Reappraising Mobility in the Early 21st Century

America’s love affair with the car may have reached its apotheosis, but the modernizing world is now entering its period of infatuation. We should consider the benefits of ever-growing personal mobility relative to society’s burden for accommodating this. Therefore, mobility alternatives become necessary to deal with unprecedented levels of urbanization and broader demands for environmental care.  Nowadays there is a growing need to make a distinction between the desire of travel and the necessity for doing so to accommodate simple daily needs.

Some day, following drones and driverless cars, we might each get to fly to places while attached to jet propelled pods.  Or, better still, teleport from realm to realm, Star Trek style. Until then, and perhaps even then, we should always consider the benefits of ever-growing personal mobility relative to society’s burden for accommodating this, and whether creating more demand for travel is wise. While America’s love affair with the car may have reached its apotheosis, the now modernizing world is entering its period of infatuation, just as mobility alternatives become necessary to deal with unprecedented levels of urbanization and broader demands for environmental care.

For much of the past century, transportation innovations have generally favored personal mobility.  Aside from walking, arguably the most efficient and healthy means of personal mobility (and heralded as such prior to the invention of the internal combustion engine), there was the ‘pneumatic tube safety bicycle,’ as it was known at the turn of the 19th century. However beloved then and now, a bicycle requires fair-weather, not too steep terrain, and relatively modest travel distances, or strong young legs.  Overcoming such limitations, the automobile emerged as the ultimate embodiment of an individual’s ability to go anywhere, anytime, quickly.  Yet, it soon became clear that the more available the car became, along with good roads to drive on, the greater the expectation for getting farther, faster.  As the push for cars and more road lanes continues, traffic woes tend to grow, not diminish. We must develop more choices for mobility, but what if, also, the need to travel from place to place might somehow be reduced over time?

That may sound either utopian or the wishes of a Luddite, and so requires a distinction to be made between the desire and pleasure of travel, versus the necessity for doing so to accommodate simple daily needs.

No one wishes mobility to be restricted, but we have arrived at a point where a considerable percentage of our travel is caused by the very means by which we get around.  As a result of our faith in the conveniences associated with car ownership, we have created a scenario (certainly in the US and more recently elsewhere) where we must travel often and far, whether we wish to or not.  The means to go further most anytime have expanded the geography of cities enormously, inadvertently compelling us to travel more. The proverbial seven-mile suburban auto trip for a carton of milk is an oft-used example.  It is terrific that we can do so, but is this efficient, good for the planet, and must such a time consuming and air polluting journey be repeated endlessly?  This is the ‘catch 22’ for 21st century transportation planning: How do we continue to optimize mobility while not creating more and more – and redundant – need to travel distances?

It is a conundrum of modern life.  Across other sectors of resource-consuming economies we are closer to recognizing that more may not be the automatic answer for much longer.  We have come to understand, for example, that more coal extraction also produces more carbon pollution, not a good long-term trade off.  In parts of the US we now acknowledge that more cars may not be the answer to mobility.  In China or India or Africa this is far less clear, and understandably so.  The possession of a car, once affordable, becomes a great asset to populations reaching upward in economic and social terms. That is, until everyone also has one, and so the personal advantages are compromised by the communal disadvantages of congestion and pollution.  But can we preach to the citizens of China to stay on their bicycles while Americans continue to enjoy the use and comfort of our SUVs?

So the re-imagining of mobility early in the 21st century, at least for urban areas, might hinge around three factors:

  • Promoting the conveniences of proximity, rather than the illusory convenience of being able to cover ever-longer distances to take care of our affairs.
  • Making peace with urban density, and renewing an appreciation for the pleasures and conveniences of a pedestrian life-style, where the car becomes a weekend’s amenity rather than a daily necessity.
  • Preparing for the era of ‘stuff coming to us,’ rather than having to always travel for sustenance, jobs, products, or pleasure.

