Moving people, not cars: The future of mobility and urban life

We need to redefine the movement of people within a city as mobility. Mobility is about keeping people as the only centre and treating their issues of access, equity, sustainability as the core of life and living


R Swaminathan | November 22, 2017

#Urbanisation   #Urban Life   #Quantum Urbanisation   #Urban India   #Rethinking Cities   #Mobility   #Transport  

The recent tragedy at the Elphinstone Road suburban railway overpass in Mumbai is a symptom of a larger and deep-rooted malaise that can directly be traced back to the way we see our city as segments and our extraordinarily transactional relationship with it. The way we see our city is so tightly tautological that the ancient Greeks who are thought to have invented the concept would be justifiably proud of its sophistication and finesse: what is urban defines what is not. That’s our primary viewing glass. In being so, it infects every single imagination and conceptualisation of our urbanity with a lack of nuance that is neither recognised nor acknowledged in adequate measure. This ensures that notions of urbanity can with equal easy occupy the domains of both a trope and a truism. This makes it extremely difficult to talk about our relationship as people with our city except as broad brush stroke descriptions that have a nice sprinkling of elements of truth, like chocolates chips in a cookie, but aren’t the complete truth, like how a chocolate cookie isn’t really chocolate in its truest form. Let’s take daily urban life. It’s a life that we intuitively know cannot be described in a single hue due to its minute variations and multiple numerous layers.

As broad a brush stroke as it is, and can be, it’s not completely inaccurate to describe daily urban life as mostly about getting from point A to point B. The common visual cue that our mind automatically tunes towards to indicate a bustling and robust city is scores of people hurrying either to work or back home on some form of public or private transportation. Yet, urban living is also about spending an inordinate amount of time on roads in buses, cars and two-wheelers while getting from point A to point B. This broad brush stroke is also not completely inaccurate. Our mind frequently uses various visual props from a complex and chaotic melange of choked roads to stressed out and tensed faces staring out of stuck cars and bus windows and helpless two-wheeler drivers inhaling toxic fumes and exhaling frustration in equal measure.

When we think about travelling in a large city there are two sets of images that come to our mind. The first set includes roads chock-a-block with cars, motorbikes and scooters battling for every single inch. Possibly, nowadays such images include bicycles or the newly emerging electric cars for the environmentally minded. The second set of images comprises of unusually crowded buses and trains that are bursting at their seams and groaning under their loads. In both cases, people are passive additives, even if stressed, harried, and battling fellow commuters and pollution at the same time. The complexities of the relationship between travel and a large city are quite simplistically imagined as one of transport and infrastructure. In short, travel and transport are seen as one and the same thing involving moving cars, buses and vehicles of various sizes and shapes. Yet, if one thinks about travel carefully, it is more about moving people than moving cars. So, why isn’t city travel about mobility of people? Well, there’s is a story to it.

Trope, truism and systems thinking

Popular discussions about city life often blur the fine but critical distinction between a trope and a truism. Identifying what is trope and what is truism is an extremely difficult exercise depending on circumstances and context. How the circumstances and context are interpreted depends on our vantage point. Our vantage point is usually our worldview that’s been finely tuned by systems thinking to bucket everything from people to institutions as either systemic, and by default modern, urban and global, or non-systemic, and by default non-modern, non-urban and cultural. It suffices to say that the boundaries of systems thinking, about which I have written at length in some of my previous columns in the series, ensure that we make sense of our cities and give meaning to our daily lives through several sets of binaries.

There are two peculiarities of urban systems thinking – the first a result of the second – that needs to be mentioned here. The first is that systems thinking struggles to deal with people, phenomena, events, social structures and institutions that do not readily and neatly fit into an existing and functioning city system. The second is that systems thinking picks and chooses what is systemic through a parametric process of elimination and exclusion of non-systemic elements to such an extent that while systemic becomes more and more defined, like how a professional body builder attains definition in specific muscle groups, non-systemic becomes an amorphous blob of all sorts of sundry bits that are lumped together. 

