Transportation Is A Public Good

We value cars because we value our autonomy: To travel at a time and in a manner of our choice. For future mobility concepts, this poses a significant challenge: Can we expand the grid of public transportation without the straightjacket of bus schedules and crowded trains?

If we want to sustain our open and democratic society, the traffic of persons and goods cannot suddenly decline. Political and social participation requires an agile mind – and the ability exercise physical mobility as well. In the context of traffic management, this implies the desire to move at the time of our choosing, in a vehicle of our choice.

Two problems arise from this: The lack of space, and the lack of available resources. In 2011, ninety percent of all human movement and all transportation of goods were sustained by fossil fuels. Globally, traffic accounted for 25 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. This share can be expected to rise significantly in the coming years. We are thus faced with a complex and complicated question: How can we commit ourselves to democratic societies and individualism while also meeting the required sustainability goals? Especially in cities, we must not shy away from answers. Are we ready for the future?

The first response: Do we really need private cars? It is certainly unrealistic to assume that public transportation will become the single mainstay of our transport system. But as long as private cars dominate traffic in the cities, sustainable urban planning remains impossible. Hence it might make sense to entertain the idea of a public transport infrastructure that is significantly more expansive than the system we have today. Transportation could become a collective good, to be used by everyone at certain times under certain conditions. It does not matter too much whether such a system is based on buses, trains, cars or bicycles: All are part of a new and collective traffic infrastructure. Compared to this option, private car ownership seems like an increasingly anachronistic concept.

Will such an idea become popular? Demographic change might provide us with some answers to this question. Already, young people have abandoned the idea that one’s social status is intimately connected to car ownership. Car brands or horsepower are becoming less important for a growing number of people. Today, iPhone, iPad, clothes and travels have become better means of social differentiation. We still want to travel independently, but no longer require a private car to do so.

This is true not only in Europe, but also in the large North American cities and even in Beijing or Shanghai. With the rise of the internet, a global culture has begun to emerge and has quickly yielded new convergent life styles. Our definition of mobility is changing accordingly. Independence cannot be defined in the terms employed by our parent generation, who relied on car ownership to buy cigarettes around the corner, or to travel to Italy for the annual summer vacation.

Increasingly, the idea of mobility encompasses a great variety of transportation systems and the quick change of vehicles – from buses to bicycles, from bicycles to shared cars, and so on. The most appropriate means of transportation becomes dependent on the context within which it is used. And rather than focusing on individual vehicles, the focus shifts to questions of access. Here, too, the rise of digital technology promises radical changes. Instead of driving around in a Mercedes or Porsche, we use smartphones and digital apps to plug into the infrastructural grid. Paris and London are two cities where we can already observe these trends: Traffic is increasingly seen as a collective good.

Read more in this debate: Karolina Golimowska, Joseph Hammond, Felix Creutzig.


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