“New Mobility”: Drowning in a Sea of Meaningless Words

I’m in the World Bank’s generally excellent Transforming Transportation conference in Washington DC.  The theme is “New Mobility.”  In the first panel, I found myself agreeing with almost everything the panel said, to the extent that I could understand it.

The limit to my understanding was the use of meaningless words: new mobility, micromobility, sharing.  

These words each have too many meanings, which is the same as having none.  That is a good sign that they have arisen from the language of sales.  Selling a product requires exaggerating its relevance.  If a word makes people feel good, the marketer will try to figure out how to extend the word to cover her product.

All three of these words feel good:  New mobility sounds cutting-edge.  Micromobility sounds intimate, maybe even cute the way little things are.  Sharing — well, we all think toddlers should learn to share.

But on this morning’s panel I heard all three words used with apparently conflicting meanings.

  • Sharing was used sometime to mean “sharing of rides” (different people with different purposes riding in same vehicle at the same time, as in public transit), but also to mean “sharing the vehicle” as in bikeshare and carshare.   (There’s also sharing of infrastructure: Motorists are expected to “share the road.”)  These are different concepts with different uses and consequences.  When the moderator polled us all on what words we associate “new mobility,” the top answer, of course, was “shared.”  The more meanings a word has, the more popular it will be, which in turn means it will give more people that warm buzz that comes from being surrounded by people who (seem to) agree with them.  That’s the mechanism by which words grow both popular and meaningless.
  • Micromobility is often used to mean “person sized vehicles” — bikes, scooters, and other things that let someone move faster than they can walk without taking much more space than their body does.  But when the Mayor of Quito was asked about it, his answer seemed to include microtransit, which is an utterly different thing.  I suggest “person sized vehicles,” (PSV)  It’s five syllables instead of six, and it actually says what it means.
  • New mobility says nothing but that it’s mobility and its new.  New things have absolutely nothing else in common, so why is this a meaningful category?  Only if you want to appeal to the common prejudice that all new ideas are better than all old ideas, which we all know to be nonsense.  After all, most innovations fail.

I’ll talk about this on a panel this afternoon.  If we are going to think clearly, we have to use words that mean, not words that sell.  

Meanwhile, if you hear one of these words, or any other word that seems to used in multiple ways, ask for a definition.  You have a right to that.  Only then are you actually thinking together.


13 Responses to “New Mobility”: Drowning in a Sea of Meaningless Words

  1. Sam Kling January 17, 2019 at 12:21 pm #

    Some sorely needed thoughtfulness. Thank you.

  2. Fbfree January 17, 2019 at 6:25 pm #

    In the style of https://xkcd.com/208/,

    Is it a pitch,
    Is it a shared construction,

    No, it’s … …

    a roof?

    Definition to the rescue!

  3. Paul Kidd January 17, 2019 at 7:45 pm #

    As an Australian I have a possibly parochial preference for our term “public transport” over the American “mass transit”, which seems to accentuate an impersonal herding of people rather than the essentially social nature of using a single vehicle for many people. But that’s probably an aesthetic opinion rather than anything to do with clarity. Carry on.

    • Kenny Easwaran January 18, 2019 at 12:45 pm #

      This is one where I actually have the opposite preference. “Public transportation” is transportation that is owned by the public, while “mass transit” is transit that can carry many people at once. “Public transportation” seems like it would include government-run taxis, while “mass transit” includes privately-operated streetcars and subways. It seems to me that the “mass” aspect is more important than the “public” aspect (though both are relevant for different discussions).

      • Paul Kidd January 20, 2019 at 5:11 pm #

        I don’t think “public” necessarily implies public ownership, it means available to the public. Just as a “pub” (public hotel) is a hotel available to the general public as opposed to a private dwelling or club.

