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The Mobility Revolution: What will the history books say?

9 May 2016

Susan Zielinski
University of Michigan
Managing Director, SMART

If we were to consult the “Big Official Book of Mobility History” right now it might read something like this:

… in the beginning, to get access to things they needed, first people swam, then walked. Then they rode horses, but that smelled bad. So next came a very cool thing that would liberate man and woman alike - the bicycle! Which, not long after, was turbo-charged with an “internal combustion engine”. PROGRESS ensued. The middle class was born. After a while though, things began to go south. It smelled bad again. People died -- a lot of people died, crashing and gasping. Then, in the NICK of time (harp music) the INTERNET OF EVERYTHING! … And they all lived happily ever after.

What a happy ending! Right Scooby Doo? Not necessarily. At least not yet.

On the one hand it’s true that:

• Information is the new 21st century transportation infrastructure.

• Since the internet-of-everything and big data arrived at the mobility doorstep, we can know and share and access a lot more - instantly and on demand.

• We can finally, after all these years, make simple things like car share and car pool and bike share work at scale (and even be sexy, and even be lucrative).

• We can now automate.

• We can now shorten or altogether eliminate trips (for people or goods) thanks to the likes of tele-work, tele-commerce, tele-medicine, and tele-education.

• In so many ways we are transcending the bricks and mortar constraints (and mindsets) of the last millennium.

• On a more meta level, we can (at least theoretically) connect all present and future modes and services and technologies together, linking transit, trains, cars, bikes, scooters, auto rickshaws, taxis, shared use, parking, door-to-door traffic management, fare payment, and journey planning, and more, monitoring and monetizing all along the way (see Paul Mascarenas’s blog on Mobility-as-a-Service).

But on the other hand, there are still a few things to work out. For example: There is much more than technology to this current transformation. Yet in the throes of (justifiable – see above) techno-enchantment we often risk seeing the technology (and any directly related short term business gains) as the end game, not the means to better transportation, better lives, better cities, and better economies for all. Which wouldn’t be right. And it wouldn’t be smart.

So please indulge me with these small redactions to the 2017 edition of the BIG BOOK:

• Scratch: “And they all lived happily ever after”

• Insert: “Then, ENABLED BY the open inter-operable internet of everything and big data; new integration models; new partnership models; new business models; new preferences; focus on the user; focus on how we want to live; new approaches to physical design; sexy, positive, inclusive narratives; and grounded research, leaders and citizens across the world reached out across sectors and disciplines. Now more people and economies get what, where, when they want, seamlessly, sustainably, safely, and equitably. The economy is booming and the world continues to transform.”