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Future Personal Mobility Visions, Part 1: Car-Free Lifestyles

Schalk Cloete's picture
Research Scientist Independent

My work on the Energy Collective is focused on the great 21st century sustainability challenge: quadrupling the size of the global economy, while reducing CO2 emissions to zero. I seek to...

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  • Sep 26, 2016


  • Massive effort is being invested to reinvent the car, but the most influential future technologies may be those that avoid the car altogether.
  • Two such technologies are analysed in this article: advanced telecommunications and small electric vehicles.
  • Potential economic benefits for these two technology classes are estimated at $18500/year and $10000/year respectively.
  • In addition, these technologies complement each other and will synergize well with future autonomous vehicles.  


Personal mobility is one area that is likely to experience great changes over the coming decades. Many people think this change will come from the battery-powered electric motor. Others go one step further and bet on autonomous driving technology. Personally, I’d go another step beyond that and say that the biggest changes will come from technologies which avoid the car altogether.

As outlined in earlier articles (costs and benefits), I’m not terribly optimistic about electric cars.  They will definitely see a lot of growth, but I’d be surprised if they grow to dominate the global market. Autonomous cars, on the other hand, have greater fundamental promise and will therefore be the topic of Part 2 of this article. Given the paradigm shift demanded by the assumptions of car-free lifestyles and full autonomy, Part 3 will discuss the types of vehicles that may be preferred in the vehicle fleet of the future.

The greatest fundamental promise, however, comes from technologies that will actually remove cars from our roads. Two such technology classes are discussed below: advanced telecommunications and small electric vehicles (SEVs).

Before we start, however, it is important to point out that this discussion is about economic efficiency, not about climate change. Passenger light duty vehicles (PLDVs) account for a little over 20% of global oil use – 40% of transport energy (below) which represents about 55% of oil consumption. This equates to only about 7% of global energy-related CO2 emissions. Alternatives to oil (e.g. electricity or biofuels) also have significant associated CO2 emissions which may exceed that of conventional cars in many cases (see this earlier article for example).

Global passenger car energy consumption

It is therefore important to note that the most important sustainability contributions of personal mobility advancements will not be direct emissions reductions, but indirect economic efficiency gains (lower energy intensity and a greater capacity for investment). Policies pushing for direct emissions reduction from PLDVs can hurt much more than they help by reducing economic efficiency and misdirecting limited investment funds.

So, with that in mind, let’s get started.

Advanced telecommunications

Over the course of this century, more and more people will add value by sitting in front of a computer, processing information. With steadily improving telecommunications technology, the number of these jobs that can be efficiently completed from a home office is increasing rapidly. This is set to be a major trend and many companies are getting ready.

In the US, more than 3% of the employed workforce currently “telecommute” based on recent trends (below), with self-employed people working from home adding another 2%. Telecommuting is defined as working from home using a computer terminal electronically connected to your place of employment. In the UK, about 14% of the workforce work from home, earning 26% more than regular office workers.

Telecommuting employees

One can already communicate very efficiently via video conferencing on two screens – one showing some digital content and the other showing the person(s) on the other end. Interactive screens, whiteboards and tabletops where all members in the online meeting can easily manipulate digital content seem to be the next near-term step. Following that, we might end up with a full virtual reality experience where it feels like everyone is in the same room – maybe even with holograms like Star Wars!

hologram-star wars

Capitalizing on telecommunications technology to completely eliminate the daily commute will bring great economic benefits. In the US, the cost of car ownership is about $0.6/mile. Accounting for the value of time spent driving, this increases to about $1/mile. For an average daily commute of 30 miles, savings amount to about $6000/year.

In addition, high-value office and parking space in central locations will now be freed up for other purposes. A 100 ft2 midtown office costs about $5000/year. Adding the potential value of developing the area previously dedicated to parking can bring this up to $6000/year.

And then we have not even talked about the benefits of taking all these cars off the road during rush hour. For example, converting 25% of commuters into telecommuters will remove the rush hour peaks from a typical traffic profile (below). If this can be done, people who still need to commute will save a lot of time (and stress), there will be fewer accidents, fewer emissions and fewer road damages, and the city will simply become a much more livable place. These effects are harder to estimate, but I would not be surprised if they amount to more than $3000/year.

Typical hourly traffic profile

Another potential benefit of advanced telecommunication technology is a reduction in long-distance air travel for business purposes. Similarly, long-distance car travel may also reduce. The positive effect will definitely be smaller than for commuting, but cutting three 300 mile trips can save almost $1000 per year.

