Beyond Flying Cars, Drones, and Congestions

People do not want to live in cities where the existing mobility models have reached their limits. We are yet to find smart mobility solutions, however, that truly tackle the underlying issue of urban growth versus congestion. True smart mobility goes far beyond apps that present traffic flow. We need to find solutions that reduce the number of trips travelled, reverse urban sprawl, and tackle problems relating to environmental pollution.

What is smart mobility? Does the traffic app Waze, purchased by Google for more than a billion dollars, fall within this scope? Yes, to some extent. The social GPS helps people improve their commute thanks to real-time traffic data and road information shared by its active community of users (Waze claims to have more than 50 million users worldwide). When obstacles (e.g. road closures, accidents, police traps, etc.) are reported, Waze redirects drivers to their destination.

However, the navigation app only falls within the scope of a rather “orthodox smart mobility”. Waze deals with symptoms – congestion appears as a “permanent state” with which we have been putting up for decades – rather than underlying causes. The volume of traffic continues to grow, especially during peak periods of the day, where billions of urban dwellers around the world, choose to commute. Waze does not solve this problem. It can help drivers navigate traffic congestion, but it does not reduce the number of trips travelled, neither does it tackle environmental pollution problems, urban sprawl, etc. In other words, Waze users settle for marginal benefits. This raises the question: how can the core problems be tackled rather than merely trying to cope with traffic flows, which has so far proven impossible?

Let’s not fight the wrong battles. We cannot fight obesity by loosening one’s belt! Smart mobility’s ambition cannot come down to simply healing the wounds of the current situation. If mobility aims at being “smart” it has first to differentiate between desired and undesired mobility, and find alternatives to the latter because they both harm people’s everyday lives and stifle cities. Let’s forget about flying and even automatic cars, capsules and drones. Those sci-fi visions have indeed proven technically feasible. Yet, their relevance against excess mobility has yet to be demonstrated. The insatiable quest for productivity cannot be a long-term solution.

Solutions to more desirable and more sustainable mobility will not be found solely within the field of transport. We must address the social, urban, economic and organisational causes of today’s mobility patterns. Smart mobility will only be smart if it manages to adopt a comprehensive approach to current mobility challenges. Radical innovations are necessary, not least in terms of work organisation and urban and regional planning. Those transformations call for a paradigm shift towards downscaling mobility.

In this regard, both the Walkscore app and coworking spaces, which contribute to addressing issues of walkability, density of services and relocation of work appear somehow closer to reaching the ambitions of a true smart mobility. That is to say, a smart mobility that encapsulates the idea of “mobility as a service”. In this context, transport operators and transport authorities could focus on managing a “desired mobility” and ensure everybody’s access to cities’ resources.

State of the art

A. Pointing contradictions

Even if cars still account for 80% of the distance travelled in France, some signs are worth noticing. Over the last decade, experts have pointed to a shift in driving patterns. Beyond peak oil, they highlight – at least in Western countries – a peak drive (a decrease of car use) and a peak car (a decrease in the number cars purchased). In the United States, some experts even mention a peak road (a decrease of paved roads mileage). One could also bring to light a peak property, to describe the trend towards car sharing, as opposed to car ownership (in France, individual buyers now account for less than half of the number of cars purchased each year). Yet, travel demand by car continues to grow and collective transportation – whether in Europe or in the United States – cannot absorb this excess volume. Meeting rising demands for motorised mobility within limited physical infrastructure capacity is a structural problem everywhere.

B. The users’ point of view: smart solutions are just palliatives

During the last two decades, individuals have quickly adopted multimodality as a means to face the challenges of everyday mobility and find alternatives to car use. Smart mobility solutions facilitate efficiency of multimodality. Technologies can indeed collect and analyse network data, which can be disseminated in order to facilitate seamless journeys for individuals, thus reducing cognitive load. However, just like Waze or car sharing services, those are only palliatives. E-solutions, whether related to work or shopping activities, are the only solutions people have if they want to reduce undesired trips. Demand for those solutions is very high. When it comes to telecommuting, there is a correlation between the level of demand and the distance that separates individuals from their work places.

