The end of the world was yesterday

How cities will change the future of mobility

All-electric cars, autonomous driving and drone-based traffic management: there are spectacular changes in store for automotive mobility in the future, and they will call for creativity and new ways of thinking. One thing is for sure: the decisive battles will take place in the cities.

Stefan Carsten
Jan Schünke/Bransch

Never has this debate been more exciting: the rapid urbanization and digitalization of the world around us is opening up undreamed-of opportunities.

And that applies to mobility as well: many visions that were long the stuff of science fiction are now becoming reality; the somnolent state of the past few decades is over. Where mobility once followed neat, steady lines, suddenly new developments are springing up from who-knows-where and spreading like wildfire around the globe. Mobility services such as car sharing are a case in point.

Locking horns with the future means being prepared for a bumpy ride

All of this means the uneventful progress of mobility over recent times is about to be shaken up. For mobile societies, looking ahead is always a question of continuity and discontinuity, i.e., gradual but also radical changes that could come about in the next 30 to 40 years. As with any study of the future, it is akin to navigating uncharted waters: the future can never be predicted with absolute certainty. Both sides of the “argument” – continuity and discontinuity – are thus no more than hypotheses covering possible developments. On a day-to-day basis, they are the product of decisions made by politicians, planners, companies and, not least, mobility stakeholders. As for the face of future automotive mobility, it will be shaped predominantly in the cities of our world.

Moving around in spaces great and small

That’s because the society of the future will be an urban one. And that applies across the globe. Few countries, if any, will dance to a different tune. “Urban society” means one where people migrate over long distances into ever-expanding cities and where large swaths of land see their population numbers drastically dwindling. At the heart of this vision lies the coexistence of growth and contraction. Yet mobility continues in both areas to an equal degree. Cities are developing into playgrounds and test labs for future mobility – through the networking (both digital and physical) of vehicles and mobility services, the testing of new transportation concepts, and the realization of drive concepts based on renewable energy sources.

By contrast, the social aspect of mobility is coming increasingly to the fore in rural communities and on the outskirts of cities. A lack of access to transportation, tied with poor connections, will increasingly lead to social exclusion. Merely upholding the status quo will be a tricky undertaking in these regions, and probably only possible if the population shift is managed in a controlled and structured way. And so, as cities and regions contract and grow, there will be winners and losers in the mobility stakes.

Mobility now has to play by new rules

Changes among the chief protagonists in the field of mobility will also have a social impact. The coexistence of automotive manufacturers, rail companies, local public transit, airlines and long-distance bus services will look rather different in the future. In order to respond to their customers’ needs, providers will have to create systems that offer mobility tailored to the situation and context at hand.

Mobility will no longer be a single product, but a process that has to be organized as seamlessly as possible. The integration of financial, energy, real estate and information services will give rise to all-encompassing systems in the shape of mobility providers. Many customers will associate the transition between these different kinds of mobility systems with barriers and a loss of control (as can also be seen with IT systems from Apple, Google or Amazon). Here, the central questions are: who will make the rules within these systems and who will be purely suppliers of products and services?

Transportation will become more efficient in part, but without ripping up the rule book

Digitalization and virtualization have set in motion a process of transformation that still has a long way to run. Step by step, new and old cities alike are becoming places where traffic light data is integrated into vehicles, where cameras and sensors monitor traffic flow and control it in real time, and where satellites can keep an eye on vehicles and even steer them. This role will soon be assumed by drones, which can work even more flexibly and with greater detail. Urban transportation will become more efficient as a result – not that traffic levels will necessarily be any lower. A similar scenario surrounds the options for autonomous transportation. Self-parking cars will be able to use parking spaces more efficiently, as parking robots are already proving. But space for parking will remain limited. Highways will be populated by lines of self-driving trucks and cars, but even these will, from time to time, come to a halt in traffic jams or at construction sites.

A further period of development and diffusion extending to the year 2050 and beyond will most likely be required before urban mobility can become a fully autonomous operation. After all, safeguarding and integrating multimodal transportation is a highly complex challenge based on more than quick-fix solutions.

Attitudes to mobility are radically changing in other areas

Mobility is affected by more than just technological forces; socio-psychological changes are also at work. For example, does the pursuit of success in terms of career and income still define large sections of society, or are we seeing growing indications of a new model of prosperity emerging? After all, in Europe, calls for alternatives have become ever louder since the property and banking crisis. Alongside a secure (basic) income, issues such as family, recreation and social engagement in particular are becoming increasingly important for men and women alike. If this development continues, it will also come to represent a rejection of traditional status symbols.

