Women in Shared Mobility: Interview With Prof. Dr. Cathy Macharis leader of research group MOBI

This month on the ‘Women In Shared Mobility’ series, our CEO Sandra Phillips interviewed Cathy Macharis, leader of research group MOBI and Professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels (the Free University of Brussels.)

Her research group MOBI – (Mobility, Logistics and Automotive Technology) is an interdisciplinary group focusing on sustainable logistics, electric and autonomous vehicles and urban mobility. Her research focuses on how to include stakeholders within decision and evaluation processes in the field of transport and mobility. She has been involved in several regional, national and European research projects dealing with topics such as the implementation of innovative concepts for city distribution, assessment of policy measures in the field of logistics and sustainable mobility, development of a multi actor, multi criteria analysis framework, etc. Cathy has published several books and has written more than 100 papers. She is the chairwoman of Brussels Mobility Commission and vice-chair of Nectar (Network on European Communications and Transport Activities Research).

If you missed our WiSM interview last month, you can find it here. Want to have a look at all of Women in Shared Mobility interviews? View the entire category here.


The Interviewee:

Cathy Macharis, from research group MOBI and Professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels.


The Interviewer:

Sandra Phillips, chief executive officer, movmi

ceo movmi


Before we begin, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and why you joined the ‘Women in Shared Mobility’ series?


Thank you. My name is indeed, Cathy Macharis and I’m working at the free University of Brussels and I’m leading the research group Mobi. It’s an interdisciplinary group that has engineers, economists, geographers working on urban mobility, sustainable logistics electric and autonomous vehicles and batteries. We have 120 researchers at the moment and we really want to help society, companies and governments to support that transition towards more sustainable mobility and logistics.

1. Your institute is is looking mobility in a holistic fashion and looking at what the impact is of transportation all on our world and environment. Could you tell us more about that?


Yes absolutely, if there are new concepts we always do impact assessments to see what will be the impact of this new concept in terms of sustainability, but also sustainability in the broad sense – looking at social, environmental and economic aspects. We also developed a methodology where we aim to include all the different stakeholders, because what we’ve seen in these transitions is that you’ll have the different stakeholders and it’s really important to see what peoples goals are. How important is that for them? How they will feel the impact of new technologies, of new ways of mobility, of new concepts? So by really having them in the core of our impact assessment we bring them along in this transition management, so we really get a view of what is important. Are they really in favour of this change and do they see these advantages? And if there are disadvantages, what can we do about it? So indeed that’s really something we are really interested in – what will be the impact and how can we support that transition.

2. Transportation has quite an impact on most of our lives, such as congestion and pollution. Can you tell our viewers and listeners any statistics that show just how much of an impact transportation has for each of us on a personal level?


Yes, so indeed on a personal level you already feel a lot of the impact and with congestion. You could say, well in the end you are deciding for yourself to be in that congestion, so in a sense you are adding to the congestion of others but you are also having the effect of it on yourself. But then for local emissions, well, even if you are not in your car you will still have that effect on your health from local emissions. What we see in in Europe, for example, is that there are 500,000 premature deaths due to local emissions, so it’s really an enormous effect on the health of people and it also means more medical costs. What we often do is add this kind of economic cost to show the government, these are indeed effects but they also bring a cost to society – we call them external costs because they are not included in the transport price, but as a society, as a whole, we are indeed paying for this.

One of our latest studies show that having free transportation in Brussels for example, and of course it’s part of economic life, but having these trucks and vans in Brussels – it comes at the cost of €50,000 a day, which is quite a lot, you can do a lot with this money. These are the kind of calculations we do to show, as a society, if we don’t do anything about these costs, we are indeed paying for that. Congestion, for example is one percent off European GDP – it’s a loss. So it’s not only a story about wanting to have more livability in our cities, but it’s also about how to come to a society which is not putting money where we can do something about it.

Then there is, of course, the whole thing about climate change which for many people already have that feeling of its there. Each year, I think many of us are getting more and more aware of these effects. In Europe we had two heat waves this summer. It’s coming very close. It’s not on average one heat wave in every 3 years anymore, no, we will have these minimum once a year. There are other effects that we already see in the way we are living due to climate change and so it’s not something abstract anymore or something far away. I think it’s also very important to become aware of what are these effects and how can we really do something about it. 