In the longer term, it is easy to imagine car-free neighbourhoods especially for people who work from home. These neighbourhoods will have every necessity (e.g., a school, some shops and restaurants, a sports centre, a GP, etc.) within walking/cycling distance and will probably rely on delivery services for easily standardized stuff like groceries, electronics and basic appliances. As discussed in George Moniot’s “Heat“, such delivery services can also bring significant environmental and economic benefits by avoiding the need for large stores with open fridges and long drives to the mall.

Such a car-free neighbourhood really sounds like a fantastic place to live. It would also eliminate the need for a garage, saving about 250 ft2. Assuming that half of current households have garages, this can bring another $2500/year in savings.

Given that the median personal income in the US is $29000/year, the potential total saving in the order of $18500/year is simply huge. Of course, the price for this enormous saving (and the bliss of car-free living) is the need for a home office. This can be as simple as a comfortable desk and chair with a computer in any room at home. Most homes already have something like this, so the incremental costs should be small, even negligible.

In total therefore, the sheer magnitude of potential savings, the increased quality of a car-free life, and the minimal enabling costs convince me that advanced telecommunications will have the biggest impact on personal mobility over the course of this century. Travelling virtually instead of physically will simply become a no-brainer for a substantial portion of the workforce. No subsidies, no mandates, no tax breaks – just simple market forces.

Small electric vehicles

In an earlier article on this topic, I outlined the reasons why small electric vehicles (SEVs) are making a much bigger positive economic impact than electric cars (and will continue to do so). In summary, there are three main reasons for my optimism about this technology class:

  • Low up-front costs make SEVs accessible to billions of poor people who cannot afford a car
  • A smaller physical and pollution footprint makes them much more suitable for commuting in densely populated cities
  • Some SEVs like e-bikes or Airwheels involve exercise which can bring great health benefits to a sedentary modern lifestyle

The low up-front cost of SEVs like electric bikes is already a huge hit in developing nations. While Tesla is making all the headlines, these SEVs are creating orders of magnitude greater real socioeconomic value, especially in China. The reason is obvious (below).

2015 global wealth pyramid

It is hard to believe, but the bottom 71% of adults on planet Earth have an average wealth of only $2185 per person. Most of these people are very far away from being able to afford a decent car. As a result, they are often excluded from the economy and tragically get stuck in the vicious cycle of poverty.

China, as has become the norm, has deployed SEVs to break this cycle on such an extreme scale that it now faces some backlash. 200 million e-bikes are in operation in China (compared to 170 million cars), the vast majority of which still run on old lead-acid batteries. A lack of regulation regarding maximum speed, safety and traffic laws for e-bikes has now led to an outcry from wealthier car owners. Hopefully, China can sort this out without doing too much damage to the livelihood of lower income families depending on this highly efficient mode of transportation.

It is doubtful that China could have developed as quickly as it did without the efficient economic inclusion of lower income families via e-bikes. We can estimate that roughly 25% of working Chinese depend on an e-bike for transportation. In doing so, it seems reasonable to say that e-bikes enable about 2.5% of Chinese economic output, assuming that e-bike owners are half as economically efficient as the average and their efficiency would be reduced by 20% without their e-bike. This amounts to a value of $280 billion or $1400 per e-bike per year.

However, given that e-bikes have been a more than 10 million unit/year market since 2006 (easily beating sales of new cars), the compounded economic development value of the e-bike is much greater. An extension of the calculation above over the past 15 years using e-bike sales data, yields the following graph:


At first glance, the $1.5 trillion gap in economic output ($7500 per e-bike) in 2015 seems unbelievable, especially since this will continue to compound over coming years. However, if the massive number of e-bike users in China had to use cars, buses and motorbikes instead, development would have been much slower and pollution would have constrained economic growth at an earlier time. In addition, traffic would have become a much more severe economic burden. Imagine doubling the number of cars in a country with the kind of traffic shown below. In recognition of these positive effects, China is now readying the next wave of SEVs (essentially modified golf carts) for its wealthier population, so this compounding economic benefit is set to continue.

China traffic jam

Finally, the health benefits of electric bicycles are also highly significant. Daily moderate exercise can add 3 years to life expectancy according to this life expectancy calculator. Quality of life will also get a significant boost from daily moderate exercise due to better fitness and reduced risk from degenerative disease.

Cancer-sedentary living

The economic consensus for the value of an additional healthy year of life in the developed world is around $100000, putting the value of a daily commute via e-bike at about $300000. Over 60 years of adult life, this amounts to $5000/year.

