Competing Mobility Futures

It is easy to walk around major cities in the United States and observe a revolution in personal mobility. Electric cars are still the exception, rather than the norm, but charging stations are more common in public spaces. There are more bicycles and bike lanes. Scooters whiz by pedestrians, and often get in their way too. Many trips start from a phone: people can hail rides or rent a car, they can navigate through traffic, and they can find whether the bus, the metro, or a car will be faster—all from their fingertips. Few people ask for directions or look perplexed trying to make sense of handheld maps. And the occasional self-driving car might make an appearance—an omen of what is to come.

How should we think systematically about these changes? And how will they impact our energy system and the climate? One observer grouped the disruption in the automotive sector thus: “[From] combustion engines to electric drive . . . from human-driven vehicles to self-driving automobiles [and] from ownership to shared mobility or mobility-as-a-service.” Yet even this all-encompassing perspective leaves much out—like the revolution in urban planning, driven by an effort to redesign cities and public spaces around humans rather than cars.

It might be helpful, therefore, to think of our mobility future along two axes. One axis ranges from individual to shared travel, measuring the space taken up by movement: do people only carry themselves (walking), or do they use a small device (scooter, bike); do they share space with others (bus, metro, or carpool), or do they move largely alone in metal tubes (car). The other axis is technology: the continuum ranges from autonomous vehicles, optimized in real-time by artificial intelligence, to (improved) electric cars that largely resemble today’s automobiles, to more fuel-efficient cars that still run on gasoline, to a future enabled by redesigned cities that rely on existing technology but prioritize lanes for buses and bikes and that provide ample public spaces without cars.

There is good reason for thinking about mobility in these terms. First, it helps to underscore that the forces reshaping mobility are not leading us toward one possible future but many. Second, energy and climate policies are increasingly being used to tackle social challenges like economic opportunity and inequality, poverty, and public health; different mobility models will impact our progress on these goals. And third, policymakers increasingly view the energy transition through the lens of economic competitiveness and industrial primacy; in simple terms, if one can redesign a city that does not rely heavily on cars, how crucial is the race to build the car of the future?

Four Possible Futures

These two axes offer glimpses into four possible mobility futures. Individual travel and current tech are where the United States is today: high reliance on private cars leveraging technology that has existed for decades. One possible evolution would be from this status quo toward newer technology—internal combustion engines gradually being replaced by electric cars. Such a shift will require additional infrastructure, but it is possible to see this future without a massive shift in the layout of cities and how people move around. One’s daily routine can easily look the same as it does now except that cars are powered by electricity rather than petroleum.

Another possible future is to move along both axes: higher technology and toward shared travel. This is largely the future envisioned by the mobility-as-a-service crowd. For the user, the experience can vary depending on the optimization challenges of the day. Today it might be a driverless single-occupancy vehicle connecting to a minibus, and then a subway. Tomorrow a user might carpool all the way to work. The idea is to build a multimodal system that can respond to any need quickly, flexibly, and cheaply. That city layout might shift somewhat—depending on parking—but the major change will be in how people move around.

A final outcome is toward shared travel but with no major change in tech: a redesigned city with public space devoted to people rather than cars. There is little parking on the streets, and people move largely on foot, bikes, buses and trains. That city is likely denser—you cannot move away from private cars if everyone lives on their own plot of land away from one another. Zoning is also mixed-use, eschewing the separation between residential and commercial functions that create a need to shuttle endlessly between the two. And, ideally, there is plenty of open, public space—for people to walk, sit, and bump into each other and form deeper bonds with their neighbors and strangers.

What’s the End Goal?

Different energy pathways solve different problems. For instance, moving a coal-fired power plant away from the city might improve local air quality for city dwellers, but it does not reduce carbon dioxide emissions or alleviate any of the ancillary environmental and health side effects associated with the entire coal value chain. This is a path that solves one problem but not others. A similar attitude towards transportation will help us understand what problems we are solving and what not.

A move along a high-tech future, but without shared travel, can be achieved by replacing the internal combustion engine with electric cars. The environmental benefits of this shift can be huge especially if the electricity is generated using low-carbon sources. (The lowest-hanging fruit, of course, for both climate and local air pollution would be for U.S. residents to shift to more efficient cars even if they are powered by oil.) And the batteries in the car can help enable a greater penetration of renewable energy in the grid by providing storage (although where those batteries come from and whey go after they used will matter too). Even so, most of the negative side effects of car dependence remain: traffic jams and fatalities, long commutes, and urban sprawl that harms public health and our quality of life more broadly. And since the spatial setup of cities and suburbs reinforces other societal ills—like inequality and social exclusion—a shift to electric vehicles would be a missed opportunity to reconfigure cities to address some of these problems.

