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.