Musing: “Old Mobility” = mechanical solutions to biological problem

I like this concept, and while by itself it may not move the earth I would like to invite your comments and suggestions on this formulation which, self-evident though it may seem, some of us at least may find of use from time to time.  We need to get a firm handle on the reasons why old mobility thinking is proving so hard to dislodge. This quick characterization may be of help.

In a conversation yesterday with Katherine Freund of ITNAmerica, during which we were discussing her   participation in the forthcoming World Share/Transport Forum in Kaohsiung next month, the conversation rolled around as to the reasons why the narrow binomial choices which seem inevitably to frame the transport policy issues/choices in most places – i.e., either spend money to help cars or public transit as the two main options – are destined to fail. And in the process we eventually worked our way around to the phrase . . .

Old Mobility = Tries to fashion basically mechanical solutions to deal with what are in fact biological or organic problems. *

I like it because I feel that it gives us in a nutshell an explanation for why we are failing so badly in the sector.

Without wishing to be disrespectful to anyone in particular (we are all in any event prisoners of our pasts), is it reasonable to say this? The older generations of experts, institutions, and problems solvers are locked into mainly mechanistic approaches and ways of thinking: i.e., here is the problem we face, here is how we are going to fix it, and off we go. Solve problem, and then go fishing.

But when and if we shift over to new mobility thinking, what we have come to understand is that we are not going to “fix” the problem or problems, because it is not their nature nor that of complex interactive systems to be “fixed” in this sense. Rather we are ready to work with them over time within a more complex strategic frame, try this or that here of there, use 21st century feedback systems and logistics to get a flow of information about actual performance and impacts, and then tweak as infinitum. If it sounds like nurturing a child, it is no coincidence.

I hope this is not too muddled to exclude understanding, and that there may be something here eventually useful and at least worthy of your comments.

Eric Britton

PS. Or as Lao-tse just may have said: “How can a man, riding on an ox, looking for an ox, ever find an ox?”

PPS. One of my Chinese colleagues who is working with us on the Kaohsiung project, said that she felt this approach has parallels with the tradition of foot-binding of women in ancient China -纏足. A mechanical solution to a biological problem?

6 thoughts on “Musing: “Old Mobility” = mechanical solutions to biological problem

  1. Some thoughts on “Old Mobility = mechanical solutions to biological problems.”

    1. “Why the narrow binomial choices…?” We’re a product of our conditioning through experience, education and advertising.

    2. Those “mechanistic approaches” to maintaining our current system have caused problems for users and our environment but have served those who benefit from these approaches very well and they don’t want it to be fixed. Look at profits, advertising budgets, tax revenue, etc…

    3. Search for “ants + transportation” and “Ant Colony Algorithm” and find evidence in favor of biological traffic organization by ants with their highly developed social behavior.

    4. How to get a shift in character, away from artificially created desires of independence to highly developed social behavior?

    5. Currently our binomial choices are:
    Dependent = Public Transportation
    Independent = Private, Car Ownership

    The 3rd option is:
    Interdependent = Shared Transportation

    6. Decreasing the convenience of parking re-prioritizes the choices.

  2. Hi Ann,

    We agree with most things, however, are the independent transport modes not
    walking, running, skating and cycling?

    Car use is increasingly dependent – on an ever dwindling number of service
    stations, the mechanical expertise and technology of others and the ability
    of local and national governments to afford road repairs. Already in the
    US, paved roads are being returned to gravel roads as local governments can
    no longer afford road repairs. Roads are built with ever increasingly
    expensive oil… and increasingly owned privately and paid for through

    I think that many will be redefining car ownership in the near future.

    How long before the view of the car tips from a form of transport of
    independence to one of dependence?

  3. There is absolutely a difference between the philosophical and functional views of transport. Car travel spans the two and marks the essential struggle many have. New mobility may be driven by tangible and critical needs but still represents an ideology of how we can live. We also recognise the common barriers to new mobility which amount to the factors of modern living that have variously acted or shaped a functional response. Cars are hence seen as essential to many while other perspectives are considered idealistic at best.

    So a car offers both independence of another’s choice on route and stops but confers on the user a host of dependencies from mechanical to resources and administration to poorer health.

    Adrian Bell
    Project Director
    Applied Information Group

  4. the funny thing about your accurate assessment,

    5. Currently our binomial choices are:
    Dependent = Public Transportation
    Independent = Private, Car Ownership

    The 3rd option is:
    Interdependent = Shared Transportation

    Is that the reality is that private transport is dependent on public subsidy at a far greater rate than the so called dependent public transportation. Even editorials in Mass Transit magazine, a trade publication for the industry in the U.S. absolutely and completely miss this point.

    The issue is between public, mass, or personal/individual transit, and what you need in order to accomplish it. Even walking requires shoes (mostly) and sidewalks and trails and roadsides in order to be able to be comfortably accomplished.

    The real problem, irrespective of letting roads devolve to gravel (which is of minimal impact in terms of where most miles are driven nationally and regionally), is that automobilists believe that the 50% cost of roads not paid for by taxes and fees are paid for by the fees and taxes they pay, that the parking spot they use for free or pay for minimally does not cost something nor represent opportunity costs (e.g., in DC people pay less than $20 for residential parking permits for spaces that are worth between one and two thousand dollars), that at least 50% of the U.S. military budget is likely to cover maintaining access to international oil supplies, and influences international relations and diplomacy in ways that put the U.S. at significant risk (cf. Al-Qaeda), etc.

    walking, biking and transit are interdependent modes, and they are examples of the network effect of increasing positive returns as the modes are used more, although transit has an issue because as it is used significantly more, greater investments must be made in rolling stock and personnel and the network usually should be extended as well.

    As more people walk, more people walk and drive less. As more people bicycle, bicycling becomes safer, cars drive more slowly, sustainable mode split increases, car congestion reduces. But as bike mode split increases to significant levels, again changes need to be made–the use of precious roadway needs to be better balanced between the modes and managed in a manner that fosters optimal use of resources

  5. This analogy is interesting.However, i am of the opinion that the new mobility is going to be more cost-effective and environmentally friendly than the old mobility.However, been able to aggregate appropriately the % of transportation planning process,especially in urban centres, that should be based on old and new mobility orders,since the two approches are closely related,would help the world fast-track the realization of sustainable transport options.


    Joshua Odeleye
    School of Transport
    Lagos State University

  6. Eric,

    Interestingly, I have encountered the same idea in my research on Patrick Geddes – that wonderful Scotsman who gave India its first taste to planning as it is meant to be. For Geddes, planning was not place-planning but folk-planning – planning with understanding of what people need.

    At the turn of the 20th century, Geddes was prophetizing about a new science and a new economics – one that values nature and its innate processes. A hundred years later, I don’t think we have come very close to Geddes’ ideal.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s