Mobilising around mobility: unique WUN collaboration to study wellbeing and sustainable transport

SUMMARY 

Transportation accounts for significant energy consumption, as well as causing emissions, air and noise pollution. In countries such as Britain and the United States, transport is the largest contributor (narrowly followed by electricity generation) to greenhouse gas emissions. Recognition is increasing of the health impacts that arise from transport choice for the individual and for the planet, shaping initiatives to develop and promote cleaner transport. Read more here about how a new WUN group led by Associate Professor Sylvia Ying He (Chinese University of Hong Kong) is examining the implications of mobility choices for health and wellbeing. 

STORY

When Associate Professor Sylvia Ying He (Chinese University of Hong Kong) first thought of proposing a group on sustainable transport, she was hopeful this would be of interest given the importance of mobility, sustainability and wellbeing on the international agenda. Despite falling firmly within WUN’s global challenge priorities, she observed, “transport remains an under-researched area in WUN’s portfolio”. The group represents a new constellation of expertise.

Their work will contribute to an emerging research area: the health and well-being implications of mobility choices. Researchers are starting to consider how travel satisfaction can affect individuals’ physical and emotional well-being, especially through modes of transport that require physical exertion and are more environmentally friendly. Said Professor Susan Grant-Muller (University of Leeds), “we are increasingly recognising that the immediate and short-term choices in the way people travel or access goods and services can have long-term and accumulating health impacts”. The group aims to inform policy-makers and urban planners, incentivising the adoption of new mobility options.

What this looks like in practice varies enormously across geographies. Public transport in densely populated cities like Hong Kong, for instance, can be more viable than in sprawling North American or Australian cities. Transport accessibility can also have major social justice impacts (He et al 2018). With WUN support, He and colleagues have been able to build on earlier joint initiatives to create a new 16-member, 11-country research group.

With this expansion came a step-change in reach and expertise. Each of the group’s five WUN members convenes a centre or institute for transport or urban studies:

Grant-Muller highlighted that the group will draw synergies across disparate local contexts, laying the groundwork for future impact. “The funding should help us build collaborative working relationships across sector and disciplinary boundaries which will make us ideally placed for more substantive joint research efforts in the longer term,” she explained. Scientific discoveries depend on the creativity that comes with collaboration, argued Dr Subeh Chowdury (University of Auckland): “our findings are strengthened by the diversity in our experience for the same topic.”

The institutional story also has a personal side: some of the researchers have known each other for years, having met at graduate school. These and other long-standing collaborations are now enriched by new contacts made through WUN, as in Chowdury’s joining the group. 

Developing a more robust understanding of behavioural change—how to influence it, how to measure it, how to replicate successes—will be key to advising policy-makers and industry. He emphasised that transport systems, the potential of big data, and Smart City approaches, have evolved over time. “By pulling diverse geographies together, we will be able to understand what kind of travel options exist in different contexts and how technologies enable them”. These new understandings, will be targeted at He’s original question: “under what conditions might these travel options lead to different environmental outcomes and health outcomes, and will these new mobilities make our living in the era of smart cities more sustainable?”

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Associate Professor Sylvia Ying He is Principal Investigator of the project on Low-Carbon Transport, Individual Wellbeing & Planetary Health in the Era of Smart Cities & New Mobilities. Its WUN member universities are The University of Auckland, University of Bristol, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, University of Leeds, and The University of Sydney. For more information see their project page on the WUN website.