These are rough estimates, but I would say that the benefits of SEVs in terms of ensuring economic participation of low-income households, limiting congestion and pollution, and improving population health can grow to $10000 per SEV per year. This is enormous compared to the average developing world per capita income. The compounding effects of SEVs on economic growth in developing nations is especially noteworthy. Early deployment of e-bikes and small electric 3- and 4-wheelers could even exceed this estimate over time by economically including a greater number of workers and delaying the onset of serious congestion and pollution constraints in growing cities.

In the developed world, replacing the car with an SEV for all city driving can cut the aforementioned $0.6/mile cost by 70-90% (depending on the size of the SEV). For 6000 city miles per year, this amounts to about $3000/year. Reduction in traffic, pollution and parking spaces should fetch another $3000/year. Many SEVs will also avoid the need for a garage, resulting in a saving of $1500/year (60% of the earlier estimate). Adding half of the health benefit estimated above then brings the total benefit up to $10000/year.

Final word

It should be clear from these simple estimates that the economic value of these two car avoiding/removing technologies is very high. They are also highly compatible with each other and with the autonomous driving technology to be discussed in Part 2 of this article.

For example, future car-free neighbourhoods for people working from home can draw great value from SEVs for enhanced mobility and on-demand autonomous vehicles for the occasional long/heavy trip. The idea of the car-free city centre is also gaining traction, strengthening the case for SEVs.

Of course, it is clear that the car is here to stay. Despite the massive benefits of a car-free lifestyle, it is not yet practical for most and may never be practical for some. Growth in total auto sales will therefore continue for a while as the developing world grows, but I think this number will peak sooner than most people expect. And we’ll surely be better off because of it.

Original Post

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Sep 27, 2016

It’s interesting that personal cars are only 20% of global oil use; it’s more like 50% in the use ( source ). So I wonder if developing countries will move in the direction of the US or Europe?

I’m rather suspicious that many Asian nations will follow the US. I say this because I believe that while urban areas are exciting for young adults, most people start to lean strongly towards the suburban life once they reach the point in life of being “married with children”.

Also, the limited scalability of auto-friendly cities is mainly a problem when nations don’t plan communities. In the same way that a walkable community can only hold a thousand or so people, a city becomes much less driver-friendly when its population is above a million (not only are more cars on the road, but each car on average travels farther).

Most cities with populations greater than 1 million people are stuck at their size for historic reason (people want to live where the jobs are, and companies want to locate where the suppliers and workers are), but developing countries have a chance to learn from the experience of others, and provide more incentives for colleges, companies, and government facilities to spread out, rather than having most of the rural families migrate to a few mega-cities.

I also think that the popularity of e-bikes (and peddle bikes) in China is yet another sign that people don’t like public transit. We should expect that as the level of prosperity in China increases, many e-bike riders will upgrade to larger vehicles that can carry a family and that provide protection from bad weather. Even in densely populated cities like Barcelona, where there isn’t space for everyone to have a car, instead of e-bikes, more people choose motorcycles or scooters with an order of magnitude more power.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on Sep 27, 2016

Well, the key to ebike and walking friendly living is the same as the friendlyness to public transport: density. The higher the density of land use, the more things can be used within the same distance.
And Nathan is severly wrong abot what can be reached by walking, being bisaed by his US, maybe especially mid west or west coast environment.
Densely built up cities inhabit mor than 25.000 People and their workplaces within 1 km² in my city here, and are about the most attractive quaters in the town. (Th town has the benefit to have a sharp border to the forests around, so the densly inhabited quaters directly border to forests, with no dozends of km of low density use land around them.)
Usual commutoing or other task time of travel is 20 minuts, which results in a distance of 1,5-2km of walking, which makes the inhabitants in such walking distance areas about 100.000-150.000 people, the same distance for E-Bike is about 8km, resulting in far more than 1 Million people in such a environment, even with uninhabited recreation areas in between.
With public transport for half of the distance , the available area can inhabitate several million people.
Here there is a strong trend back to the cities even for familys with children, The point is that
a) traffic noise must be low enough within the living space
b) living space mist be big enough
c) nois from other inhabitants must be shielded very good.
d) air quality and safety from traffic must be good
e) some place to seat at free air must be availabe
f) some place for children to play must be available at best at direct sight from the place for living.
Narturally the result has about nothing in common to the usual US suburb.
But fault done in land use can usually never be corrected by traffic engineering.
Density of land use is also a mayor driver of economy, since more potential customers, more potential workers, more potential supplying companys can be reached within a given time and with a given budget.
People in China like a good public transport, the success of the Metro systems there tells it. it is just often simply not available. In the region here land pices rise by about 200€/m² when Metro or tramway access gets available, showing how people value to have a good public transport available. Todays bus services are not attractive, being loud, shaking, with too narrow seating, and to less frequent courses. Already the better driving behaviour of electric powered busses show some increase of attractiveness of public transport.
One point often not seen ist the different characteristic of public transport and car use. Car use is more attractive the less people use it at the same time in the same area. public transport is getting more attractive the more people use it at the same place at the same areas, because then more lines travel at higher frequency and usually also at higher travel speeds.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Sep 27, 2016

