What do we know about the environmental impacts of new digital transport services?

By Anu Tuominen, Principal Scientist, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland

A whole new type of services and modes of operation based on technological and other innovations for transport, mobility and their control and management are being established. This development emphasises seamless service entities in line with the MaaS (Mobility as a Service) approach. The new services aim at enhancing the productivity and effectiveness of the transport system as well as promoting more environmentally friendly, customer-oriented and safer transport, while creating new international business opportunities.

So far, there is very little evidence and data on the environmental benefits achieved by means of these new services. Also, due to different operational environments, research results from one country cannot be directly applied to another.

The plenitude of new digital services

A recent Finnish study reviewed literature on the environmental impacts of new transport services and clarified future research needs in seven service categories:

  1. sharing services
  2. mobility, driving and transport services
  3. information services
  4. traffic control and traffic management services
  5. mobility management services
  6. performance-based charges
  7. complementary remote services.

Positive or conflicting environmental impacts?

The study discovered that the information on environmental impacts in many sources was fragmented and limited to single cases. The impact assessment was mostly done from the point of view of a specific category of users, vehicles or travel types, which did not offer any clear insights on the wider impacts on the transport system level. Most studies focus on the themes of greenhouse gas emissions, safety, transport performance or modal share.

As a whole, the environmental impacts of the new services seem to be positive, or at least potentially influential. However, the total environmental impacts can be assessed only when the number of users is large enough and the new technologies have achieved a significant market penetration. On the other hand, for some services conflicting or even negative environmental impacts were identified.

On the basis of the present knowledge, it is relatively difficult to do a comprehensive assessment of the potential of new transport services, for example in achieving national climate or local air quality targets. More research is required on two levels. The first step is to define a clear environmental objective for services and transition paths to meet the objective. Thereafter, more specific environmental impact assessments and development of related methodologies and data collection within present and future pilot projects is required. A combination of these two would enable building of quantitative transport service scenarios benefitting all transport system actors.