Driven by people

by Rob Raven

In a world of 7 billion people there are slightly more than 1 billion cars. Although the number of cars is growing rapidly, especially in China, so is the number of people. This implies that the car is not the primary mode of transport for the majority of people on earth. Yet these people also travel. They go on by foot, cycles, rickshaws, motorcycles, taxi-vans, busses and the like. Whoever has travelled to world-class cities in Asia or South-America has experienced these eco-systems of mobility. And they come in large numbers. In Bangkok alone, the number of motorcycle taxies equals the number of cabs in the entire United States.

Yet whenever we think of smart mobility we tend to think of optimising the car. Cleaner fuels and higher efficiency engines will make our cars pollute less. New, lighter materials will make the car of the future even more fuel efficient while maintaining high safety standards. ICT-enriched cars will dissolve our traffic-jams and enable a seamless integration of the car with other mobility options. In the future we do not even need a driver anymore, if we are to believe Google and the like.

Important as they are, they will only provide smart mobility options for a few. The majority of travelers worldwide have no access to cars nor will they gain access in the near or far future, let alone that they will drive ‘our’ cleaner, smarter car of the future. Yet they also experience the problems of cluttered cities, produce greenhouse gasses, get killed in accidents… and innovate.

NWO-WOTRO funded research at the School of Innovation Sciences, in collaboration with the Institute for Environmental studies (IVM), Chiang Mai University and Jadavpur University, suggests that substantial innovation efforts are going on in more ‘traditional’ or ‘informal’ modes of mobility too. These are mobility modes that are mostly operated and/or used by the poor. The range is wide and includes innovations such as electric tuk-tuks, rickshaws running on compressed natural gas, smart meters for motor-cycle taxis, bus rapid transit systems and new ICT-enabled business models for informal transport.

These innovations are driven by people. NGO’s who seek ways of improving the lives of the poor. Engaged academics who want to apply their knowledge and expertise. Social entrepreneurs who see business opportunities while trying to solve social problems. Politicians who want to secure votes from the poor. Civil servants who try to get a grip at ever expanding numbers of urban dwellers and growing mobility demand. And last but not least poor people themselves who use whatever is at hand to improve their modes of transportation. Diverse as they are, what these people share is that they work on the future of mobility for a majority of people mostly ignored in formal, mainstream innovation efforts.

This evidence suggests that the traditional development and innovation literature in which technology is first developed in the West, sold to the developing world, after which these countries ‘catch-up’, is not always right. Research shows how many of these innovation efforts are internationally embedded through formal and informal networks. These connections enable the circulation of knowledge, finance, people, institutions and innovations in multiple directions. Bus-rapid-transit systems, supported by German consultants, have been pioneered in South America and travelled to Asia. Entrepreneurs in Bangkok envision motorcycle taxis as an important linking pin in the future US mobility system. Tuk-Tuks are driving the streets of Amsterdam. A key question is how this innovative potential can be harnessed and put to use in the development of alternative, more sustainable pathways of mobility systems in both the developing and developed world.

This research also reminds us of how innovative efforts for the future of mobility systems are highly political. Elites in power are often not very happy with informal modes of transport. In their view, they stand in the way of propelling their cities into modernity through car motorization and superhighways. But informal transport provides one of the few job opportunities for the many poor and marginalized moving into cities to find a livelihood. Simply doing away with them would not be very sustainable, at least not from a social perspective. It reminds us that transitions in mobility (as well as in other systems) are never neutral. In the end there are trade-offs to be made between ecological, economic and social aspects, which ultimately creates both winners and losers. A key question is who decides over those trade-offs. How can sustainability assessments of future mobility systems be organised in more inclusive ways so as to respond to preferences and views of diverse groups in societies?