More and more people are moving to cities, overwhelming our transportation systems. Predictions estimate that by 2030 up to 90% of the UK population will live in cities and urban areas. I live in the center of London, and as with any great city, mobility is key to personal and economic well being. Yet over a third of all car journeys in London are under 1.5 miles, and well over half of those journeys are as a single occupant in the car. In Midtown Manhattan, the average speed of traffic is often 4 mph or less. We are stuck in gridlock while the earth chokes on our exhaust.

Mobility is a need, but it’s not a right. We are privileged to be able to travel around our cities and our planet the way we do — but we will soon lose that privilege if we don’t start designing more innovative, efficient, and sustainable ways to do so. Innovation in urban mobility is needed now more than ever. Can we use any of the learnings that have been forced upon us by a global pandemic to adapt and change for the long term in how we travel?

Why now? Pandemic has given us reason to pause and rethink

The lockdown has increased demand for bicycles, scooters, and skateboards, and that demand is not likely to fall soon. As we come out of lockdown, many of us will be much more uncomfortable in crowded spaces and look to find and embrace new solutions. Many cities are devising “Corona Cycleways” — informal but official bike routes made with traffic cones and simple road graphics — in an effort to offer an alternative to crowded public transport or private car gridlock. While this may seem to be a short-term solution to an immediate problem, we can also see it as an iterative step toward better systems of urban mobility. New York, Brussels, Milan, and Paris have all announced plans to invest in new bicycle lanes that will continue to benefit society far after the pandemic has ended. In our efforts to practice social distancing, could COVID-19 actually help us design more human, and planet-centered, urban mobility systems?

What might the future of urban mobility look like?

Imagine if city traffic (remember what that looked like before lockdown?) could move with the grace of a flock of birds in a murmuration. Imagine if using existing technology in new and novel ways not only helped us move but prioritized travel that kept us healthier and safer than before.

Imagine if access, not ownership, was the norm for all modes of transportation. Imagine if sideways and pavements were divided dynamically, at the right times and in the right way, so there were more alternatives for short-distance travel (scooters, bikes, public transport) and more safety for those without cars.

The city authorities and brands that will succeed and become widely adopted in this space will need to answer four fundamental questions: Is a new solution desirable, and do people really need it, or will it be a fad? Is it feasible through technology, now or in the near future? Is it viable as an economically sound business? And ultimately, is it sustainable and beneficial to the planet?

The city of Helsinki is planning to totally transform its road network and public spaces by 2050, and to go against conventional wisdom changing the priority of how people move around to walking, biking, public transport, goods and deliveries, and lastly cars. How revolutionary this feels compared to the way roads are used in most other global capitals today.

How do we get there? System thinking: A transport ecosystem

I wonder which city or government will lead the way in urban mobility? Who will be first to implement an open data platform, tracking the movement of every vehicle in the city, and sharing that information for the benefit of all? While some may raise privacy concerns, shared (anonymous) data is critical if we are to rethink urban mobility from a systems point of view. We need to understand where all the moving parts are in order to model new ways they might work in sync. Governments, local authorities, and individual companies need to be as open as possible with their sources and data and to collectively figure out how to knit all of the multiple moving parts together as one living transport ecosystem.

Ford Mobility states that data is one of the most crucial drivers for advancing urban mobility innovations and for collectively planning our future cities. “It is the invisible infrastructure behind new possibilities. It is central to helping cities reduce congestion, improve road safety, and help mitigate traffic challenges.”

Data is simply information. How we gather it, respecting individuals’ privacy, and then what we do with that information, how we shape it into knowledge and policy and infrastructure, is more complex. How might design and technology play a role in enabling greater public safety, as even more types of vehicles jostle for space on our roads? The list of data-driven benefits seems obvious in terms of congestion, speeding, transport availability, safety, and pollution. Could a solution be to mandate and fit every vehicle, large or small, private or public, motor, electric, pedal, with a GPS tracker? And allow this data to be accessible and open source, giving multiple businesses a rich and live information source to build new products and services upon? Even including the movement of individuals on foot.

The more data we have, the more technology can have an impact on how we move. And it’s up to design to make sure that impact is a positive one. Our job is to deeply understand human needs and pain points around mobility through multiple types of research such as observation, surveys, diary studies, and data. And then to synthesize, cross reference, and test possible solutions, rapidly learning what works best as we go. Designers, working together with city planners, climate scientists, and technologists, can make sure we enjoy the privilege of seamless urban mobility, without sacrificing safety or the planet.

Finally, human-centered design means planet-centered design.

Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying “If you ask people what they want, they’ll say ‘a faster horse.’” If you asked that question to the public before the pandemic, the response would likely have been a faster car. An interesting challenge, now, is how to take a human-centered approach to design future products and services that won’t be dumbed down by a population with an ingrained mindset and convention of car ownership.

Maybe the big question to consider, as a final point, is around responsibility. We all enjoy moving around, be that in our cities or indeed on longer journeys. Lockdown is a chance for us to re-think and evaluate how privileged we are to do so and that as we begin to lift the restrictions we are currently under, how could we take more personal responsibility for our travel choices. Will we use our own leg power more? Could we fly or drive less? Would we be prepared to pay more to genuinely offset our carbon footprint? And could we, through technology, find more ways to not actually travel in the first place. It’s our responsibility to change and to not blindly continue with destructive habits that have become ingrained.

Edited by Erin Peace.
Illustrations in this article are by Macrovector & Hector Pottie.