C. Smart solutions are insufficient

Smart solutions will keep and meet those limitations as long as they keep on thinking in terms of infrastructures. Existing proponents of an orthodox smart mobility seem to accept the inevitability of contemporary mobility challenges (congestion, transportation disruptions, accidentology, etc.). The French national rail operator SNCF thus states that the average passenger occupancy in the Greater Paris network reaches 40%. However, it reaches 200% during peak hours. In those conditions, the permanent expansion of the network’s physical capacities seems unsustainable.

Up until now, no actor has been able to prove the capacity of smart solutions to reduce the demand for mobility. Those technologies can only optimise the capacity of the system. For want of anything better, public authorities spend billions of dollars on gigantic infrastructure programmes, which bring us back to the mega projects of the 20th century. The same thing is happening in China at a much larger scale. In Brazil, after the wave of social unrest that swept São Paulo in summer 2013 in protest of dreadful transportation conditions, the government has decided to invest $30 billion in urban mass transit. The same reaction can be observed in the Greater Paris, where a similar amount of money will be spent in the quest to ease congestion.

The necessity of radical innovations

Radical innovations are to be found out of the field of transport. They fall within the scope of three categories:

A. Targeting causes of mobility

Public authorities and transport operators must envision radical transformations in the planning of cities and territories as well as in the organisation of daily activities. Within the urban field, there have been interesting initiatives that seek to re-densify neighbourhoods through developing many amenities in close proximity. In this regard, Jeff Speck develops the concept of the walkable city. This urban model is an alternative to urban sprawl and its tremendous environmental, economic and social costs. A city like Portland, Oregon, has decided to give priority to pedestrians, and thereby also increases its attractiveness.

Another lead to follow is to consider pauses within journeys as part of the mobility chain. In this regard, the development of so-called third places is a growing trend. Those multipurpose places, often started at the initiative of users themselves, accommodate mobile workers, but are open to a wide range of activities within the proximity of residential areas. Thus, they reduce the need for transport. This raises broader questions about the organisation of work. Amsterdam is showing the way. As part of a measure to tackle traffic congestion, the city has developed a network of more than a hundred telework centres in peripheral districts.

B. Offering alternatives to motorised mobility

What applies to work applies also to a wide range of activities such as retail, training and education, the health industry, etc. The development of e-solutions, or what we would rather call “distance solutions”, does not prevent individuals from moving, but it does reduce the number and the distance of trips travelled. In doing so, it has the potential to directly address the issue of undesired versus desired mobility. In other words, distance solutions offer alternatives to undesired journeys while not restricting desired mobility. They raise, however, organisational challenges which still have to be met.

C. Downscaling mobility

Envisioning a reduction of undesired journeys automatically leads to thinking about downscaling mobility. This reasoning, however, goes against the concept of growth, which lies at the basis of modern and contemporary society. When Marc Andreessen mentions the possibility of reducing the total car fleet by up to 90% without reducing the use of cars, he suggests a path towards de-growth. It is nowadays becoming possible to replace ownership by a pool of services as well as shared and collaborative solutions. We may never reach the values mentioned by Marc Andreessen and his associate, Ben Horowitz. Yet, the fact that the founders of the $2.5 billion venture capital firm consider this path as economically viable, if not profitable, indicates that it is worth exploring.

Concluding words: the service city

The radical transformations mentioned in this paper are first and foremost social and sociological. Individuals’ desire to reduce the negative side effects of mobility must be taken into account. People do not wish to live in cities and societies whose models have reached their limits. They start developing personal strategies, relying largely on mobile technologies and data, which have the power to radically transform mobility in the future. Further development of mobility services, integrating distance solutions, is the key to sustainable and desirable mobility.