Ironically, the process of elimination that underpins the categorisation of systems thinking is similar to the way tropes are built. Let’s take the famed Mumbai stubbornness – khadoos in local lingo – as an example. This stubbornness is closer to a trope if you narrowly and exclusively only account for the ‘never-say-die’ spirit of the city’s residents as something that’s inherently coded into the fabric of urban life. The vantage point of systems thinking places it firmly within the large cultural ethos of the city, something that’s clearly identifiable in a non-systemic manner. In short, the stubbornness of Mumbai as a cultural trope is something that’s readily recognised by systems thinking because it’s amenable to be placed in the non-systemic realm of the systems thinking spectrum as a vaguely familiar cultural characteristic.

Unlike tropes, truisms are more in the nature of a distilled essence squeezed out from a long and organic process of inclusion of all elements of a given situation or a condition. The same famed Mumbai stubbornness is nearer to a truism if you throw in daily social and material complexities into the mix that range from daily wagers having no option but to battle all adversities every single day to earn their minimum wage to keep themselves alive to just two choices of a crowded bus and a more crowded train available to anyone who wants to travel within the city in an affordable manner. As a truism Mumbai’s stubbornness poses an uncomfortable challenge to systems thinking. It comes from the unexpected spotlight shone on the disparate elements – from a hapless daily wager to a choiceless daily traveller – that are theoretically supposed to be part of several functioning urban systems, systemic elements, but for all practical purposes are not so. In order to understand the challenge, we first need to unpack the promise of systems thinking.

Systems thinking and its broken promise

The core promise of systems thinking is threefold: predictability, replicability and choice. The intellectual framework that powers the thought architecture of system thinking is the binary logic. This logic enables an almost fundamentalist and an a priori categorisation of things, people, events, norms, rules and social structures as either ‘systemic’ or ‘non-systemic’. This logic underwrites the automatic assumption that once you ‘systematise’ life and its numerous forms and structures thus, every single aspect of life in its daily manifestation will be predictable, replicable and filled with options that will make people choose whatever is best for them.

In short, encompass everything within the systemic framework and everyone will be taken care of in an equitable, just and sustainable manner. A hapless daily wager or a daily traveller with no choice or predictability goes against the core promise of systems thinking. And, that’s why the challenge is extremely uncomfortable: so much so that systems thinking ends up turning either a partial or a full blind eye to such systemic elements (people) designating them often as a ‘systemic problem’. In categorising people as a ‘systemic problem’ that needs to be solved or resolved, systems thinking ironically ends up in the same domain as several tropes that designate certain groups, communities and people as ‘culturally problematic’.

The more or less similar conclusion that emerges from deploying the carefully architected and seemingly objective intellectual framework of systems thinking and the rough and ready and seemingly subjective tools of a trope is not mere accident. The underlying processes of both share extraordinary commonalities in the way categorisation and exclusion takes place. It’s precisely because of these processes that many generally accepted notions of urbanity have the texture and feel of both a trope and the logic of a system.  

The challenge of global urbanity

One can argue that a trope, truism and the logic of the systems thinking essentially end up more or less on the same ground considering that all the three first essentialise and then tightly compress social complexities into a single layer, much like a biscuit. But that argument survives only for a limited distance before its internal contradictions weigh it down and break it up. A trope, systems thinking and a truism end up in the same arena of essentialism with one major difference. A truism distils its insights into a singularly sharp and popular form through a careful, organic and long process of assimilation of all nuances of a particular situation. This makes a truism unusually robust allowing it standing the test of time, different parameters of logic and rationality – and not just the ones designed by system thinkers – and the numerous cultural changes.

A trope arrives at its equally popular and stereotypical form through a fundamentally different process, one that is neither careful nor long. As we have seen, the twin processes of careful exclusion and selective amplification that goes into making a trope has more in common with systems thinking than the organic process of necessary inclusion and equal amplification of a truism. Trope is created through a process that picks and amplifies certain characteristics of a given social group or a situation transforming them into such key determinants that the other characteristics are either subdued drastically or completely eliminated. This does make a trope unusually robust, but in a manner of a viral strain that just refuses to leave the body long after an infection has subsided. Tropes range from certain religious groups multiplying more rapidly than others to certain communities being inherently lazy and less deserving to slums in a city as eyesores and nothing more.

