Mobile Innovation

Are Smart Mobility Apps Distracting Us From a Bigger Issue?

Is too much faith being put in smart mobility apps to create the mobility of the future? Is something more or different needed to resolve the core issues of the present? What will it take for people to stop making individually rational, but collectively irrational mobility choices? This is the first in a series of articles suggesting that better mobility is possible, but requires travelers to take more responsibility for collective mobility outcomes.

Rapid urbanization is creating a massive challenge as the growth of traffic in cities continues unabated. Per capita driving might be declining, but the quantum of driving in urban areas continues to increase.

There seems to be a conventional wisdom among the smart mobility community that a smart mobility app or combination of apps is going to fix the traffic and deliver better mobility sometime soon.

Certainly smart mobility solutions are needed; especially ones that make it easier and more rewarding for people to travel as passengers more often, and as drivers less often.

However, it seems that the growth in traffic is outstripping the uptake and impact of smart mobility solutions: and there is a lack of candid discussion about the problem.

A big mobility issue that is not being addressed

An elephant in the room is a big issue that people pretend does not exist. By failing to address the elephant the big issue does not go away, and therefore hampers progress.

Highly predictable traffic jams happen every day. People individually do what seems best and easiest for them, but collectively this creates incredible levels of wasted time and energy, and excess emissions.

These predictable traffic jams could be called “dumb mobility”. Unlike smart mobility, dumb mobility is not an app; it is a collective behavior, and given the magnitude of the negative externalities, it is strange that it is tolerated to the extent that it is.

There is no question that dumb mobility is made more tolerable by such things as incremental in-car comfort and entertainment improvements. One future scenario with autonomous cars assumes that traffic stays bad, but driving-time becomes office-time because drivers can switch their attention to emails and reports rather than the task of driving.

There are also mixed incentives for bringing about change. The gasoline tax-take is greater when there is more dumb mobility; the opportunity to design and implement ever-larger infrastructure and public transport projects is greater when there is more dumb mobility.

In their Manifesto for the End of Driving, Grush and Niles envision a future of autonomous cars that could be hell or heaven. They imply that it will only be the latter if dumb mobility is sorted out.

Dealing with dumb mobility

One point of view is that dumb mobility will only be reduced when people take greater collective responsibility for mobility outcomes, and change their travel habits accordingly. Smart mobility apps might enable these changes, but the thinking goes that the desire to change has to come from somewhere else.

One way to encourage a change in travel habits would be to provide cash rewards, but this option suffers from the lack of a source of funds. One idea for solving this is to forego a large infrastructure investment, but invest the debt servicing costs in behavior change instead.

This is the first in a series of articles that will hopefully generate a discussion about how to create the best environment for smart mobility apps to succeed. It starts with the proposition that there is a need to find a way to get people to want to change, and for travelers, politicians and planners to stop tolerating dumb mobility as the first step in creating a real platform for change.

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.


  • Grush Niles
    15. August 2015 at 2:36
  • Grush Niles
    15. August 2015 at 2:36


    The TNC solution would work very well indeed if 25% of all drivers joined a TNC and the other 75% retired their car and never drove. A lot less deadheading, a lot less parking. But this won’t happen, of course. Kudos to the sharing economy, but it is far from enough to undo the gift of the personal car. So far, human nature remains human nature—the rational choice most of us make for reasons buried in our genes (and our jeans) is to drive.

    But this is the promise of the autonomous vehicle for the foreseeable future (please don’t ask when, since the pundits can’t agree). The TaaS app will be part of that, but the bigger issue is the enormous social change necessary for 80% instead of 0.08% of vehicle miles to be provided by shared vehicles. That incremental car comfort and entertainment improvements will serve to make the Autonomous Vehicle yet more appealing could mean good bye dumb mobility, hello even dumber mobility. Hence our work at endofdriving dot org.

  • Grush Niles
    15. August 2015 at 2:38

    Paul, You are right that the additional drivers, cars and miles driven swamp the smaller number of drivers who abandon the habit. You are right that while well meaning and better-than-nothing many of the “smart mobility apps” are hardly scratching the surface. Granted, TNC apps are likely an exception but even that small help is diminished by the excessive burden many cities and taxi companies add to make those companies work even harder for their progress. And how much progress? These vehicles still deadhead to pick up a fare (of course they do not roam the streets, so they are not as bad as taxis in the business of generating unproductive VMT). Also they don’t park much (an invisible carbon-maker that few recognize). Anyway I have not seen a full analysis of TNC carbon saving or congestion saving. I suspect it is negative unless TNCs actually reduce vehicle sales, for which I hear skewed anecdotes but see no evidence. (A new car driven off the sales lot carries an embedded carbon burden equivalent to driving 100,000 miles (How Bad are Bananas – Mike Berners-Lee).)

