“We need to redesign mobility in our cities if we want the ACES trends to reach full impact”

An interview with mobility expert Tim Papandreou (ex-Google, Founder Emerging Transport Advisors) about the future of mobilty.

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October 4, 2018

If you’re interested in emerging transport trends, remember the name Timothy Papandreou. As an ex-collaborator of Google X’s self-driving car moonshot as well as helping launch Waymo and a former Chief Innovation Officer of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, he’s a goldmine of information about the ACES trends in mobility. Although he himself prefers to reverse the ACES acronym: “SECA does sound less cool than ACES”, he laughed. “But, for me automation is just the glue that holds the super trends of shared mobility, electrification and connectedness together. In that order of appearance.”

Timothy is realistic about what will need to happen before these trends will be unanimously adopted and thus become “normal”. “It’s not going to happen overnight but it will be a great transition of all parts of our city planning and design.” “It’s not just about technology, we all have to change how we think about mobility. And to convince people to do that, we really need to redesign the way we provide and manage mobility in our cities first”, he explained.

One of the major hurdles for the shared trend is that car ownership has become a part of our identity. “Brands are very proficient at making us believe that owning a certain vehicle will make us cooler, sexier, more successful or younger”, said Tim. “They understand like no other how to make us emotionally connect with our automobiles. These “tools” have become a part of us, of who we are, and it will be very hard to convince people to give that up for mere ‘access’ to mobility. What’s interesting is that the younger generation are already showing signs that they are not as attached to the idea of car ownership as part of their identity. That role has more or less been taken over by the apps on their smartphone”. There are obviously many advantages, like the freedom of choice that comes with shared and public transportation: most of us own overengineered and over-priced all-purpose cars, while “mobility access” will allow us to select the mode of transportation that is the best match with where we are going and with whom: could be an electric scooter one day and a bus, a shared taxi or a holiday camper the next”. But Tim believes that these clear advantages will not suffice if we want a complete transformation of our mobility conduct.

“The behaviour change we want to see will only stick if we adapt our streets and cities to the SECA trends”, he stated. He pointed out that our cities were originally designed for walking and shared mobility, that we then redesigned them for King Car and that we now need to reintroduce their original state: with more walkable public spaces, less parking as well as bike, transit and carpool lanes, a wider variety of shared services (scooter, bike, car share ) and updated public transportation etc. Cities have made it easier for us to use cars than all the rest of those mobility options. That’s why Tim warned against remodelling entire cities to just one technology, like we did for the automobile.

Cities will need to work with mobility partners on their mobility marketing too. Just like the car brands were able to convince us of the fact that cars are status symbols and a prolongation of our identities, cities will need to grab our attention with good storytelling. “Right now, people don’t feel successful or special if they are riding in a bus to work, while – pretty ironically if you think about it – they do when they are polluting the environment in their huge, almost empty cars. Telling the right story could really turn that around.” He went on to explain why a big reason why we tend to overuse our cars - even for very short drives – is their sunk cost: “when you pay so much money for something, you feel that you need to use it, … a lot.” That’s obviously not the case with shared or on-demand mobility, where people will feel less compelled to use vehicles and might for instance choose a bike.” It will help us shift from one-size fits all to more customized right sized options for the trip”.

But even that evolution from (shared to) individual to shared city design will probably not suffice. Tim told us that the convergence and connection of the SECA-trends would be the real gamechanger. “Right now, there is often too much friction when it comes to their individual use, but imagine how much more appealing the experience will become if our home assistant has access to our agenda, automatically books a train ticket to a certain place, followed by a shared ride to your end-destination when you arrive at the station to go to that movie that your friend invited you – with tickets and popcorn already booked!”.

Of course, another important condition for full adoption would be ubiquity: not every service can be found everywhere. In most cities, there ought to be a lot more shared bike, shared scooter, bus or electric vehicle charging stations. If access is not quick and easy, then people simply won’t buy into what you have to offer. It’s a typical example of the network effect: things become more valuable as they spread and are used more often.

“What a lot of people tend to forget”, ads Tim, “is that a very big part of our mobility taxing system is focussed on individual car ownership”. Just a small example: if people share more (self-driving) cars, bikes or scooters , cities will need less parking spaces and hence, will collect less car parking fees. They might also lose a lot of taxes on gas, if the electric cars start to boom. Cities will clearly need to rethink this traditional tax system for the SECA age. In fact, they will have a lot of rethinking to do, according to Tim, who believes that fast adoption will only happen if we don’t just trust in behaviour change triggered by technology.

“We are also going to see more cities take a proactive role in rethinking their transport system as one connected platform, setting the guard rails and truly partnering with these new emerging mobility companies to meet outcomes that are good for the city”, concludes Tim. “ It has to be done together with clustered mixed land-uses, creating walkable places, managing parking and road traffic for higher efficiency while expanding these shared services citywide. Cities that work on these combined measures will be the leading centres of 21st century creativity and capital as these are the kind of places that the next generation values the most.”

“San Francisco is doing a pretty good job, though”, concludes Tim. “Among other things, it’s doing a fantastic job at managing land-use and parking supply, redesigning streets for more sustainable modes and has more companies testing the self-driving cars. Plus, it has more modes of transportation than any other city. And while it has been struggling of late, it is making some progress working together with emerging mobility start-ups so that it can keep reinventing itself in a way that is better for our citizens, and our environment.”

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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October 4, 2018