The Old Mobility Impasse

Structural problems
Is this excessive?
Old mobility in action
More of the same?

"Most of the problems that we face in our cities today
are the result of someone's old solutions."

Here you have a quick and crude, but we hope both fair and essentially correct characterization of planning, policy and behind them both defining vision. under the 'old mobility paradigm'. As we inspect this list, let's bear in mind that despite the indisputable incongruities you see here, the news is not all bad. Over the last decades there have been great technical strides in the profession, which are going to be extremely important as we move to switch to a new paradigm of transport in cities. In fact, we can say with confidence that without the full and imaginative use of this expanding toolkit, there will be no New Mobility. That said, the old thinking continues to dominate in most cities as they continue to spend and build and in the process lay the base for a new scale of problems in the future. At one point we really will have to adapt, but this is proving an extremely painful process. And an altogether unnecessary one.

Checklist of 3 dozen Old Mobility shortcomings you may recognize

To characterize the present arrangements and the constraints that creates very broadly, the main points that we need to understand and take into account in our search for a new paradigm result from the fact that the old system, arrangements and ways of thinking are . . .

  1. Based on an essentially closed system
  2. Hierarchical
  3. Top-down
  4. Centralized
  5. Statistics based (historical)
  6. Bounded
  7. Reductive
  8. End-state solution oriented
  9. Authoritarian
  10. Supply oriented
  11. Expert based
  12. Engineering-based (i.e., working "within the box", but with high technical competence)
  13. Binary (private/public transport)
  14. De facto car-based
  15. Costly to the community (unnecessarily)
  16. Costly to individuals (unnecessarily)
  17. Resource intensive (unnecessarily)
  18. Total dependence on costly imported fossil fuels (unnecessarily)
  19. Highly polluting
  20. Massive public health menace
  21. Destroys urban fabric
  22. Hardware and build solutions, technology oriented
  23. Treats anything other than strictly car-based solutions as (very!) poor cousins
  24. Offers poor service/economic package to elderly, handicapped, poor and young
  25. Sharp divide between planning, policy and operations
  26. Obscure (to the public) decision making processes
  27. Aims to increase vehicle throughput and speeds along designated routes
  28. Focuses on eliminating bottlenecks impeding traffic flows (i.e., builds for > traffic)
  29. Attempts to anticipate them and build to forestall
  30. Searches for large projects to "solve" the problems: either in the form of new road infrastructure or, albeit on a much smaller scale, purchase of additional public transport capacity
  31. These large projects and the substantial amounts involved often lead to corruption and waste of public moneys
  32. Still too much separation from underlying land use realities.
  33. Inadequate attention to transportation substitutes or complements
  34. Increasingly technical and tool oriented (this to the good)
  35. Anachronistic,
  36. Not doing the job that we need in this new and very different century. And finally and worst of all. . .
  37. Creates a climate of passive citizenry and thus undermines participatory democracy and collective involvement and problem solving

(Our original intention had been to title this section "Endless reasons why old mobility sucks" but in light of our broad and distinguished international audience we thought that casual vernacular, vivid though it be, might possibly be upsetting. So here you have the same thought somewhat more elegantly expressed.)

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Is this characterization excessive? Unfair?

Does this long list seem excessive? Exaggerated? Unfair? Well we ask you to look out the window onto the streets of your city, and into the lives of all those who lives there, and you may find that we have just described your city.

In making this characterization we are not trying to condemn or belittle our policy makers who are working with this old model, and certainly not our respected transport and traffic planner colleagues. They are applying the skills they learned in school and which long have had the approval of their professional associations, their employers and present institutional and legal arrangements. Rather we are simply trying to understand what is going on -- with our eyes focused on the fact that if we look at actual results in city after city in both the advanced economies and even more so in the developing world, we cannot honestly say that this approach is in itself proving adequate for our collective decision making and actions. In fact the evidence is that they are in most cases doing no more than laying the groundwork for a new round of yet more challenging problems.

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Old Mobility in action - a bir of visual evidence

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Can we continue to rely on the "more of the same" of past decades?

What we have with the existing arrangements is at its best an excellent technical approach for managing an ordered system -- which is however by no means the case of transport in cities, which is as we know marked by enormous systemic complexity, a multiplicity of highly diverse actors, values and decisions, ever-adaptive organic behaviour, and a situation in which it is ever more apparent that it is the non strictly transport issues that are now going to have to be factored into the highest level of the planning and decision hierarchy.

In a phrase, our challenge now is to get out of that old box. Read on.


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Last updated on 28 August 2006