The SuMAC (Sustainable Mobility, Affordable Cities) project aimed to examine the impact of employer-led workplace mobility measures on the affordability of employees’ travel to work. The project addressed the growing gap between research focusing on the environmental impact of urban mobility, and studies of transport’s role in social inclusion.
The project tackled aspects which has been taken for granted in research and policy on workplace sustainable mobility planning. Firstly, workplace mobility plans have generally been associated with formal strategy documents, implemented by large office-based workplaces operating fixed working times. By contrast, in the SuMAC project, I examined mobility planning in small workplaces where shift work is common, and where measures related to commuting tend to be informal and ad-hoc. My rationale was that much of the currently available research and guidelines draw on the experiences of large workplaces with greater organisational and financial resources, while these experiences have limited relevance in other types of organisations. The project thus specifically addressed the mobility planning practices of small and medium-sized workplaces in the private sector.
Second, the project aimed to re-connect concerns around sustainable mobility with the affordability of transport and its role in connecting urban inhabitants to economic opportunities. As these two sets of questions have been examined in increasingly separated domains of transport and mobility research, the deep connections between environmental and social sustainability have often been rendered less visible. SuMAC thus examined how workplace mobility measures have implications for the sustainability of everyday urban travel and the ability of workers to afford it.
The project focused on small and medium-sized tourism, hospitality and catering workplaces in Brussels, Belgium and Sofia, Bulgaria. These were chosen in order to explicitly address organisations where low-paid and precarious work is common, working hours are organised in shifts and can be unpredictable, and employers often have insufficient resources to engage in formal mobility planning. I aimed to understand the extent to which available sustainable mobility guidelines are applicable to these workplaces, and how measures which combine environmental priorities with social inclusion goals can be made more prominent in sustainable mobility planning.
Using a mixed-method approach was key to the project’s contribution. This was necessitated by the deep-seated divisions between qualitative and quantitative methods in transport and mobilities research.
As part of SuMAC, quantitative survey data (141 questionnaire responses) was combined with in-depth qualitative interviews (20 interviews). Data were collected among both employers and employees. Ethnographic data, policy document analysis, and secondary data analysis of a 2015 survey (N=6,000) and a 2018 survey (N=200) on white-collar commuting, were used to contextualise the primary data. Furthermore, action research informed part of the project, as it involved collaboration with both local government and civil society actors in Sofia on the topic of sustainable mobility planning. Over the course of these collaborations, the boundaries between data collection and data dissemination were blurred, as the local stakeholders were informing the direction of the research process, supplying additional data, and also drawing on the data the SuMAC project was generating to inform their strategies related to urban mobility.
The project has made an important contribution to the way sustainable mobility planning is conceived, both in the scholarly debate and also in policy-making. This contribution has three dimensions:
1) Demonstrating the limited capacity of small organisations to engage with the debate around workplace sustainable mobility as it is currently framed, given their limited financial resources and specialist transport expertise;
2) Highlighting cases where workplace mobility planning, even when it is informal and ad-hoc, can improve not only the environmental impact of commuting, but also the socio-economic conditions of precarious workers;
3) Incorporating the commuting experiences and practices of those employees who do not have 9-to-5 schedules into the narrow definition of the commute which explicitly or implicitly informs sustainable mobility planning.
The analysis highlighted the extent to which sustainable urban mobility planning remains focused on the peak morning and evening hours, and on white-collar commuters.
The project has highlighted the ways in which shift work combined with low pay involves a different set of commuting experiences and constraints. For example, commuters whose travel needs are poorly served by public transport, often pay more for the same journey than someone working a 9-to-5 job. In the case of tourism and hospitality workers, this is often combined with a lower and more precarious income. The experiences of night commuters documented as part of the SuMAC project were especially stark in this context. They highlighted the need to consider further dimensions of the commute beyond environmental impact and affordability: for example, for many of them, personal safety was a key consideration shaping commuting habits.
The SuMAC project was completed in February 2019. Some of the results have already been published in academic papers:
Plyushteva A (2018) Commuting and the urban night: Nocturnal mobilities in tourism and hospitality work. Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events. - available here [contact the researcher if you would like a free copy]
Plyushteva A (2017) Sustainable Mobility Measures in the Context of Travel to Work in the HoReCa Sector in Sofia and Brussels. Mechanics Transport Communications 15(2): 1–6. - available here