Book review: Mobility: A New Urban Design and Transport Planning Philosophy for a Sustainable Future

* by Ethan Goffman. Posted 8th September 2015 in 

john-whitelegg-inter-view-with-satnam-ranaFor the past couple of decades, a small group of thinkers, calling themselves variously ecological economists, degrowthers, and voluntary simplifiers, has undertaken a seemingly quixotic quest against the global obsession with growth for its own sake. They question the idea that increased gross domestic product will invariably help all people regardless of social standing, and question even more the environmental sustainability of limitless growth. A new book, Mobility by John Whitelegg, a British professor of transportation planning and former local government councilor, puts forth a kind of corollary to this thinking, attacking the pursuit of mobility for its own sake.

Important announcement: Mobility has been priced to  move. Available in both paper and eBook form for less than USD 10.00. See
(Thank you John for thinking about students, fund-strapped NGOs and readers in developing, smaller cities with tight budgets.)

Whitelegg refutes the assumption that simply moving more people more kilometers makes for a better society. Rather, he argues, “mobility measured crudely in terms of how many kilometres we move around every day has nothing whatsoever has to do with quality of life, rich human interaction, satisfaction, happiness and a detailed knowledge and familiarity with places and the things we chose to do in those places.” He further points to an astounding catalog of social and environmental ills caused by this obsession with mobility, from accidents and air pollution to discrimination against the poor, women, and the disabled.

Whitelegg begins with a memory of childhood as a kind of paradise in which he and his friends roamed the streets of postwar England exploring, playing games, and working together, all on foot. As they got older, local buses and trains allowed them to become ever more adventurous absent the scrutiny of adults. How different from today’s world, certainly in the United States and the UK, where children are driven everywhere to structured events. Whitelegg’s point is that the vast number of miles covered by today’s children does not add up to greater freedom, social development, or quality of life, and often does the opposite (while burdening parents). Decisions that society has made regarding the number and layout of streets, the location of jobs, schools, and other amenities, and the availability of transit have paradoxically forced many people into lifestyles that afford less freedom and a lower quality of life. He compares a large, gridlocked city, with residents dependent upon car travel, to a smaller, more walkable and transit-friendly city: “the high mobility of the Atlanta resident simply means that he or she has to travel further at a bigger cost than a Brussels person and this is unequivocally a ‘bad deal’ and a failure of public policy.”

Much of this critique is not news to those familiar with the smart-growth movement, with its emphasis on walkable, mixed-use communities based around transit. Whitelegg goes further, however, attacking the very idea of mobility as a yardstick, whereas smart-growth advocates instead emphasize the need for choices. This may be the more politically prudent approach, since attacking the very idea of mobility is likely to lead to extreme blowback, similar to that faced by the degrowth movement (see SSPP Blog post). Nevertheless, critiques such as Whitelegg’s are crucial in understanding how the drive to increase mobility is integrated into every aspect of our planning. It has become a naturalized way of thinking, integrated into our language. Even the very idea of challenging it seems ridiculous, like challenging the law of gravity, at least until Whitelegg speaks—and even so, he is likely to be largely ignored or marginalized.

That Whitelegg has collected copious amounts of data supporting his arguments would seem to offset this marginalization. Unfortunately, this is not the way the real world works. Paradigms are deeply rooted and not easily changed by facts—as Thomas Kuhn argued many years ago, one often needs to await a new generation for real change to come. Still, Whitelegg does a yeoman’s job assembling his army of facts and arguments to do battle against the mobility paradigm, substantially proving his case that depending upon a network of roads and individual automobiles, as well as airplanes, causes tremendous harm in ways often overlooked. He begins with the physical harm caused by automobiles, which globally kill some 1.2 million people annually and injure an additional 50 million. “Never before in all history has it been common custom to kill and maim people because they get in your way when you are in a hurry,” he exclaims.

Whitelegg further delves into the disruption to communities and social inequities of our current transit networks. The social impacts are measurable: “As traffic volume goes up the number of friends and acquaintances goes down.” Social isolation, in turn, leads to poor health and heightened mortality rates. The lowered ability of the poor and disabled to access needed services causes further harm. Regarding hospitals, for instance, smaller, more local facilities have tremendous benefits in accessibility, particularly for the poor and disabled. By contrast, “A system based on long distance travel by staff and long distance sourcing of drugs and surgical supplies is much more likely to break down, at a time when it is really needed.” Obesity also increases measurably as car traffic rises and walkability withers. Whitelegg further argues that the mobility paradigm discriminates on the basis of gender, since “women walk more than men, cycle less than men and use cars and motorbikes less than men.” A car-oriented mobility paradigm harms the poor, the very young, the very old, the disabled, and, often, women.

. . .

* Remainder of article available at

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Independent reviews and commentaries

* From the Road Danger Reduction Forum –

* From World Streets:

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About the reviewer:

ethan-goffmanEthan Goffman is Associate Editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy. His publications have appeared in E: The Environmental Magazine, Grist, and elsewhere. He is the author of Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature (State University of New York Press, 2000) and coeditor of The New York Public Intellectuals and Beyond (Purdue University Press, 2009) and Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations with Irving Howe (Purdue University Press, 2010). Ethan is a member of the Executive Committee of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Chapter of the Sierra Club.


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About the author:

john whitelegg

John Whitelegg is Visiting Professor of Sustainable Transport at Liverpool John Moores University and research associate with the global science policy organisation, the Stockholm Environment Institute.  He has written eleven books on sustainable transport and related issues.  He has worked on sustainable transport projects in India, China, Australia, Germany, Sweden and Slovenia, and on the same subjects with the European Parliament and European Commission.  He is the technical author of the world’s first technical standard on reducing demand for private motorised transport, as published by the British Standards Institution.  He is a member of the International Advisory Board of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate and Energy in Germany and an invited contributor to seminars and training course on road safety at the World Health Organisation.  He is founding editor of the journal “World Transport Policy and Practice” which is now in its 21st year of publication.

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Editor Postscriptum:

Dear Reader.

Of course if you have gotten this far you have already run your eyes over the following words.  But to bring today’s World Streets piece to an end, let us look once again at Whitelegg’s strong stand and elegant critical views on much of government policy in this important area of policy and practice. As you will immediately see, he has not set out to make friends in high places.  And if until now his totally justified critical views have been systematically ignored by bureaucrats in Brussels, London and in many national capitals, this is part of a groundswell that is feeding the underpinnings of deeper thinking about the issues. Here is John once again:

A recent EU research and development document (European Commission 2013a) begins with the main heading “Mobility for growth.” It does not define mobility.

The document is an undiluted manifesto accepting and promoting the growth of mobility and advocating the importance of this growth for the success of wider economic policy objectives, asserting the unquestioned importance of endless economic growth and ignoring the voluminous literature on the impossibility of endless economic growth and of ecological and resource limits to growth (Douthwaite, 1992, Schneidewind, 2014).

The European Commission document contains no recognition whatsoever of the well-developed sustainable transport discourse with its emphasis on traffic reduction, demand management, urban planning in favour of the “city of short distances” and modal shift from the car to walking, cycling and public transport or from the aircraft to electronic substitution e.g. videoconferencing. Similarly it airbrushes out of the picture the need to de-carbonise transport and link something called “mobility for growth” to the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector.

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About the editor:

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | | #fekbritton | | and | Contact: | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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