Modern mobility is complementarity’s moment

Movement is freedom and people have since the dawn of time been moving around the world, out of curiosity and to pursue a better future.

Right now, many people around the world are under “lockdown” orders not to leave their homes, while international and sometimes domestic travel is increasingly impossible due to travel bans and obligatory quarantines. But the enormous emergence of COVID-19 will not last forever, and if anything highlights how we need to be smarter about a lot of things – especially mobility issues.

Marco Polo’s travels were legendary. So were those of Ibn Battuta a bit later.

All the more reason, then, that we make the act of moving around easier.

The iconic travellers had distinctive lines of work. Ibn took up jobs as an Islamic judge in Asian cities, while Marco apparently got to be Genghis Khan’s emissary in some farflung provinces. Both seized the opportunity of accompanying a princess for a strategic marriage to head back west and eventually home – after decades of absence.

But let’s consider the two epic adventurers’ actual mode of transportation. Both relied on boats and camel caravans. In modern terms, these are classic examples of more-or-less scheduled point-to-point transportation offerings.

Resolving that typology of need is the gold standard for mobility policies today.

That's the topic of this issue of Infrastructure Channel.

The biggest vector of change today is not in the Central Asian regions that Marco Polo visited. Even Jack Kerouac, in a recently discovered letter to his mother, noted that hitch-hiking isn’t viable in “mountains and deserts”. More than half the world’s population lives in an urban context today, and that is expected to increase to 70 percent by 2050 – and more like 85% in advanced economies.

The two main “thinkable” motifs are that mobility will increasingly be addressed as a service rather than via ownership of the means of transportation, and that the best solutions will be designed with the approach of seeking complementarities rather than competition. The latter point underscores the importance both of a systemic approach and of a robust core public transportation paradigm.

We all know about electric cars, zipcar services, e-scooters, self-driving vehicles and drones. Achieving happy outcomes will be about treating these and other technologies in terms of an ecosystem and not in terms of what we might call the Westphalian model of nation states and single product line – in terms of inter-operable webs of options rather than vertical silos of choices.

Using the private automobile as a metric, some of these changes are well underway. Fewer than 10 percent of Paris residents use cars, compared to more than 70 percent in Lefkosia, Cyprus. Congestion charges – iconically launched in London and due to begin in New York in 2021 – are a tool, not an answer.

These changes also come at a time when climate change is a pressing concern. The transportation sector contributes more than a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe and North America. But the figure is close to twice that on a global level, according to the International Energy Agency.

That points to the relevance of mobility solutions and urban planning policies that promote not using vehicles at all – something that Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Vienna have enabled. Teleworking is also a key area, as currently only one in seven European urbanites manage to do that once a week. That’s likely to rise very fast in the wake of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines. At any rate, viable long-term mobility solutions work on both the supply and demand side.

It’s facile to think that drones and Amazon-style home delivery is going to do all the work here. As Marco Polo would have said, people like to go places and it’s not just about moving goods. In fact, one of the original mandates for Marco and his uncles was to deliver a letter from the Pope to Genghis Khan, which in those days entailed a face-to-face meeting and not a videoconference.

In fact, we already know that the proliferation of home delivery services has only increased urban traffic, indicating that new forms of governance, tailored to local circumstances, are required. Counterintuitive ideas such as the city of Zurich’s deliberate slowing of road traffic to make it less popular warrant a hearing.

That’s even more true right now as the COVID19 outbreak catalyzes radical rethinking of transport and supply-chain designs - and has produced a sharp drop in public transit ridership in particular.

As explored in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s aptly named novel Love in the Time of Cholera, platonic love doesn’t always pan out as expected. But, not least thanks to movement, there was eventually a reunion to show there’s no reason to forget about love.

Today, a pandemic wasn’t in the cards, even though it’s frequently cited as a risk. Yet even if quarantines – first used by the Venetians in Dubrovnik – become part of the landscape, we can be sure that people will find clever ways to keep mobility viable.

It’s fashionable today to talk about multi-stakeholder projects. Optimizing mobility is one, with the advantage of being extremely concrete and already underway.

As innovation is both watchword and slogan, a historical perspective is essential. What already exists matter so much. Early railways were built along established pathways. Pretending too much from new technologies can lead to awkward solutions – consider American suburbs, which harnessed to the private automobile and the revaluation of land prices, now pose particularly complex problems.

Let’s quickly look at Marco Polo’s itinerary, which took him to Central Asia. Today, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have trolleybuses, and they are kept operational as a way for governments to signal their competence in addressing vital issues. It’s not only about efficiency but about revising the perception of public transport. Note also that Dushanbe and Bishkek also have lots of marshrutkas, privately-run minivans that are not exactly proto-Ubers because they follow fixed routes and carry lots of people - they resemble Blaise Pascal’s carosses a cinq sols, perhaps the world’s first public transit solution apart from river-crossing ferries which have been used since Antiquity. (Pascal’s entrepreneurial wager failed, by the way, because government regulations forced prices to be set too high.)

These may have safety and pollution issues - as horses did in many cities 150 years ago - but are innovations of their own and not to be junked in the absence of a better solution.

In the 1960s, the U.S. Congress passed the Urban Mass Transportation Act, reckoning that a country that could send a man to the moon could sort out traffic problems. It turns out that it’s not that easy. Today, as Olivier Reppert, CEO of Share Now, a Daimler car-sharing unit, notes, a third of the kilometers driven in urban zones consist of a search for parking.

Marco Polo discovered worlds, and there are lots of worlds still to discover.