Well, I certainly hope that developing nations don’t follow the US pathway. US per capita oil consumption is literally five times greater than that of the rest of the world – largely due to the high use of PLDVs enforced by suburban sprawl and the high fraction of SUVs and trucks.

As Helmut says below, there are many ways in which the suburban car-based lifestyle can be practically avoided, but this requires good city planning. Pulling this off in the typical US city is not practical, but developing nations have the chance to make this happen.

However, this is where I see great potential in telecommuting. People are not really thinking about this yet, but many suburbians doing pure knowledge work will be able to work from home at least some days of the week. In addition, most long trips to the shopping mall can eventually be replaced by highly convenient doorstep delivery services. As calculated in this article, the economic and convenience value of such an approach is huge.

We just need telecommuting to become cool. Hopefully, upcoming telecommunications technology (e.g. VR) can help to make this happen. I’ve experienced first hand just how convenient, economic and productive (fewer interruptions) telecommuting can be. It is a trend that may surprise many observers.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Sep 27, 2016

A family wedding was at the J.J. Hill (railroads) Reference Library in downtown St. Paul, MN. on the Mississippi River this summer. Since the couple live in Silicon Valley, I think it was partly chosen because I was involved in urban promotion of the then derelict warehouse district while pushing fiber optics. Speaking later with one, I mentioned having been the night guard at the (then) NWBell Telephone building next door when copper wires dominated. The timeline of river transport and communication, to railroads, to internet happened in about 150 years right there in that corner of St. Paul, MN. USA. The US was largely a wilderness 150 years ago while the “old world” was already old, so perhaps we should regard the US as adolescent and not yet fully developed.

I think your simple projections in this article are important and well founded. Our public policy, however, could not be worse. To invent better performing efficient systems and knowledge based economics we need to support learning skills and discourage barbarism. Instead, young students are bankrupted while jails and welfare are busy counting public money. We might evolve backwards from your logical analysis.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Sep 27, 2016

Considering the lack of parking space for cars (in many neighborhoods of Chinese cities parking lots are far more expensive than a car), I estimate that the e-bike (and similar small vehicles) expansion will go on in China for the next decades.

E-bikes are also an huge success here in NL. Now poor elderly can easily go to nature reserves, etc.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Sep 27, 2016

Bentvels, I can’t think of anything more fun than a bike and train trip through Europe. My wife and I took such a trip from the U of MN. to Quebec City 40 years ago, but returned exhausted otherwise.

We live in exact opposite worlds yet we both proclaim certainty in some energy solution for everybody else. You are right that you must use wind power in your civilized community.

My task here is to preserve a civilized home in a vast, brutal nature. Parts of Minnesota are more like Siberia than Netherlands. I’m now in the process of removing a red oak and spruce tree, each over 3 feet base with 1/4inch tree rings (1/2inch diameter/year growth) at the periphery that would destroy this home. So I advocate biomass. I have different power needs. I try preserve myself from nature, and it is very very difficult.

One of my big disappointments is not having time to use FreePascal (Netherlands) programming and other wonderful civilized tools. My wife and I were both completely surprised what it takes to build a civilized lifestyle from the wilderness. Our children all moved to cities.

We are probably all correct from our perspectives. But we have very different perspectives.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Sep 27, 2016

My hope is that these trends will accelerate regardless of public policy. Public policy can help a lot (e.g. more car-free zones and bicycle lanes in cities or large increases in fuel taxes), but the advantages of these car-free personal mobility options are so large that they should eventually happen without any central planning. For example, the e-bike boom in China was not centrally planned (which is strange for China).

