01box: on mobility

The last section of Chapter 1, “Personal Mobility: The Freedom to Move” should be understood as a humanistic argument, not a technical one.  My resistance to the word access, and my sense that we still need the word mobility, arise from their connotations, not just from technical meanings assigned to them. 

In any technical discourse — such as the language of an academic study, professional report, or legal document — you can define a word however you want as long as you state that definition.  If you then use the word consistently, you can communicate with others who (a) recognize the discourse as technical and (b) understand the rules of technical discourse, including your right to define a word in a specific way that excludes other connotations the word may have.   

Over time, certain meanings may come to be agreed upon within a technical discourse – such as academic conversations about sustainable transport or urbanism.  The definitions of mobility and access that I present in this section (mobility is how far you can go in a given time, access is what you can do in a given time) are pretty close to accepted at least among sustainability-oriented academics and theorists.  Again, Litman offers a good presentation of them.

Still:  A massive amount of the confusion in transit debates arises from technical discourse being heard by people who can’t be expected to know how the words are defined.  If the word in question has an emotive meaning, that will get in the way of understanding the technical meaning.  For example, as I explore in Chapter 3, the term captive rider is often used in technical discourse to mean a transit passenger who doesn’t have the option of driving.  Technically, you can define a word however you want for the purposes of an argument, but if you start saying “captive rider” to the public, well, it sounds like you’re thinking of these transit customers as prisoners, which is both false (many people without cars will forge other options if transit gets too awful) and risks stimulating lazy thinking even among some professionals (“those people are captives, we don’t have to care what they think”).

When you use a word with strong emotive connotations, like captive, inside a technical discourse, all may be well if you’re only talking to people who understand your technical meaning and know how to set aside emotive connotations.  But anyone hearing or reading your conversation is likely to hear the emotive connotations, and may well perceive them as louder and truer than the technical meaning.

I have this concern about the world mobility, which is the opposite of my concern about captive riderMobility has intensely positive connotations because we also use the word to mean the body’s own degree of freedom – “ease of moving about” is one of the destinations I cited.  Access also has positive connotations but they are more abstract.  Because I want to connect with a broader public, I use the term personal mobility because it describes the sensation of being able to go places.  It refers, quite literally and obviously, to a freedom.  And we have to value freedom. 

My specific resistance to the word access arose out of conversations with streetcar advocates in which they insisted that the redevelopment benefits of streetcars – which would cause housing and destinations to be built closer together and thus reduce total travel demand – constitute an access improvement that compensated for the limitations that the mixed-traffic streetcar has in providing mobility – getting you where you where you’re going.  Considerable urban planning theory is advocating discarding the goal of mobility and replacing it with access.

There is no question that good urban redevelopment improves access  (by putting destinations closer together) and thus reduces the need for travel of any kind.  And there’s no question that this is an ideal outcome for the purposes of sustainability.

But putting access in conflict with mobility – understood as a freedom – creates several problems.

Many technical uses of these terms, including Litman’s, are talking about mobility and access as outputs, results of human behavior, and yes, if access is understood as “getting to something useful” while mobility just means “travelling a distance”, then mobility can turn into useless measures of sheer movement.  If I take the bus to a grocery store three miles from my house, and suddenly another store of the same chain opens a block from me, the transit system will lose a rider, less travel will occur, and yet everything is better from any sustainability perspective. 

But to most ears, mobility isn’t movement as an output.   It’s the sensation of feeling able to move.  To the ordinary ear the opposite of mobility isn’t access, it’s immobility, which means being trapped or locked in place.  Defining mobility as sheer movement is thus a very technical definition that’s likely to be misunderstood outside its technical context.  In particular, to people with an everyday concept of mobility, disparaging mobility can sound like disparaging freedom.

Second, of course, we have a long-term vs. short-term problem.  Redevelopment outcomes of a transit project are longer-term and proceed through several unreliable steps.   Mobility outcomes are immediate.  If you actually reduce mobility in order to build something that you think improves access, you’re impeding the ability of today’s customers (and voters) to get where they’re going.  This can happen, for example, in cases where a functioning transit network (perhaps run by buses) is made less functional by the demands of a new rail project.  Not all rail projects do this, but it happens.  It’s not wrong if everyone involved is aware of this impact, but that’s rarely the case.

Finally, of course, transit deserves to be understood in its own terms, in light of its own purposes.  Treating transit as though its only purpose is to stimulate redevelopment is like treating plumbing as though its only purpose is to sell real estate.  Plumbing has a more immediate purpose, which is to transport a range of liquids safely through a building, making them available as required.  Likewise, transit has an immediate purpose, which is provide personal mobility within a city.   From that purpose follows many benefits – social, environmental, and economic – but we have to respect that these benefits arise from transit doing its own job well.

Transit that doesn’t work in the short term is a big risk for the long term.  And in the short term, we have a city full of people who need to get places now.  These people value their freedom, not just the outputs of their behavior.  They can appreciate the WalkScore travel time map because it is a map of freedom.  We need to be able to talk about that. 

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