Many young people already maintain that their smartphone or other new technical gadgets are more important to them than a car, for example. As private sharing platforms are telling us, it’s no longer owning a product that matters, but using it. Owners are making their cars – or power drills, apartments and workplaces, for that matter – available to third parties.

Mobility will no longer be a single product, but a process that has to be organized as seamlessly as possible.

In the world’s cities of the future, it is bicycles rather than cars that are poised to lead the way, and bicycles that will increasingly become status symbols. Cyclists are considered sporty and healthy, modern and flexible – an image reinforced by blogs and books with titles such as Cyclechic, Cycle Style and Prêt-à-vélo. Status isn’t declining in significance, it is simply undergoing a rethink, largely driven and exemplified by an urban avant-garde. Should this development spread into other sections of society, it would lead to a radical shift in the concept of mobility.

Restoring cities as places in which to spend time

The Athens Charter of 1933 and the principles of the Functional City – a blueprint for the modern city – that came out of it ushered in a unique era of mobility. We can still see and experience its impact all around us to this day. Yet it is still difficult to think about how cities might develop in the future in alternative ways, so established does our urban environment appear. But there are signs, however weak, that cities and infrastructures are experiencing change. More and more roads are being ripped up or downsized or removed altogether from the map to create space for parks, public gardens and places to meet.

At first glance, the consequences of these developments are difficult to believe: a reduction in the number of motor vehicles, fewer traffic jams and happy urban populations. In San Francisco, for example, the Embarcadero Freeway was pulled up following the earthquake in 1989, clearing the way for the downtown area of the city to be remodeled with public parks, pedestrian zones and bike paths. In Seoul, the Cheonggyecheon Stream was restored by removing the overpass running above it. And in Madrid, cars have been routed away from the banks of the Manzanares River with recreational facilities, a beach and playgrounds appearing in their stead: the river has effectively been handed back to the city’s residents. Increasingly, roads are making way for tram lines, bicycle paths or pavements. Parking lots are becoming home to residential blocks, offices and cultural spaces, while former railroad sidings are being converted into parks and recreational areas. The changing face of these cities shows how mobility need not become stuck in an “either/or” situation, but can instead provide both. Only by working together can the achievements of our modern age be carried over into a post-modern mobility culture and taken to the next level.

The doctor as a Mobility Coach

The interplay of social and technological developments can be seen at the junction between immobility and mobility. Wearable technology (smartphones, smartwatches, armbands, sensors in clothing, etc.) is changing perceptions and attitudes to health, and thus also to mobility. Obesity, stress and lack of exercise are global issues – in established economies and developing countries alike. An increasing number of health insurance companies are encouraging customers to collect and record health-related data, and customers themselves are gaining a new awareness of how exercise and sedentary lifestyles can affect their state of health. Mobility has become a game in which points are collected, friends compete against each other and seek out new places and destinations; geocaching is a good example. The meeting of new technologies and health awareness could provide a gateway for new mobility concepts and methods – with doctors becoming mobility consultants.

Many vehicle concepts are set to change

Our cities are becoming a key lever of future mobility. A range of restrictions – e.g., access controls, emissions targets, toll systems – and incentives, such as free parking, separate lanes and tax perks, are helping to woo companies and encourage investment. Some cities seek to offer their residents varying degrees of freedom in their urban environments, public spaces and meeting places, not to mention their individual quality of life. Others stick with the traditional achievements of the modern age in the form of functionality and accessibility – i.e., road building, automobility and zoned areas that do not mix.

City dwellers are also actively taking back their neighborhoods. In western societies above all, public spaces are being reclaimed and remodeled. Residents are redesigning parks, riverbanks, roads and sidewalks according to their own ideas, their sights set on urban quality of life. Results include play areas and overplanted parking lots, created almost overnight without undue attention to formal design processes.

Those at the sharp end of future mobility, therefore, need to demonstrate flexibility and offer tailored mobility solutions. Often, these will be found in niches that must be rethought and adapted to local circumstances. Yet the future will continue to offer sufficient mobility for all. Creative, local solutions will have to be found to achieve universal mobility, and many vehicle concepts could look very different from today’s as they adapt to the demands of autonomous driving and alternative drive systems. But one thing is certain: they will meet their prime objective to deliver mobility.

About the author: Dr. Stefan Carsten is a future researcher and urban geographer. He sees the future as both a perspective and a trigger for questioning today’s mobility scenarios and lifestyles with the aim of drawing up strategies for future-proof models.