    As an example, I have used Uber a dozen times, solely because in each case it was cheaper than parking fees (and I thought I might learn something for our book). Ten of the 12 cars that picked me up were bigger gas pigs than my car. All 12 vehicle drove more miles than I would have (I am guessing 20-30% more). All 12 made another human being do something mind-numbingly stupid (and possibly in harms way!) for 45 minutes, while I looked at my smart phone for 30 of those minutes. Let’s hope my use of Uber is a terrible exception (it is likely not in cites with expensive parking, since that is an individually “rational” decision).

    con’t next

  • Paul Minett
    16. August 2015 at 1:35

    Great comment, Bern Grush. And the sustainability community seem to love Uber and Lyft, even without the evidence that you refer to as being needed.

  • Pallavi Reddy
    17. August 2015 at 8:21

    Thank you for sharing your opinion Bern Grush. How do you think self-driving shared vehicles will help solve bigger mobility issues like traffic congestion & safety and environmental issues?

  • Grush Niles
    17. August 2015 at 12:42

    @Pallavi. Your question appears to assume that the popularly-assumed advantages of robotic mobility will automatically make congestion, safety and the environment better off. But this is only a prima facie assumption. It is clear for us at End Of Driving that taking human drivers off the road can only be good–especially for safety. But the problems of congestion and the environment are bigger than human driving and will likely outrun a simple application of robotics to an otherwise status quo social expectation of private household ownership. The problem of household vehicle ownership is likely an order of magnitude larger than human driving and the hopeful assumptions being made relative to the “sharing economy” are likely far off the mark we need to aim for. The congestion and environmental problems (due to vehicles) we face are addressable but are much bigger than just removing the driver. I implore you to read our manifesto:

  • Pallavi Reddy
    17. August 2015 at 13:00

    @Bern Grush, thank you for sharing the link. I will definitely read your manifesto.

  • Lluis A. Vidal
    23. August 2015 at 14:59

    Congrats Paul, I really liked your post. Interesting and easy to read 🙂

    I agree with you when there is stated that major conflicts and issues are being put away from the focus by new trendy and [possibly] more economically profitable solutions. Doubtlessly, beyond all this new technology, apps and other alternatives, which are very useful for specific niches, as other colleagues said in previous comments, there is a fundamental problem in mobility, the human behavior. We are animals and, generally speaking, we mostly make our decision irrationally. In my opinion, mobility aimed urban design solutions and land use planning measures are still being the real effective options. The city should be thought to offer more desirable options than cars and dumb mobility during peak hours. Said this, I’m sure that apps could help to make these measures more accurate if they are properly used and there’s a previous data analysis to clear biased sources.

  • Paul Minett
    24. August 2015 at 9:11

    Thanks Lluis.
    I do not buy into the ‘irrational decisions’ argument. I think people are individually rational. I think other people interpret some acts as irrational because they do not understand the acts. I think the perceived expected effort to get into an alternative mode, or the perceived expected loss of control or convenience, is so high that people do not think the benefits will be sufficient for the effort. And so people rationally choose to travel alone, and jam up the roads, which is then interpreted as irrational. I used the term ‘collectively irrational’ to hopefully make the distinction.

    I think it is also true that people operate in a sort of ‘zombie’ state much of the time when it comes to mobility, because they do not want to engage with the challenges of doing something different, or might not be aware of new options that have arisen since they last thought about it.

    Perhaps that is one of the keys to this discussion: getting people to think about it. Often people who have been exposed to more information about the transport system and how it works will take different actions as a result of that knowledge.

    I think the idea that ‘the city should provide’ gives a cop-out for the people who do not want to think about, and somehow justifies whatever alternatives the city offers up. But there is a problem: the city does not understand the causes of dumb mobility, and while the solutions they offer appear to make sense, years of evidence suggest they do not really work. Dumb mobility persists and is growing.

  • Paul Minett
    24. August 2015 at 9:11

    I liken this to the provision of gyms to solve the obesity epidemic. It seems like a solution that makes sense, until you realise that all the people going to all the gyms has not made an impact in the epidemic, and now we are seeing opinion that suggests weight-loss is not going to be achieved from going to the gym, but from adjusting the intake of food. In fact, it is suggested that going to the gym can actually cause weight GAIN, because having exercised, people think they can reward themselves with a treat, often with many more calories than they just burned off.

    Rather than calling on the city to provide “more desirable options”, I think we should be looking for ways to change the underlying condition. A first important step in any treatment is correct diagnosis, and I suggest that is where we are failing and need to do more work.

