emissions per passenger per kilometer’ figures. This illustrates large variations in similar technologies (e.g. domestic rail vs Eurostar) and the dependence on the number of passengers (e.g. 1 vs 4 car passengers). It also shows the importance of walking, cycling and (green) public transport to help reduce our transport GHGs.

The visualisation below puts these figures into context. It shows emissions relative to an “average British person’s” transport emissions (which accounts for ~20% of a person’s total emissions).

The visualisation shows what you’d expect. We should try to travel less by car or rail, avoid taking unnecessary flights, and encourage people to travel by rail for long distances. Most of all, we should support and promote zero carbon options such as walking and cycling.

This gives us a picture of the average person’s transport emissions, but how do we better understand our own footprint? Technology makes it possible to monitor many things including our screen time, health and fitness. Researchers have found that fitness trackers can be motivational. Maybe it’s time to start monitoring our carbon footprint too?

Technology like Modal’s can monitor train journeys made without battery intensive GPS, and there are other apps that can track car journeys, walking and cycling. Together, this could inform individuals how they’re trending over time, similar to fitness and health apps. We could also let people know how much carbon they’ve saved by making lower carbon choices. Citymapper does this through their “Citymapper Go” feature, which relies on GPS. Here are my Citymapper Go stats (which reflects only a fraction of my journeys in London):

The world faces an enormous challenge to reach net zero over the coming decades, and reducing transport emissions is one of the most effective ways for individuals to contribute. Let’s help people to monitor and change their transport behaviour, like we do with fitness and health, by providing them with personalised emissions data.