As the China e-bike example illustrates, these are potentially exponential trends that only need a suitable catalyst to get going. Once the trend is ignited, people start talking and the idea spreads very quickly. The nice thing here is that these trends are simply ideas which capitalize on small-scale technology that is already affordable today. It does not require massive infrastructure buildouts, reinventing established energy systems, or great future technological breakthroughs.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Sep 28, 2016

I’ll admit to a US-centric bias, but I’ve also traveled overseas, and only cities I;ve seen that don’t match the US modern are those which are trapped by history. But I’ll certainly keep an open mind (I agree that your community planning suggestions are appealing, I’m just waiting to see it catch on).

Regarding public transit, I’ve still never seen public transit any place in which the roads were not full of cars (i.e. public transit has never eliminated any cars, other than those which could not have existed anyway).

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Sep 28, 2016

Public transit does eliminate cars. Public transport makes for denser cities and less investment into roads, both of which means congestion will still exist, but private driving is still very much reduced.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on Sep 28, 2016

Correct, it is nearly impossible to “see” modal spilit in other citys. What you would see in the city center here would be congested roads as in your hometown, e.g. with 4000cars per hour and direction on a trunk road here. And since cars are very big and loud they dominate any scene unless they become extremely few.
What you would not ssee would be the 15.000 passengers per direction and hour which the metro transports below this road, and the e.g. 4000 cyclists which travel along small sideroads where there is no way threw for cars on longer ways (so they can not avoud the trunc roads in case of congestion) as well as the same number of pedestrians on the same way – they are dispersed, tiny, and d not make noises.
So it looks the same if you have close to 100% share of car traffic as it might be in rural US, or 80% casr share as it is in rural germany, or 40% car share as it is here at the city borders, or well below 20% car share as it is here in the city center, where public transport has by far the lions share, or 6% as ist e.g. in the center of munich. To see it you need the counted numbers, or the energy consumption for transport needs.
Ineresting point from Africa: where I have a project there, they require not a maximum amount of floorspace in the city center, but they require a minimum amount, e.g. equivalent to a 6 or 9 floor build up of the piece of ground, just the contrary to what is usual in most citys. The basic layout of the city was designed by US consultants in the 1960’s so looking like a US suburb, but they don’t want to go the american way, and enforce the high density use which you attribute to be enforced by “historic city centers”, since they see the benefits of it in economy, infrastructure costs and energy use of the dense city design.
But this is a extremely slow business, fast changes take decades, slow changes centuries to have significant effects.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Sep 28, 2016

I found this interesting study from 2008 comparing per capita travel demand in certain developed countries. The results are quite stark regarding car travel:

US: 13000 km/year
Canada/Australia: 9000 km/year
Europe: 7000 km/year
Japan: 4000 km/year

Geography certainly has a lot to do with it (wide open spaces lead to more sprawl and more driving), but it just goes to show how much car travel can be reduced while still maintaining a developed economy.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Sep 28, 2016

Schalk – Thank you for the link to that transportation study, a great find in its comparison of international data. The difference among countries in air travel km per that study is even more dramatic, if not surprising given geographic drivers.

In searching US travel data, one immeduately finds the decline of US vehicle miles traveled reported by many: the “ninth year of decline”, a fairly sharp reversal of the nearly unbroken century of prior increase. So some kind of trend is underway, perhaps telecommuting is having an impact as you suggest, though my first guess was the replacement of brick and mortar retail with online shopping and efficient parcel delivery.

Jeff Nevil's picture
Jeff Nevil on Oct 19, 2016

I’d love to see the UK lean more towards this trend. Electric bikes have moved on leaps and bounds since they first came on the scene. I’ve recently invested in one myself from this place – At 50, I’m not as fit as I used to be, so it’s the best and most efficient way for me to get around. What I’d like to see from the UK government is further investment in the roads to ensure safety for cyclists. Yes the health benefits are measurable and can therefore be considered in economic terms, but we also need to consider safety hazards for those that do choose to use any kind of bike. A lot has been done in recent years to make roads in the UK more hospitable for all cyclists – in London in particular – but many are discouraged by the very real risk of injury. And if the roads are too dangerous, then economic benefit will be impacted. I think cyclists get a lot of bad press (in UK cities at least), as being reckless drivers. Obviously this is true in some cases, but take a short ride through a busy London route during rush hour and the hostility between those in 4 wheel vehicles and cyclists is often palpable. Whilst the UK is relatively forward thinking in telecommuting, it will be a long while yet until this is seen as the norm, so I think we need to make the use of SEVs more attractive in the mean time.

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