Interview with mobility expert Benjamin de la Peña

This month we chat with Benjamin de la Peña, CEO of the US-based Shared-Use Mobility Center, a public-interest organization working to replace car-centric transportation with people-focused shared mobility to fight climate change, promote equity, and strengthen community. Benjamin is the convenor of the Shared Mobility 2030 Action Agenda, chair of the Global Partnership for Informal Transportation, and Senior Fellow on Mobility for the Canadian Urban Institute. He believes emerging transportation technologies should serve as critical leverage points for correcting societal wrongs and dismantling racism and injustice.

Having ever more private vehicles on the road means that our carbon footprint is always increasing. But there is another factor that is perhaps less well known, which is the inequality generated between those with more resources who can afford to have a private vehicle and those who cannot. Can we therefore talk in terms of “mobility poverty?”

When we say “poverty”, it can lead us to imagine the solution is to just give people more mobility. Very often that leads us to conclude that the easiest way is to give each person their own vehicle —to let people make their trips by themselves in private vehicles, then they can go wherever they want. From a “more individual mobility” standpoint, that might seem efficient, but at what cost?

We have to ask why we need to be mobile? Mobility is the ability to get around, and that by itself is measurable. If you're a trucker and you need to deliver goods, then you need to have the freedom to go to every place you need to deliver.

But what if you just need to get to your workplace and your workplace isn’t very far? Like it could be a few blocks away, or next door, or just the ground floor of your dwelling. So transportation experts talk also about the concept of “accessibility” (your “ability” to get to the places you need to go). And going back to this idea of “mobility poverty”, the root of the problem is that we have set up our cities in a way that you need to travel very far to get to the places you need to go.

In the Global North, particularly in North America and large parts of Australia, we have separated the land uses (residential, commercial, etc.) and forced people to take long trips. This leads to prioritization of the movement of vehicles to connect these various uses, which then valorizes the speed and ease of individual trips.

The reality is very different in a lot of Global South cities, where more people share rides and trips and fewer people own private vehicles. In the Global South, shared rides and trips mostly take the form of informal transportation: “matatu” minibusses, “colectivos”, chicken buses, rickshaws, “boda bodas”, or “tuktuks” and bicycle taxis. These informal modes provide mobility to a greater majority of people.

So what does it mean not to be poor in terms of mobility or accessibility? Maybe it’s not about having your own vehicle, but being able to get where you need to go in ways that are efficient, not just for the individual but also for the community (for our cities).

The paper Re-thinking Mobility Poverty by Kuttler and Moraglio has an excellent discussion of what mobility poverty is. It starts with an intro by Mimi Sheller who coined the term “mobility justice”. I think it’s better to use “mobility justice” than just saying “mobility poverty”.

What are the first steps to eliminate these inequalities, and for public or shared transport to acquire the importance —and efficiency— of private transport?

Slum dwellers International likes to say that “the first act of inclusion is to be counted”. Very often, we don't count what is going on in terms of public and informal transportation. We don’t count how many people are biking or walking.

In high income countries, the biggest amount of collected data is about traffic, about vehicle movement, on roads. Every city intersection will have ADT (average daily traffic) data. That surplus of data frames the problem and then frames the solutions —e.g. traffic congestion is the problem, moving more vehicles faster is the solution.

The first thing we need to do is to measure movement of people, not just the movement of vehicles. Then we can get to a deeper understanding of who is able to move and who is not and why. This brings us again to the question of “mobility justice”.

We must focus on the people's ability to get to places, not the ability of vehicles to get to places. Mobility poverty or the inability to move has many more dimensions than just economics. Perhaps the color of your skin or your physical ability means you are denied access to parts of the city. You are denied movement and access. That would be mobility poverty. Mobility injustice could mean that there are no provisions and affordances for people in wheelchairs, those who use crutches, or for the blind or hearing impaired.

It may seem that the easy way to avoid traffic jams and mobility problems is to add more lanes to highways and build new roads. But this does not tackle the root of the problem, nor does it discourage the use of private vehicles. How can we fight against this and make citizens aware of the advantages offered by new forms of mobility?

Building more roads seems the easy way out but it is actually a failure. Half a century and a whole bunch of research has shown us that road expansion leads to more traffic congestion. It’s the ironclad rule of induced demand, and the more lanes you build, the worse your traffic actually gets.

The problem is that we are equating traffic jams as the primary mobility problem. We seem to be hamstrung by that and think cascades into more terrible consequences.

If the mobility problem is not about how you move vehicles but how you move people, then what are the most efficient ways to move people? The answer is shared and informal transportation. It is getting people where they need to go when they need to get there, sharing rides and journeys, and involving a multiplicity of options. If we focus on solving for more people moving together, it leads us to consider shared services rather than individual ownership.

The funny thing is that informal transportation, or popular transportation as Jacqueline M. Klopp of Columbia University calls it, already provides a solution. Everywhere you go in the Global South there are “matatus”, rickshaws, etc. —privately provided, sometimes regulated or, more often, misregulated mobility services— that solve people's mobility problems. And these are not even new forms of mobility, they already exist. But we keep trying to solve traffic because we are framing the wrong problem.

How can we find the balance between efficient mobility that can go anywhere, but at the same time is sustainable?

I think we're in a hole. And the first thing you do when you're in a hole is to stop digging, but we keep digging by expanding lanes and highways and trying to move more vehicles rather than stopping and asking ourselves what is already there that actually moves more people and how can we make those systems more sustainable.

