To understand the future of mobility we must prioritise all of the social activities and associated material infrastructures that create a need to be in particular places at particular times, argues our guest blogger today, professor James Faulconbridge.
There is no shortage of work on the future of mobility. Indeed, our own John Urry has made important contributions to such debates. Often such discussions centre on issues such as the driverless car, reinvented aeromobility or some other form of technological future. It is quite understandable why mobilities research would want to think about future modes of mobility. But I want to be a bit provocative. I want to suggest that what we should actually be studying is not (just) mobility. We should be studying the rest of the social and material world that creates demand for, induces, makes necessary, and co-constitutes mobility.
This is a logical step that follows the logic of mobilities (rather than transport) research. And therefore in some ways I am not being that provocative. Transport planners know that derived demand is fundamental – asking about what creates certain transport flows and infrastructure needs is not that new. And mobilities researchers certainly do not just study modes of transport. But what if we pushed this a bit further? What if to understand the future of mobility we prioritised all of the social activities and associated material infrastructures that create a need to be in particular places at particular times? Could we research these as a way of thinking about what structures the world of mobility we currently inhabit, and what might structure mobility in the future?
The way firms organise themselves, the characteristics of work, and the incorporation of changing technologies into the two that affects when, how and why we travel.
Why do I make such a suggestion? I have been involved in two projects in recent years looking at mobility. The Disruption project looked at what happens to mobility when the things we do in everyday life and rely upon mobility to achieve are disrupted. In brief, this revealed that it is disruption to our activities, when and where they occur, that matters in invoking changes to mobility, more so than disruption to transport systems. The second project forms part of the work of the DEMAND Centre. I have been specifically looking at business travel and the reasons for its continued importance (and arguably growth). Our initial findings suggest it is the way firms organise themselves, the characteristics of work, and the incorporation of changing technologies into the two that affects when, how and why we travel. In both projects, then, answers have emerged from looking at everything except modes of transport.
So, what should we think about when we think about the future?
Transport planners will be pleased to know that I accept a role for some focus on transport. But only when connected to wider questions such as spatial planning and the enabling of everyday activities that are valued in society. This implies we should think about what in the Disruption project we have called the mobility system approach. The ‘Mobility System’ is, then, the interaction between the transport system, ICT and social resources, material infrastructures, and the activities we take part in. It means thinking about the wider economic and social system that transport supports and this places the ends (the activities) rather than just the means (the travel) at the heart of our thinking.
This is a bog standard story of co-evolution in many ways. It accepts that modes of transport co-evolve with everyday life. But it pushes us to give more agency to the non-transport factors that is often the case, whilst somehow also recognising that changes in the types of transport available do feature in change processes. A delicate balance is needed, then. My suggestion is that the best way to achieve this is to start with the social and material concerns.
In a mobility systems approach, the future is associated with questions about factors such as:
Education: its social and spatial organisation, how this constitutes demand for mobility, and how this has changed over time and might evolve in the future.
Work: How, where and when work is done and the mobility that fits with that, and how work relates in time and space to other practices, will be crucial to future developments.
Sociality: how this evolves on and off line, how this relates to particular timing and spacing of activities, and the implications for how we organise everyday life, inside and outside of work and education.
Health: as population demographics change, healthcare needs evolve, and provision is affected by technology, changing healthcare systems, and new types of demand, the need to move and the way we move will alter.
Retail: how we shop today is unrecognisable from how we shop just a decade ago. It is well known that the out of town superstore has been fundamental to configuring the automobility system we have today. But how will retail reconfigure demands in the future?
Connecting together discussions of mobility to discussions about education, health, retail, work and other activities and considering how the timing, location and relationships between the practices, as well as transport provision, shape future mobilities is thus key. Mobilities research might, then, benefit from centre-staging these ever changing socio-material concerns to better understand the future of mobility – as a co-evolutionary outcome. In doing so we can ask how the driverless car or any other mobility technology will feature in the development of these activities, their timing, location and inter-relationships. But we hopefully open up some new insights by first asking about the activities which might exert just as much agency as the mobility technology.
Main photo: gbta.org