  • Lluis A. Vidal
    24. August 2015 at 19:25

    Well, I guess that the rational or irrational concept is a matter of personal definition. In my case, somebody who prefers a selfish choice against the common good [and him’s] using a biased information is irrational. Of course, I’m not saying that everybody has to be a eminence of urban mobility, but plans like an educational program focused on mobility consciousness’, well targeted public transportation investments and a reconsidered urban planning and design makes a big difference. On his hand, I should disagree with you. There are lots of examples around the world where this kind of measures have been effective changing people’s mind and reordering the mobility scheme.

  • Paul Minett
    25. August 2015 at 0:05

    Yes, irrationality is in the eye of the beholder.

    As a case in point I just traveled by train to a meeting. Each way the train journey took 45 minutes, but arriving earlier than I needed it was really an hour. I own a car and could have driven, it is against the traffic so no delays likely, each way would have taken me 20 minutes. I spent $9.80 to travel on the train. Had I driven, my marginal cost would have been a small amount of gasoline: at 19 km each way about $8 in fuel. It is free to park at the destination.

    If we did a survey, I doubt the majority of people would think my decision to travel by train was rational.

    Having said that, I do not disagree with your other point that an educational program focused on mobility consciousness could make a big difference. What I have trouble with is that the reality of ‘well targeted public transport investments’ is that they often fall well short of the ‘target’ or miss it all together because they are designed with a mis-understanding of what it takes to get away from dumb mobility.

    I would love to hear the examples from around the world where dumb mobility is not existing.

  • Lluis A. Vidal
    25. August 2015 at 0:44

    In this case you explained to me, car use is not dumb mobility or, at least, how I understood the concept. I do not like radicalism and those who hate the use of car in cities are out of point in my humble opinion. Boost sustainable mobility is not against car use. It’s a misunderstanding. In my view, sustainable mobility plans are against the exaggerated massive use of non-efficient modes at especific moments. The example of car use with low occupancy rate during peak hours in working days is the most relevant one. The car is a very reasonable option at off-peak hour but is a terrible mistake during peak hours.
    I didn’t say that there are example of cities where dumb mobility doesn’t exist and it probably won’t ever exist. What already exists is examples of good practices in urban planning and design where dumb mobility decreased. I’m currently writing an article for Move Forward about the concept behind this implementations and some examples. I’ll let you know 

  • Paul Minett
    25. August 2015 at 1:43

    Hi Lluis
    I think we are on the same page: dumb mobility is the ‘exaggerated massive use of non-efficient modes at specific moments’.

    I’m looking forward to your next article.

  • Eric Verhulst
    2. September 2015 at 9:20

    @Luis. Calling humans irrational is I think a wrong perception of the problem. Humans do make quite rational decisions, but that includes factors that are emotional and have to do with comfort. Humans make trade-off decisions and they are not necessarily the same for all humans.
    Of course, “dumb mobility” as well as this denigrating term has to be avoided. But don’t blame it on the people who are its victims. What are the root causes? Yesterday for example I had a meeting some 100 km away (in our densely populated Belgium). Google Maps was clear. Either using my car for one hour, either using public transport for 4 hours (single). Is it an irrational choice that I went for my car?
    The fundamental issue is one of “density”. In terms of how much people/goods can we move at a certain average speed from A to B over a certain amount of terrain. There are various ways to increase that figure. Automated driving and vehicle/ride sharing can easily increase that figure with a factor 2 to 3. This can reduce the number of vehicles in use with the same factor and do away with the “dumb” mobility. Not because people have become rational but because a better choice is offered. Technology can make it happen. The biggest obstacles are not people who move (that is a fundamental need), but vested interest groups. The sometimes violent opposition (and sometimes supported by the legal authorities) against novel services like Uber show that clearly. Even if that is already a lost battle. People will increasingly make the rational choice that technology offers. See also

  • Paul Minett
    2. September 2015 at 21:40

    @Eric.Verhulst. Thanks for commenting.

    A couple of questions: Are you saying that ‘dumb mobility’ is a) a denigrating term, and b) seeming to blame victims for its existence? If so this was not my intent. Dumb mobility is the result of a set of factors. No one person is doing anything dumb, but COLLECTIVELY we are doing something dumb. So it is not intended as denigrating of individual people. My argument is that individually we are doing what we see as the best thing to do in the circumstances.

    Driving your car is not a ‘dumb’ or ‘irrational’ choice. Along with beauty, irrationality is in the eye of the beholder. I think you made this point well.



In an earlier article, we advocated applying some of the principles of packet switching, the backbone technology of internet and telecom, to mobility and transport. After all, the similarity is clear. Packets carry bits, vehicles carry people and goods. In a first of a series of three articles, we'll explore some possibilities. We'll start by analyzing the impact of sharing vehicles.