    • Mike January 20, 2019 at 10:42 pm #

      To me they’re different things. “Public transit” focuses on open access (open to everybody who pays the fare), while “mass transit” focuses on moving many people in few vehicles (bus-sized or larger). If a city has $2 taxis I’d call that public transit but not mass transit. Likewise, airlines perform a transit-like function in both senses. Carshares I have more trouble with because they require a smartphone, only the affluent can afford the fares regularly, and each one transports only a couple people. (You can say airlines are for the affluent too, but working-class people can scrape together a once-a-year 500-mile ticket, and most people don’t need to fly every day.)

      The additional connotations come from their history and their role in society. In the US most 19th-century streetcar and subway networks were private. They failed for several reasons and the government took them over, and then the government launched bus networks. Nowadays it’s assumed that a universal (omibus) network requires government subsidies — it can’t both turn a profit and be universal. Uber et al aren’t universal; they’re like what a private post office would be or internet service providers are. So in the people’s mind, “public transit” and “government transit” are synonomous, because private universal transit is unrealistic, and the only other alternative is the uncommon privately-operated-but-publicly-subsidized network.

  4. Rob F January 17, 2019 at 9:49 pm #

    Lots of concepts with no objectives.

    Lots of disruption, pretending that disruption is a good thing in itself. It’s defined as throwing into disorder, and it’s characterized by bad impacts on the disruptee. We like disruption if it’s caused by something with sufficient *value*, like mobile computing, that brings benefits that may be worth the side effects (though we will spend the rest of our lives trying to mitigate them, as the last generation did for the disruptor of its time: the car and urban freeway.) Requiring value is tied to having objectives, but it seems we’re more in love with the disruption than the value.

    My sense is that most disruptive investments are about concentrating cash flows that are now locally collected and diverse, instead to flow to global enterprises and transfer wealth to the world’s richest oligarchs. So my test is whether there’s an objective tied to value. If not, it’s time to regulate to better align with the public good.

  5. Paul Wessel January 18, 2019 at 6:11 am #

    Since hearing your rap yesterday, every time someone mentions “new mobility” here at TT, I have to laugh.

  6. LG January 19, 2019 at 10:38 am #

    The World Bank for the past fifty years has consistently pushed privatization as a panacea for all problems. Its advice is always to deregulate, privatize, and liquidate core social services such as education, healthcare, and transportation. Even though every advanced economy became advanced through massive public investment into these services. And consequently there is a strong correlation between how well a country follows the World Bank’s advice, and how much misery its population endures and how much of a basket-case its economy becomes.

    So when the World Bank pushes for “sharing”, “micromobility”, and “new mobility”, we should keep in mind that it’s done with the agenda of pushing privatization, usually for the sake of privatization, and without regard for real-world consequences for the public.

  7. Paulo Ferreira dos Santos January 23, 2019 at 1:30 pm #

    I regularly follow your posts and agree with most of your opinion, like happens with most of this your last post. However, I think that your statement “after all, most innovations fail” is speculative and could fit on the statement you wrote immeditely before with a small change from my responsibility “if you want to appeal to the common prejudice that all [old ] ideas are better than all [new] ideas, which we all know to be nonsense”. Is equally a nonsense to classify ideas as good or bad just because they are new or old. As well, I think one can’t assure that most innovations fail or succeed. For example, I believe that most innovations suceed, as instead we would not be communicating so fast, through the internet, with you in the US and me in Portugal.

  8. Adam February 12, 2019 at 1:49 am #

    A contender for meaningless word of the day in New Zealand might be “MAAS” or Mobility As A Service. No one seems to be able to explain to me what this actually is. The best I can determine is that it is a website or app providing info, and maybe allowing bookings, for different modes or types of transport service from one place … or maybe we should just call it Trivago for transport.

  9. Hans Van Hoof March 6, 2019 at 10:05 pm #

    I often make similar objections. necause it’s the same here in Flanders, Belgium, Europe.
    All terms are sometimes grouped in “distruptive mobility”.
    And all are thougt to be magic, as if they would not be susceptible to human behaviour, such as constant average travel times, greed and the tragedy of the commons.

  10. Dewisundari December 15, 2019 at 11:16 pm #

    I myself come from Indonesia, and in my country public transportation is needed. Where congestion has occurred in several cities in my country. This issue has economic, social and cultural impacts.