Near is Beautiful

Let’s consider the conveniences of proximity first.  It seems silly to point out that were there fewer cars and roads, we would find ourselves less spread out across a modern metropolis.  So the car that heralded personal freedom of movement has also shackled us to needing to travel more often and farther.  By contrast, the beauty of transit systems, beyond requiring less space to accommodate many more users, is that they consolidate activity in the proximity of stations.  A broader array of needs and tasks might thus be accomplished near a station without each task requiring a separate trip. More compact and mixed-use patterns of settlements would require less frequent auto travel. Unfortunately, it is harder to re-assemble a sprawling suburban region once organized for the convenience of car mobility alone.  So it is imperative that newly developing urban areas be planned and designed around some form of transit, or with the anticipation of transit becoming a substantial means of moving citizens.

This also requires greater aggregate urban densities; otherwise the cost of providing and maintaining transit systems is unaffordable.  Density does not inevitably mean congestion, which is often feared.  The congestion during daily rush hours on a limited access highway is often more onerous than on a regular grid of streets in a city-center setting. The latter offers the choice of many streets to negotiate, while one is positively stuck until the next highway exit, which may be miles away and not even the exit you had intended to take.  Options, flexibility and choice – provided by a great network of streets – are a key to a well-planned city, whereas a car-oriented lifestyle works well only when not amidst a million other car owners nearby.

A well-designed system of urban streets and generous sidewalks can accommodate much density and adapt to multiple needs of life, rather than to only serve mechanical movement.  In a car we are concerned with getting to a destination. But the seductions along an interesting path are what make pedestrian urbanism and city living so enjoyable.  Good streets enable efficient, universal movement, but also move us by virtue of humanitarian purpose.

So a surprising answer to more efficient mobility in the 21st century is to rediscover the inherent efficiencies of a traditional urban street grid, designed as networks of ‘complete streets.’  The intent of a complete street program is to design streets that accommodate people of all ages and abilities to enjoy being pedestrians, or cyclists, or users of public transportation, and drivers of cars, too.Convenient choice of movement and a rich mixture of nearby use is key in this model.

Now tether this traditional – some might say, ancient – urban design device of a fine-grained street network supporting density of activity, to the emerging phenomenon of information, goods and services being able to come to you, and a revolution in 21st century mobility may be imagined.  A recent New York Times essay titled, “An App for All of Your Chores,” (September 28, 2014) aptly hints at this.  Not just a blessing for sloths or “couch potatoes,” if an increasing number and type of services are acquirable and functions complete-able without task-by-task travel, a less mobility-burdened urban lifestyle becomes possible.

In addition to advancing congestion pricing for dense city centers car, sharing programs, and research on the potential efficiencies of driverless vehicles, policymakers must exercise greater leadership through tax policy, enabling regulation, and fiscal support. The planning and construction of transit systems is essential, with the aim to make them affordable to build and maintain, and more convenient and affordable to use. The latter is no easy task and requires further innovation in joint public/private enterprises such as the BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) process.  Here concessions are granted to industry for a period to finance, build, and operate infrastructure projects allowing the private investments to be recuperated through fees or tolls. However, public officials must advocate stronger for the health benefits of a less auto, more pedestrian-focused lifestyle. Indeed, governments should increase public campaigns on behalf of the benefits of urban density and mobility choices, in the way that in the recent past policy would champion car ownership, highway construction, and suburbanization.

Can one foresee mobility enhanced by a diminished need to travel?  It sounds somewhat naïve or utopian, but only because we have been trained across history that to communicate, get things, or do something, we must go there.  Such needs will certainly not disappear altogether.  Still, an app such as ‘Instacart’ that delivers groceries, (so far imperfect) digital meeting sharing systems, and the seemingly absurd idea that Amazon might soon deliver packages via drones, are a harbinger. Imagine a future lifestyle involving travel more often for leisure and pleasure, determined by personal or family timetables, and travel less often for stuff or work compelled by timetables established by others.  Technology may yet produce a more seamlessly connected world, but only once the goal becomes about balancing easier travel while minimizing the need to do so.