What you see is that the transport sector is responsible for 32 percent of all the CO2 emissions – which is enormous – but what is even more important to say is that it’s not declining. The energy sector started with being able to do reduce their emissions, the transport sector is still increasing. So I think we really have to do something there, we have to reduce it with a factor of 8 – which is enormous. If you look at the climate goals, you really have to reduce it, but there are of course, some trends behind the increase, like globalisation, a lot of our goods are coming from far away, there is population growth, there is still an increase in demand which, even if we have technological advances, it’s still adding up the CO2 emissions. So I think what we really have to do is come to a complete transformation on the way we are travelling, the way we are transporting our goods and to go to climate neutral cities but in the end, to create a complete climate neutral society.



You have to have the right policy framework, but the way we have to go about more getting more sustainable mobility is using the four aces. The first aces is to create more awareness and we talked a little bit about it already. So create more awareness about what it costs to society and also to have life cycle analysis, to really show the impact. But by creating more awareness for people about how we are traveling and what is the meaning in terms of the climate – then, once you are aware you can do something about it. 

The best thing to have less emissions and less trouble is avoidance. Avoidance, well you might say, ‘but we will we still have to travel’, well sometimes you don’t have to travel, sometimes it’s possible to have a Skype meeting, like how we are talking right now. You don’t have to always be there. More and more companies in Europe are also offering the possibility to work at home and then there is the whole thing about spatial planning. If you’re living closer to where you are working and if there are also shopping possibilities, sports facilities (so really multi functional developments in compact cities) that’s where we have to go. I’m aware that it will take time but it’s really the core of ‘why’ and ‘how’ we are traveling now which is spatial planning – so that’s avoidance. 

Then we really have to go for ‘act and shift’. If we can’t avoid then let’s shift it towards some more environmentally friendly modes.This is where shared mobility will have a crucial part in the way we are  traveling around, because it can also have a shift towards less car ownership, and towards the use of different transport modes as we go along and where we can just see what is necessary at that moment. Also it’s a shift towards walking, biking and public transport, but also sharing – if we are using vehicles that are shared such ride tailing, but also vehicle sharing. And I think it’s very important that we have a very close look at it because it will also be the basis for things like Mobility-as-a-Service. Will the need for shared mobility concepts leads to less car ownership? I think that’s the way we have to go to have more space in our cities and reduce all these cars being parked everywhere. 

So how will shared mobility help in creating this Mobility-as-a-Service, where you don’t need that car ownership anymore? We get this kind of data from the Brussels government, to look at shared cars, for example, and to see how that is evolving. We see that it attracts a new kind of user – the young man population are really interested in the free floating car schemes, where as the station-based models appeal to an older population, predominantly women, without a car. You can see a difference in this new population, there still have their cars, they just want to add to their mobility options. How it will evolve over time if they see so many options, will they still need a car? So that will be very important. 

Then, in the longer run, as I said there are four A’s, awareness, then avoidance, act and shift and then the fourth one is, if it’s still cars, then the emphasis has to be on new technologies. There, I think we really have to go towards electric vehicles, but then again, if we just shift everything to electric vehicles, we are not going to get to that factor 8 reduction of our CO2 emissions. We really have to go towards a system of shared electric vehicles, these might be also be autonomous. But again, we have to see how this will evolve. Will it be a system where everybody has his own autonomous vehicle or will these vehicles being shared? Will it be also on-demand and connected with a good public transport system? This should still be at the core of our sustainable mobility policy. It’s really a challenge, but you see there are these possibilities. And indeed if you want to accelerate this transformation you have to put the right policy framework in place to get there. I see that in some cities there really go for it and it’s very clear. For example in Brussels we will have a diesel ban and a petrol ban, so it’s really shows that we are going into that direction – investing in public transport and in biking infrastructure but you need policy support. Saying that it will come just by itself? No, I don’t believe so and we don’t have that much time to get towards that factor 8 reduction.

4. You’ve heard recently that car2go stopped operations in Calgary. This was a sad story as 14 percent of the population relied on its services. Cities can have a huge influence on policy but with shared mobility operators it’s different as they are privately operated. How can we address this?


Yes, I think you’re right, we really have to look at what the longer term effects are. There are also stories about public transport operators not investing in parking spaces anymore because they think they better pay Uber or Lyft for the last mile. In the end you get really dependent on these factors and if there is going to be a monopoly situation, they might still be there, but they could raise their price very high. How do we still keep an inclusive transport system where there is enough competition to lower the prices? What I am seeing in Brussels is that we have, for example, 6 operators for electric scooters here in the city. They all wanted to be the first, but it’s clear that they will not all survive and the competition is now survival of the fittest. I would say they all want to be the first one where you’ll have the app on your smartphone, because they think, once you have one app you will not go for the second app, or third and so on.

