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Car no longer king at events

Have you heard of the travel paradox? It states that people who are concerned about ecology and climate do not necessarily travel in an ecologically sustainable way. This paradox is also a challenge in the context of events and culture, where sustainable mobility is high on the agenda. Liese Exelmans, researcher at the centre of expertise Public Impact of KdG University of Applied Sciences and Arts, recommends more dialogue between visitors and organisers to make travel to and from events as sustainable as possible.

Research from the centre of expertise Public Impact showed in 2019 that about 65 percent of the trips to and from events are made by car. Half of these drivers are solo drivers. Because of the dominance of the car, event mobility often causes traffic nightmares: congested roads, noise and air pollution and dissatisfied local residents. Organisers of events and cultural activities are therefore increasingly investing in sophisticated mobility plans. These plans are often created with a short-term perspective and tailored to one specific city or event: how can we avoid a traffic jam here and now for this event? Yet, we know that sustainable mobility requires a long-term perspective.

The mobility issue is complex, to say the least. Up to now, research has mainly focused on what the organiser can do. After all, an event can only be successful if it is ecologically sustainable as well. Researchers from the University of Perugia in Italy (2020) argue that event organisers still reason from a damage control perspective: how can I organise my event as ecologically as possible with as few resources as possible? Measures such as encouraging carpooling or installing temporary bicycle parking, are therefore more common than offering a customised bus and train schedules. The latter is the most effective for sustainable event mobility, but often unaffordable for the organiser.

Interestingly, it seems often forgotten that transport choices are made by event visitors, the most notable absence in this story. For example, it is often unclear whether the actions taken by the organiser are in line with the needs of his target audience. A dialogue between visitor and organiser is therefore crucial to achieve effective mobility to and from events. This starts with understanding visitors’ transportation choices and their preference for car use. For example, we know little about solo driving event visitors: who are they, what do they do, and what drives them? What about the travel paradox? What can convince ecologically-minded visitors to travel sustainably to their next event? And how can we translate that to a profitable mobility policy for large and small event organisers?

A possible avenue of investigation is relocating events to a place that is easily accessible by public transport. Another idea worth exploring is adapting the event program to make sure visitors can catch the last train or bus, a policy measure that is almost standard practice in Ancien Belgique in Brussels. And visitors may also be discouraged to consider alternative transport options if the information is not readily available: perhaps organizers can put a spotlight on sustainable ways to reach their event whereby the car is considered as a last resort. Many of these ideas have not been thoroughly explored through research. Hybrid-events, which have gained momentum during the pandemic, also have a lot of potential with regard to sustainability: if people can choose to attend the event online, this evidently lowers the odds of traffic congestion.

The government continuously strives to make citizens aware of the impact of their transport choices on climate change. In this regard, our commute to work or the next city trip are top of mind. But we often feel powerless when it comes to combating climate change. Fact is that 60 percent of the ecological sustainability of an event is determined by the transport choices of its visitors. If we would collectively reconsider the way we go to and from events, we can radically reduce the ecological footprint of an event.


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