Particularly difficult and challenging for systems thinking, as also for tropes, are dimensions of urbanity that are global in nature but have an increasingly deep-rooted local play. Such dimensions are extraordinarily flexible and malleable. Over time they acquire ‘near material’ characteristics allowing them to be used as a fabric to clothe and cloak all other forms and variations of urbanity. In clothing urban spaces thus, notions of what should be necessary for the conduct of daily urbanity gets solidified and standardised. This standardisation is fundamentally informed by global flows of ideas, architecture, capital and narratives acquiring a form that transcends geographies and locations. All of us routinely accept it as minimum acceptable global standards for daily urbanity. All of this isn’t as abstract as it sounds: just recall much we define daily urban life by travel and how much of how we travel is defined by global standards of time, infrastructure, efficiency and economic effectiveness. 

Mobility as a truism and limits of systems thinking

This is where we get back to the question of why travel is about transport, infrastructure and global standards of urbanity, and not as much about mobility of people, access, equity and flexibility of options and choices. Travel and transport economics is unidimensional to the extent of being infrastructural. It does, at the end of it all, make it all about buses, trains, taxis, autos and about roads, rail lines, platforms, stations and parking bays. Mobility complicates this neat packet by making infrastructure secondary to the predominant requirements of social, political and cultural factors. In short, mobility, at the end of it all, makes it all about people, access, equity and local and hyperlocal needs of the community, which are often about customisation, personalisation and ease of access rather than about instruments and its instrumentalities.

The core promise of systems thinking – of predictability, reliability and choice – is predicated on scale. Within the framework of systems thinking, scale cannot be achieved unless a certain size is achieved. Size then becomes a function of volume (mass), expansion (reach) and price (cost). All the three cannot be married successfully to each other unless the full extent of the possibilities of a particular service or a product, which is the necessary bedrock for equity, inclusion and access, is not narrowed down considerably. This process of narrowing down is achieved by a combination of standards, policies, regulations, norms and through the tools of urban planning that range from zoning to setting the rules for land use patterns. Once narrowed down, in many cases to a bare minimum, the flexibility of a particular product or a service, as also the attendant complexities, is reduced by a very large extent making it possible to create the right volume for appropriate reach at the right price point: the critical requirement for achieving scale.

This model of scale and size, deeply informed by systems thinking, is called transport economics. In real terms, if one ever wondered about absolutely basic things like why railway platforms and staircases are not friendlier for people with disabilities or why don’t pregnant women get ergonomically designed seats in buses and trains, the answer lies in the way systems thinking architects scale, size and price points: disabled people and pregnant women are just not ‘mass enough’. For systems thinking to be truly successful in the global sense of the term and with acceptable international standards, every single aspect connected to a particular product or service – the value chain – needs to be ‘systemised’ within the context of a global urbanity.

The best way to understand this is to contrast the Delhi metro with the Mumbai suburban system. The Delhi metro rail system is the pinnacle of global systems thinking for mass rapid transportation within the Indian context simply because every single aspect of its value chain – from station design, feeder services to the actual train system – has been systematised as per a global blueprint.

The key to Delhi metro’s success is the way transport and travel have been seen from the point of view of mobility of people in an accessible and comfortable manner. It must be noted that even in the case of Delhi, mobility is primarily seen as movement of people rather than one of choice, equity or access.

The Mumbai suburban train system, in contrast, is about providing bare minimum infrastructure, maintaining legacy systems and about converting the promise of rapid and mass transportation into bulk travel under any circumstances and conditions, even at the cost of life, limb and property. Even at its best, with the entire value chain systemised effectively and efficiently, there are limits to scale, size and reach. To illustrate this point, let’s take the example of Singapore. As a city state, Singapore is systems thinking at its best. Such is the belief of its policymakers in systems thinking that they have been redesigning the city for the last 40 years to make every single unit of space within the city a design interface, much like the iPhone, to make it intuitively navigable and discoverable.