It’s clear that once it’s all integrate into a Mobility-as-a-Service platform, it will be crucial who will be ‘in’ and who will be ‘out’ for their survival but also will it indeed be an inclusive a system which you can rely on. The question then is should we make it a completely public story? On the other hand, you could say, well let’s just let the private operators play in the city. I think it should be a combination but I think that the public authorities really have to take the lead but also let these private operators work in the framework they set up, so that it’s really completely according to their sustainable mobility policy. It’s true though that you are still dependant on their survival but I think if you are looking at how to make it a sustainable story, also in economic terms, I think it’s better to do that in combination and to really have that cooperation between public and private. 

5. Will it be an uptake of individuals buying electric vehicles or the use of shared electric fleets (or a combination of both), that will create a shift in the transportation and emissions story?


Yes, I think the transition is going quite slowly because, for example, in Belgium we only have 2 percent of electric vehicles whereas in Norway it’s 50 percent. This all has to do with the right fiscal framework where you indeed stimulate the purchase of these electric vehicles. For Brussels this will change because of their diesel ban and petrol ban. So that kind of fiscal framework is more for the individual level, but you’re right, if we go towards more shared mobility, we should have more stimulation to encourage shared electric fleets. 

One of the campaigns which I really liked hearing about was in Flanders (towards the Northern part of Belgium) which was a campaign where a lot of people got an electric vehicle which they would share with other people. Thanks to that, they also got personal advice on how to use the vehicle. So it was very engaging and I think also that a lot of people are afraid to make these changes and say ‘will I be able to charge it?’ and ‘can I drive with it?’ and having a person that will explain it to you and share it with you is really a way to further stimulate the adoption of electric vehicles. So I really like the company. I think if you are looking at the change, we already talked about what should the government do and about the right framework, I think on an individual level, what I see in terms of change, I really like the story of the elephant. If you want to change an elephant going on a new path, you have to talk to the rider and explain why your are going on that new path and it’s all about knowledge – for climate, for local emissions, for congestion – that’s the rider. But there is also the elephant and the elephant represents our emotions. ‘Will I be able to change?’ ‘Can I find my way with public transport?’ ‘Can I find my way which shared mobility?’ and so on. These are the things we also have to be careful about – these emotions. We have to see that information and guidance is there and that you also reward people for making that change. 

Then the third aspect of changing behaviour is making that new path much easier than what we do now. If we talk about shared mobility and electric vehicles, it’s really about making that option easier – much easier than having your own car, which is going to be more expensive and so on. The same goes with flying. Nowadays, if you want to fly it’s just so cheap, much cheaper than going by train. It’s not correct to have this unsustainable behaviour that’s so easy. So what I propose is to make sure that people know why they have to do it but also take care of their emotions and then to make it much more easy to go for the new, more sustainable mobility concepts. I think yeah the government can do a lot, but as a community, I think we can help each other to enable that change and to care about the questions that people still might have.

6. How can we use use early adopters of shared mobility to spread the word to other demographics just on the benefits of these services?


Yes absolutely, good question. I think these are the early adopters and in fact they show a complete culture shift, whereas before it was more sexy to have the car. What you see now is that indeed these people who are shifting, who are taking the bike, who are working from home – these are now much more appealing than just a guy with a car. I think we have to show this kind of culture shift and shifting lifestyles as something that is more attractive to all of us. And they can can indeed be an example.

When I give presentations I show these guys and the new kind of lifestyle and I think it’s important because, often if we talk about climate, people think they have to reduce everything and it’s going to be worse – the quality of our lives, but no, I don’t think so. These are the kind of people who are adopting a new way of mobility, which is still according to their needs. The need isn’t to drive a car all the time, the need is accessibility – to do the things they need to do, but just in a different way. Also more interesting in terms of your lifestyle, because you won’t have a car that is always there, parked all the time but you can have much more flexibility and that’s a new freedom. Before it was ‘my car, my freedom’ but now it will be ‘my Mobility-as-a-Service, my freedom.’

7. is there Anything else you’d like to share with our viewers?


Well, I just want to thank you for this opportunity and I really want to stress that that climate is not waiting for us, we really have to do something and it’s really very, very urgent.


What are your thoughts on the developments in shared mobility that occurred over 2019 and what is to be expected for next year’s developments? What about the future implementation of shared mobility within rural areas? If you would like to be interviewed or to nominate a woman working in Shared Mobility for our next series, get in touch with us here.

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