We interview Miquel Estrada, associate professor and doctor of Transport at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC), and member of the CARNET Academic Committee

Miquel Estrada is associate professor and doctor of Transport at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC), where he has been for over 15 years teaching classes in university degrees relating to civil engineering and mobility. He is part of the Academic Council of CARNET, the mobility hub promoted by  UPC, SEAT and Volkswagen, and is responsible for activities of the EIT Urban Mobility project at the UPC School of Civil Engineering.

“Low emission zones need additional measures to improve mobility”

“MaaS could be a solution if it is proposed as a complement to public transport”

“Goods transport has been the main factor overlooked in cities”

What is your role as head of EIT Urban Mobility project activities in the UPC School of Civil Engineering?

I identify possibilities and opportunities to participate in projects. Right now we have two ongoing projects with the EIT in which a dozen researchers from the centre are involved, as well as some trainee students. In fact, the strongest work teams include different, complementary profiles that provide more multi-faceted and robust solutions. That is why I am convinced that mobility will be multidisciplinary or will not come about.

Has university education on mobility changed greatly?

Totally. Without looking any further, concepts such as Mobility as a Service (MaaS) involve data use that requires courses to be adapted. The idea is to teach in the various areas of professional application to be able to provide a comprehensive mobility service and have a systemic and global vision. This applies at bachelor’s degree level and in postgraduate and lifelong learning courses.

One of the research projects that the centre is working on is the use of  platooning in public transport services. What is the challenge?

We want to adapt the capacity of vehicles to the environment in which they move and to changing demands. We aim to propose adaptive services that can improve efficiency and adapt to the space in which these services operate, and this includes circulating together in a platoon. With the use of various modules, it would be possible for vehicles not to have to halt at all the stops to drop off passengers, instead they would leave the corresponding modules at the stops.

A few weeks ago you took part in a day on sustainable food organised by the UPC. How can mobility contribute to reducing the environmental impact of food?

Goods transport has been the main factor overlooked in cities. Right now planning is based on maximizing individual well-being with an Anglo-Saxon model that concentrates shopping in large retail outlets and online sales, to the detriment of standard shops, and this is not sustainable. The 15-minute city of Paris connects with this and proposes an efficient, non-intensive use of mobility services and goods. The solution is to regulate this system and alleviate the impact of last-mile transport, including tax measures for the large global companies that, in many cases, pay their taxes in other countries. And local markets should be promoted by city councils.

Are cities adapted for the mass electrification of mobility?

If we maintain the intensive model of the private vehicle, we are going to encounter a lot of problems. First, public transport fleets should be electrified, including taxis and buses, and this represents an increase in the budget, basically because bus lines need more vehicles. And for private vehicles, more charging points are needed.

How is the use of robots and drones for last-mile delivery integrated into urban mobility systems?

They can reduce distribution costs. There are prototypes that can distribute goods autonomously. Their advantage is a reduction in the workforce dedicated to driving. The disadvantage is the legal area that is still not resolved. Goods transport is highly complex, because a lot of actors are involved in the process. I think that there is a lot of room for improvement in cooperation between companies, for example, by transferring the supply of stores to times during the night. This has been tried out in places like Manhattan and Sao Paulo, with a 30% reduction in emissions and the same percentage of logistics savings for companies.

What is needed to introduce Mobility as a Service (MaaS) in cities, the system based on a combination of vehicles that are not the property of the users?

This is a question of governance. The main logistic operators are not going to give information on their customers and routes to rival companies, so open data should be used in a regulatory framework with principles of equity and veracity. The question is, will these services capture users from the public transport networks? MaaS could be a solution if it is established as a complement to public transport rather than aiming to replace it with models like car sharing. That is not realistic.

From the local perspective, what are the challenges to setting up low emissions zones?

One of the things we propose in the training we give to public employees is that low emission zones serve to introduce other control measures, because we are finding that traffic does not drop with their implementation. There are more efficient measures, such as tolls, but they have a greater political cost. What I am sure about is that low emissions zones need complementary measures to improve mobility. What measures? Establishing plans for electric vehicle charging, boosting public transport and non-motorised mobility.

To gain sustainability, millions of vehicles need to be produced to replace those that move with fossil fuels. Isn’t this a paradox?

At CARNET we are studying the costs associated with vehicles from their conceptualization to when they are removed from circulation. This has already been thoroughly studied for conventional vehicles but not for electric and autonomous ones. We should ask this type of questions as a country. The challenge that we are facing with industry 4.0 is to generate competitive products that help us to advance, but assuming that the labour that is lost is transferred to activities of greater quality so that the balance is positive.

Is that where European initiatives such as EIT Urban Mobility come into play? Of course. Their raison d’être is to take advantage of digitalization and automation to generate products that are competitive in the market, without having to depend on others. We have the training, the industry and the political will. The aim is to adjust all the ingredients so that it comes out well.