merging mobility and civility
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Extemporaneous Postulation

The Best Mobility Plan is None

We have so much on our minds—how our children are faring in school, that upcoming dental appointment, will I land that next contract —we don’t need to worry about whether we have the correct payment system for the bus.

The best mobility plan is none. Cities work because people walk. Sure, a map helps with some of the more crooked lanes, but we are essentially guided by landmarks:  St Paul’s Cathedral in London, Broadway in NYC, Table Mountain in Cape Town, Avenida 9 de Julio in Buenos Aires, the Sky Train in Bangkok). And walking is an economical winner, because it is free.

Drivers don’t need mobility plans

In the post-WWII era, society fell in love with the car, and we remade our cities accordingly. In fact, there are some really good examples of suburbs built by and for the car (Radburn in New Jersey, Sennenstadt outside Bielefeld in Germany, Brampton outside Toronto in Canada). The best part about the car is—you don’t really need a mobility plan. You just get in and drive. If you have a full tank of gas, you can run all your errands, chauffer the kids, commute to work, and just joyride. Sure, a map helps, but there are plenty of road signs to guide you, parking lots to park in, and the radio tells you where the traffic is.

But what happens when the driving bug turns into a sickness? Noise pollution, road rage, crashes, dilapidated streets, weed-strewn parking lots. Sure, the automobile and related industries deserve partial credit for the explosive post-war economy, but that era is over.  Now we have continual wars to keep the oil flowing, residential towers where the lower 10 floors are just parking, tremendous social isolation related to suburban sprawl, an inability to “age in place”, diabetes from not getting enough exercise, and people fleeing petro-dictatorships like Venezuela and Syria.

GPS renders mobility plans moot

So, let’s get back to the best mobility plan being none.  Here is where technology comes in.  Most of you have GPS-enabled phones in your pockets or purses.  It knows where you are most of the time (and so, probably, does your spouse).  Buses have GPS.  Taxis have GPS.  The train has GPS.  GPS enables us to create individualized mobility plans.  Have you ever noticed how your kids get around?  They don’t read maps.  They don’t really know addresses.  They just tell Siri where they are going and a computerized Irish female voice tells them where to go, how to get there, and how much it will cost.

The directions are seamless; however, the systems are not.  And this is where we need to update our thinking.  Go back to the car-based system.  In the United States, one can drive from Boston to Chicago to Charlotte using the same payment system.  It’s called EZPass, and it works at every toll booth along the way.  The charges are put directly onto your credit card.  In transit-land, not even every train system that operates in Manhattan uses the same payment system.  So whereas your drive is seamless, your ride is not.  

Where we want to be

In the opening of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Mr. Aschenbach wanders around Munich after tea.  He passes through, among other sites, the English Gardens—and when he is ready to return, he simply walks over to a tram stop.  This is what I mean by the “best mobility plan is none”.  Cities need to function so that citizens can move about easily and without a whole lot of forethought.  We have so much on our minds—how our children are faring in school, that upcoming dental appointment, will I land that next contract —we don’t need to worry about whether we have the correct payment system for the bus.