Mobility includes walking, and we can actually walk everywhere unless there are huge barriers. For longer journeys we want to use resources efficiently. We shouldn’t use huge amounts of energy to move just one person; so we should share mobility. How can we make the mobility of the rapidly growing cities of the Global South —which are overwhelmingly served by informal transportation— more sustainable, both financially (for the providers of these systems), and also environmentally (with the use of sustainable renewable, non-fossil-fuel energy)?

Multimodal transport is gaining ground everywhere. Do you think there is a risk that different forms of mobility could cannibalize each other or lead to market saturation?

I sound like a broken record but multimodal transport already exists in the form of informal and shared mobility in the Global South. What is gaining ground everywhere is micromobility and tech enabled transportation.

There certainly is a risk of cannibalization if we only think of mobility in market terms. If we frame it only as mobility markets, then players can crowd each other out for profits. One of the clear tenets in economics is that transportation, particularly urban transportation, has monopolistic characteristics. So purely market driven solutions will lead to market failures. In cities with the most efficient public transportation systems, the public sector makes huge investments and subsidies. For example, Tokyo’s trains move around 10 billion people a year; the services are operated by private companies but there is huge government investment behind them (we must note that Japan went through a cycle of privatizing publicly-owned rail companies but absorbed the cost of the infrastructure —debts— and continues to put money into the systems).

As far as I know, no transportation system can survive without some sort of public investment, whether direct subsidies or through building roads. If you own a car, whatever you are paying for in terms of gas, taxes, etc. is not enough to pay for the building and maintenance of roads. Your travel is subsidized by public investment. Our transportation systems must serve the public good and so we should direct investments and support to components of these systems that further societal goals.

Now, is there market saturation? There is high competition in informal transportation in most cities, mostly because the operators’ only source of income are the fares (the fare structure and business model that drives this kind of hyper competition). Can we subsidize informal transportation operations so that it removes the hyper competition?

It seems increasingly clear that climate change is a reality, and the transport of both people and goods has a large share of responsibility for carbon emissions and pollution. What actions can we take to make the population aware of the risks of not having sustainable mobility, before we reach the point of no return? How can we make our cities more pleasant places to live, with fewer inequalities, and make safer transportation available to all?

The city of Copenhagen has a high share of bicycle use. Around 53% of all trips are taken by bicycles in the metropolitan area; +60% within the city center. But if you ask people why they prefer to ride bikes, the common answer is it's the most efficient way to get around. Environmental concerns are secondary. Convenience and ease of use are primary.

It’s easiest to get around by bike because they built infrastructure that prioritizes pedestrians and people on bicycles. So it is not about making the population aware of climate and sustainability implications of their mobility choices; it’s about literally building the affordances that allow people to choose modes that are more sustainable.

The change is not about “making individuals aware”. It is about creating the narratives to enable better public policy decisions.

Changing the narrative about what transportation does and how it can be more efficient starts from talking about moving people rather than just moving vehicles. We need to move away from thinking that traffic congestion is the problem and start talking about getting around —moving from “mobility” to “access” (pun intended).

There is a ton of literature and research on the virtuous cycle for people-focused transportation and the vicious cycle of car-centric mobility. The more we build for private car use, the harder it is for people to walk, bike, use scooters, or take public transportation Putting people first and paying attention to how humans move leads to making our places more pedestrian-, bike- and micromobility-friendly. We can also reduce car use by using carrots: we can provide other mobility options. We can use sticks: higher gas taxes, higher parking fees, reducing parking spaces, congestion pricing, and high ownership taxes when buying a car.

So, going back to the question, the climate crisis is here, and I think one of the narratives we have to change is that electrification of vehicles is all that we need to do. We know that is not enough. First of all, not everyone owns a vehicle, and so we need to provide more transportation options. Electrification, particularly of private cars, is never going to be enough.

In your opinion, which world regions are taking the lead in changing the way of thinking about future mobility? Do you think these changes should be faced equally in all environments (rural, urban, peri-urban, etc.) or are there some areas that should have priority over the rest?

I think the nature of the problem is different depending on the region. For auto-centric Global North cities like those in North America, the nature of the problem is to shift people away from private modes by providing more public and shared modes.

The nature of the problem is different in Global South cities where car ownership is low. The problem there is that all the narrative is still about traffic movement. We need to embrace what is already there in terms of shared public and informal transportation and strengthen it. We need to make investments and policy shifts to make it easier, more convenient, and faster to travel by shared modes as opposed to private vehicles. For rural urban or peri-urban, the challenges are slightly different but it all comes down to the availability of choices.

I think there are many leading stars. In Europe for instance, London and Stockholm’s congestion charging has proven that users’ behavior changes when you price roads. There’s Paris's commitment to be 100% bikeable; and other regions in Western Europe that have already led the way by giving higher priority to non motorized transport. We can also look at the heavy public investment that Japan, Singapore, or Hong Kong have made in infrastructure and public and mass transportation.

Going back to what I said earlier, the first priority is to change the narrative: from only seeing vehicle-based mobility to seeing and prioritizing people-based mobility.

And to finish this interview in a different way: what three things would you take to a desert island?

First of all, I'd rather not go to a desert island. I'd rather be in a bookstore or a coffee shop in a city, in which case I would have everything I need.

Let's not answer that question (laughs). Let's just end with the point of prioritizing people, which leads to prioritizing shared mobility modes.

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