Total mobility – brave new world

I don’t go to that many general transport conferences these days as I fear I will feel like I’ve heard too much of it too many times before.

So it was a pleasure to go to an LSE Cities evening event last week on electric mobility. A get together of an eclectic and international mix of corporate strategists, sociologists, architects, academics and technologists which was full of insights and the satisfying intellectual click of ideas coming together that hadn’t come together before – or at least not in my head.

Here’s what I took from it…

In the future you will not own your means of transportation…

  • The future of transport is sharing / renting and not owning. You don’t own the bus or train you use now. In the future you won’t own your car either. The economics of electric cars work for leasing and renting not for ownership (the cost of vehicles and infrastructure is too expensive).
  • The future of transport is one mobile phone equals one transport system. Your mobile will give you easy access to cars, bikes and public transport.
  • The future is door-to-door and carbon free.
  • In young peoples’ heads the future is here now. Internationally young people are rapidly moving into a  post-ownership mentality. They can’t afford the baby boomers ownership model (houses, cars etc) and for cars why bother? Cars are universal, functional objects – the status and aspiration around car ownership is seeping away. The car is a commodity rather than a symbol of expression and why be lumbered with one type of car that you own– when you can have any vehicle you want – right now – for hire by the hour. Young people are also ‘post-privacy’ which also fits with a monitored and rented transport world rather than a private and owned one.
  • The car ‘club’ concept was uncool and now it’s not. Car clubs used to be resonant of drab, do-goodery – aspiring late 20th century individuals didn’t join this sort of club. But now the ‘club’ fits with the zeitgeist of joining groups on social media so it’s making a marketing come back.
  • DB’s biggest electric car users are 30-55 aged  family men with a geeky side and with no interest in public transport – but interestingly once they start using the electric cars they become converts to the rail service element of the total mobility offer.
  • Electric cars limited range is good news for public transport (as it can’t substitute for long distance public transport), they can also act as smart storage for electricity during the day as electric car use is highest during the electricity grid peak and station car parks make good charging points.

In the future public transport needs to be central to the total mobility offer

    • You are not in the public transport business anymore you are in the mobility business.

      Getting total mobility up and running will need big ideas

 

  • Big is beautiful in total mobility. You need to think big, spend big and act big to get significant total mobility offers up and running. Bikehire schemes for example don’t come cheap (look at London – look at any of the successful ones). German railways (DB) has set up an innovation unit and a separate subsidiary to drive this stuff forward. The subsidiary (with a staff of 800) is now working with entities like the  German post office, large German private companies, and the non-weaponised part of the German military on its fleet management / car sharing operation.
  • Not only do transport providers need to link up with each other they also need to link up to car manufacturers, telecoms companies and energy providers. It’s only at this scale that all the pieces of the low carbon, door-to-door jigsaw can be put together. And then there’s housing providers eg Housing Associations providing electric car sharing options.
  • The economics rarely stack up as purely commercial propositions. It works best in countries that accept you need a taxbase to spend on infrastructure for these schemes so…

Will the US and UK miss out?

  • If we can’t even integrate inter-bus ticketing in UK cities (except London) how on earth will we ever be able to offer wider total mobility packages?

    The electric car could go rogue without an attractive public realm

  • If the electric car isn’t put in the context of an attractive public realm (for walking and cycling) and integrated, attractive public transport then the electric car could go rogue and lead to a transfer of short trips from public transport, walking and cycling to the car.
  • There is also a danger of the UK (outside London) ending up with weak, partial and over-lapping mobility offers by a range of private and public sector providers.
  • But then again which country did the biggest and boldest road user charging scheme on the planet? High land values = high parking charges. Coupled with tight historic street patterns this might make cities like London naturals for total mobility.
  • Meanwhile, state-side no one wants to pay for transit infrastructure anymore and car-based urban sprawl has largely triumphed.  The bus, the bike, pedestrianisation on a neighbourhood by neighbourhood basis offers some hope – which is the way some of NYC is going.

In the future when all’s well? The doubters speak…

  • Should we be turning our cities into blank canvasses for the consumption of mobility? In our rush to try to ensure that total mobility is as sustainable as possible will we sacrifice what we like about the urban (its unpredictability, walkability and diversity)? Shouldn’t we start with the urban realm rather than the facilitation of total mobility at any cost?
  • Total mobility offers (eg London hirebikes) often end up being city centre status symbols for all concerned, whereas really it’s the suburbs that they would come into their own – World City centres can look after themselves.

Want to know whether or not the future works? In a few years time the Northern European countries like Germany and Switzerland will give us a good idea…

Jonathan Bray

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