Last month the policymakers decided that from February 2018, in another two and a half months, they would stop the sale of any new car in Singapore. That’s a big move indicating that for all its promise systems thinking is reaching its end, its absolute limits. Even for all their faith in systems thinking, there was nothing that they could do to accommodate more cars. The city is going to end up spending over $25 billion in the next five years to increase the density of its already dense and excellent public transportation system. It’s a network that Indian cities want to adopt and replicate without realising that in order to do so each Indian city must tear itself down and rebuild itself from scratch as Singapore did over 40 years ago, and then keep adding newer and newer design interfaces on top all the time. Singapore does to itself what an Apple or a Samsung does to its flagship smartphones: keep improving and unveiling new versions. But even here, the city planners are all but admitting that this might be last big public infrastructure investment that they can afford to pour in pursuit of traditional notions of scale, size and reach. In short, Singapore is admitting that it is time for them to abandon old ways of thinking and actively start looking out for newer ways of urban life and living.

The green shoots of quantum urbanism and the new promise

There are two relevant questions. The criticism against systems thinking can only hold if there are emerging alternatives. So, is there an alternative way to look at mobility in its truest and fullest possibility? And, again, can we ever move away from the pressures and pulls of transport economics, focus on hard infrastructure and absolutely bare minimum price points? There are three emerging shoots of quantum urbanism, which if taken together pencil the way forward by which one can move away from systems thinking and transport economics and everything else associated with it. Each has a promise of sustainability and resilience embedded within it.

The first is the move towards clean fuels and clean energy systems. It’s only a matter of time before the combined effect of reducing cost of solar energy, rapidly improving battery storage technology and increasing sophistication of micro hydel and wind projects of electricity generation bring about a fundamental change in the way our transport systems are going to be powered. The best bet for sustainability and resilience within this troika comes from the potential of each of these technologies, in isolation and together, to democratise generation, access and distribution of power to people, groups and communities. In short, there is a real possibility to turn power into the new data pack allowing for new business models to emerge that are similar in nature and scope to the mobile broadband ‘pay-as-you-go’ models. This can free up people from the overarching grip of systems, institutions and its sub-par services.

The second is climate change and its debilitating effect. Environment isn’t an abstract and a distant concept anymore. The Delhi smog is an almost daily reminder about how disempowered people have become in the last 60 years to control their immediate surroundings. A Delhi resident is today helpless to prevent himself and his loved ones from inhaling the toxic air on a daily basis.

Climate change is a great leveller, as the Delhi haze so starkly demonstrates, impacting people irrespective of their social status, economic position or their cultural standing. The old ways of establishing scale and size cannot be sustained anymore, whether it’s housing, transportation or the provision of civic services and utilities. This dawning realisation is already resulting in move towards localisation and hyperlocalisation. There is an increased emphasis and premium placed on source and destination, and it’s a trend that’s bound to start impacting mobility. The greatest set of promises – car pooling and work from home are two such promises – will come from locality level innovations around mobility, access, equity and sustainability.
The third is the changing nature of economy and work. The new economy in urban areas is increasingly disaggregated and, as I written before in my column on work, getting ‘uberised’. It’s both a challenge and a promise. The challenge is about skilling for the new economy, dealing with the lack of traditional security and the availability of broad-based and wide ranging social safety net. This would require a radically different thought process that will have to keep platform and design thinking as the core enabling factor for designing a new overarching ecosystem of safety for the gig and contract economy to sustain and proliferate. The big promise from the increasing ‘ubersation’ of work and economy is its fundamental disconnection with the transport system. In short, people will have greater autonomy on their movement choosing when to travel, how to travel and what to travel for. This will have a direct bearing on everything from peak hour traffic to carbon emissions.

The emerging quantum urbanism brings forth the truism that mobility is not just a question of movement, but also an issue of equity, access and ability to engage with different kinds of urban spaces and urban conditions with dignity and self-respect. It also brings to the fore the reality that cities were once considered to be a place where people from all parts of the country and the world could come to truly get a chance to become socially, politically and culturally mobile. To consider mobility reductively as transport and travel and link it predominantly to reaching office on time and doing business efficiently is to reduce people to mere numbers and additive elements. In doing so, we lose our humanity and that’s something that we cannot afford to lose because if we lose it we will lose the planet as well.

Next: Beyond electricity and the city: Energy as a fundamental right

Swaminathan is visiting research fellow at Uppsala University Sweden where is part of the project ‘Future Urbanisms’. He is also research director of the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP), Ashoka University.

(The article appears in the November 30, 2017 issue)



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