A move to pooled travel powered by high-tech could play out in different ways—each with distinct impacts on public space, energy use, the environment, and user interface. Given the novelty of these changes, we are still learning how innovations will affect outcomes. But a few observations are possible even today. Fully autonomous vehicles, Level 5 in the industry’s lingo, are generally understood to be far away—and several experts think they might never come. They are likely beyond the timetable for urgent action required to combat climate change (the next 20 years), even though they are probably essential to make these mobility solutions commercially viable. So this scenario, in full mode, might be possible in terms of mobility but not a real solution to the more pressing need of addressing our common environmental challenge.

It is also fair to say that societies have yet to fully grapple with the social impacts of a move to a high-tech transportation future enabled by shared, autonomous vehicles. The positive side effects are well understood: commuting time devoted to productive uses; safer travel; more access to transportation services; less need for parking spaces if cars are shared among many users and continue to travel; and more vehicle-miles traveled and hence faster fleet turnover, leading to rapid changes in fuel economy and adoption of new tech.

But there are downsides too in a society that continues to move in cars and, likely, bombarded by advertisements; where travel requires an extensive ecosystem of data collection, with major impacts for privacy; where cheap transport reinforces urban sprawl and hence leads to more isolation and less physical activity, harming public and mental health; and where the existing physical layout of cities is largely maintained, rather than reshaped to foster integration and greater access to opportunity.

Perhaps the biggest downside in a future with self-driving vehicles will be their interactions with humans. People will discover that they can force cars to stop by merely stepping on a road; soon enough, to ensure safety, it will be necessary to separate the people from the machines. If history is any guide, the machines will get much of the space, and their seamless movement will take priority over the movement of people on foot or bikes. The U.S. landscape will become even more unwalkable than it is today. Public health and vitality will inevitably suffer.

A move to shared travel using existing tech offers the prospects of yet another future. The tech is not necessarily low—bike-sharing, for instance, depends on mobile phones and apps. But the technology needed is all available. These cities are built around public space devoted to people rather than cars—which will require political will to reallocate space from one to the other. These cities will also require new zoning rules to support density—which will require upending spatial patterns that have persisted for decades and which have formed the foundation for racial and economic segregation as well as wealth accumulation (through housing).

The likely benefits of this future are well understood, which is why many European cities are pursuing urban strategies that repurpose space from cars toward humans or non-car transport. This is still a niche approach but one being tried, in different forms and with varying degrees of ambition, in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Brussels, Dublin, Ljubljana, Madrid, Oslo, Paris, Stockholm, and others. A few cities, like Paris, are even trying to reimagine public spaces with more green in them. The motivations behind these approaches are straightforward; as one public health expert put it:

Urban green space and usage of green space in urban settings is consistently associated with health and well-being. Exposure to a green environment has been associated with lower socioeconomic inequities in health and positive health outcomes. Exposure to urban green space is positively associated with cognitive function and development including attention and memory, improved mood or emotion, and physical activity, and it is negatively linked to mortality, heart rate, and violence or urban crime.

Perhaps the biggest barrier for this future world is economics. There is probably less money to be made in rearranging public space than in building and selling cars, and businesses and citizens often resist initiatives that replace cars with pedestrian spaces despite evidence that sales and pleasure ultimately rise (as happened in Madrid or Barcelona). It is a future centered on public health and quality of life, which are not easy to see in economic statistics that measure either building things or selling services. Yet it is also the future most likely to deliver not only on narrow environmental grounds but also on broader social objectives: denser cities that are less likely to suffer from housing shortages, improved public health driven by greater physical activity, less social isolation due to urban sprawl, less segregation by using zoning policies that stop reinforcing separations along income or race, and more opportunities for interactions that lead to pleasure and creativity—and all with just a change in direction rather than any breakthroughs in technologies or business models.

Which of these mobility futures prevails is anyone’s guess. Likely, our mobility future will feature elements of all these possible directions. There is a lot of money being bet on electric vehicles and on the supply chains to make those vehicles possible; there is also a lot of money directed to devise new business models that can deliver mobility as a service. And there is an urban planning revolution that tries to reclaim public space and put human beings at the center of what cities are about. At the very least, it is essential to understand that there is not one mobility revolution taking place but many and that combating climate can be done in conjunction or in isolation with tacking some of the biggest economic, political, and social challenges of our day. In the end, we can either solve mobility in a narrow sense—change how people move around, or we can use the opportunity to reimagine cities away from cars and toward people—to help them not just move around more seamlessly but also form meaningful connections with each other in spaces that are healthier, more inclusive, and more enjoyable to live in.

Nikos Tsafos is a senior fellow with the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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