Retelling Urban Mobility - South to North

Cities are important because that's where the majority of the world's population lives and an even bigger share of the global economy resides. How people move around their city is a big deal. It affects productivity, security, health and global warming, among other things.

Cities are complex and contain just about anything or concept ever invented by humans. How the city is built, its topography and how close you live to your work and a grocery store affects your mobility.

Even that subject - urban mobility - is complex to communicate. Experts agree that urban mobility needs to be multi-modal. And every city needs a mix that caters to its climate, topography, infrastructure etc. So it is very difficult just to copy another city's transport system and scale. Wallkability - and maybe cycleability - seem to be the only constants. But saying that transport must always be locally adapted doesn't say much.

So we need to simplify the story to make some sense out of it and create a scalable movement. Stories about personal transport in cities these days tend to be put into one of two categories: public bikes and driverless cars. The narratives each go like this: how, with a new economic sharing paradigm, public bikes are changing our lives and how the car is being disrupted by unicorns such as Google's driverless cars.

Everything comes back to the fact that the car-centric model has failed. Even if we accepted the health implications of pollution and the impact on global warming, from a simple space management perspective mobility will eventually collapse in cities that give priority to the car.

Bike sharing programs are poised as the big counter-cultural alternative. These programs have shown some results, but it is not clear what uptake they will eventually have. Their success has mainly been achieved symbolically or via meeting various milestones.

The car industry is looking for viable alternatives to its current model. Self-driving and electric is their response. However, these each come with their own set of challenges:

The electric cars as we know them today will not work within city centers. Most electric cars take up as much space as their combustion counterparts. Using ballpark figures, electric cars cost around 10000% more than a good bike, they are 40% slower during rush hour, they waste 2700% more energy and take up 600% more space. They will need to get much smaller from a space management perspective as right now they cannot compete with mass transit and bikes.

Space management is the key driver: Cars are getting smaller as a way of not getting squeezed out of cities. We are seeing engines that get smaller and more fuel efficient. We've also witnessed a new car market emerge: "the small luxury car". A market that is growing fast. Small cars gain in importance and are shrinking to sizes that compare with cargo bikes and velomobiles. At the end of the day the only way to become truly small without changing into a motorcycle is to become a 3-wheeler like the Toyota I-Road. This shrinkage is creating a new epic turf war of three-wheelers. The difference between an electric micro car and an electric velomobile is dismal. It mainly boils down to a few specs, a difference of business culture and regulation. It is too early to say who will win this turf war, but price and regulation is against the car industry. Although, the references in this post come from my, industrialized, part of the world, the battle is global and happening in the developing world too. There are good examples in Southern hemisphere of how we could reinvent mobility in cities by using three-wheelers such as tuk-tuks or rickshaws, which take up less space than a normal car. The tuk-tuk industry, associated with developing cities in Asia, is currently booming in East Africa, Middle East and China. A cheap alternative to owning a car, tuk-tuks are used by small businesses and families.

The other red herring is the self-driving car. The story goes that with self-driving cars you will not have the same capacity issues as you do with cars today. They can drive faster and closer to one another because their reaction time isn't hampered by slow human reaction times. Because they can coordinate with each other, they can skip lights, essentially moving like a shoal of fish.

Two important questions remain unanswered when it comes to self-driving cars space efficiency. First, will they be privately owned or shared? Second, will they be allowed to drive without (or with a few) passengers. If they are shared, then this makes it a lot easier to make up for their poor space management performance. If they can ride without passengers, with minors or others that cannot drive, then this will worsen their space management performance.

The World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on the Future of Automotive and Personal Transport suggests that big self-driving cars should be used to shuttle around cities to pick up and drop people at their final destination, using some complex calculations that could make this mass transit system work. I do believe that such a system could happen, but note that "big cars" are busses and mass transit systems tend to mean public. This is also what we are seeing. Self-driving busses could be implemented faster. There are actually functioning system running in Switzerland and Holland. They still don't pick you up at home, nor deliver you at your destination like a shuttlebus, but these show that public players are much closer at developing such a smart mass transit system than any a car manufacturer.
Also here the Southern hemisphere seems to be leading the way. The Kenyan matatus, an entrepreneurial transportation system of buses and minivans, used by seven out of ten residents in Nairobi, is praised as a market-driven response to increased demand for transportation. The privately-owned matatus are currently filling in a gap in transportation that no other public system in Nairobi is able to do the moment. They are not self-driving yet, but that doesn't mean that their intelligence is purely human. A host of Kenyan apps, Ma3Route for instance, are fueling real time data and intelligence to the matatu drivers.

My point is we need simple narratives to create change. The present narratives represent old interests and do not reflect the space management perspective that actually drives much of the locomotion in cities. The battle of the three-wheelers and the public vs. private self-driving busses is where we should redirect our storytelling efforts.