One of the basic tenets of any transportation network is to provide mobility, yet there seems to be very little consensus as to what this (word) means. One issue in the U.S. is that historical political and planning decisions have led to a predominantly vehicular culture, favoring a uni-modal, auto-centric transportation network. Mobility, therefore, is often used synonymously with auto-mobility, leading to a misunderstanding of a transportation system’s purpose, even among transportation professionals.
Mobility is generally defined as the potential for movement or change in location of people and goods (Handy, 2002; Litman, 2011). This definition is absent of any mention of mode, yet traditional mobility measurements include car ownership rates, vehicle miles traveled or congestion levels, all of which focus solely on the automobile.
Unfortunately, though providing a definition of mobility and simultaneously acknowledging the term’s association with auto-mobility, Litman and other experts ultimately fail to challenge this pervasive misunderstanding. Instead, their further use of the word in other contexts only serves to deepen the ambiguity surrounding the discussion of mobility in transportation planning. Further, many planning experts attempt to shift the goal of a transportation network away from mobility and towards accessibility, which I find counterproductive.
Simply allowing mobility to remain laden with visions of automobiles by replacing it with another term may motivate scholarly debate, but it does little to support a general change in behavior of transportation users. I feel it would be more useful to recognize that we’ve been using a very narrow and limited understanding of mobility in transportation planning for the last 60 years. I think this is of particular importance when considering vehicle mile reduction targets. If planners or politicians want to reduce vehicle miles traveled (or even shift modal split away from the personal vehicle), one counterargument from the public could easily be that such goals ultimately reduce mobility. If the general understanding of mobility were to change to be more in line with its own non-mode specific definition, which focuses purely on our potential to get around, this argument would no longer exist.
One way to focus on changing the pervasive understanding of mobility is to make a distinction between mode choice and mobility as the potential for movement. We could phrase it this way: An automobile is not a basic necessity; being able to get places is a necessity. Thus the emphasis should be on our need to get around. Making sure that this need can be fulfilled through a variety of means should be the goal of our transportation network.
Getting around, of course, means having access to food, housing and the job market, which means access should be implicit in any discussion of mobility, not a replacement term for it. If we want to improve access, for example, we could try and increase the number of households that live within one mile of a grocery store. If we want to improve the mobility of those living near that same grocery store, we could make sure that there are adequate sidewalks and bicycle facilities (including bicycle parking at the store) in the immediate vicinity as well as car parking. Additionally there may be a transit stop in front of the store, or the store could provide a bicycle delivery service for customers within a certain radius.
This differentiation is important in order to avoid potentially contradictory statements as well as provide clear objectives for transportation engineers and planners. For example, if I want to talk about improved mobility for non-drivers, but I accept mobility as being auto-centric, then I must obviously be talking about improving the mobility of non-drivers by enabling them to become drivers. If, however, I’m referring to making sure that non-drivers have the same ability to get places as drivers (to the point that people are able to make rational choices when deciding on their mode of transportation), then I need to readjust my understanding of mobility to reflect that.
Todd Litman writes, “Access is the ultimate goal of most transportation, except a small portion of travel in which movement is an end in itself (jogging, horseback riding, pleasure drives), with no destination” (2011: 5). In general we, the users, travel with the goal of accessing a destination. Our transportation network, therefore, needs to support our ability to travel; in other words, our need for mobility.
Focusing on shifting the understanding of mobility away from its automotive connotation would be a great starting point for many advocacy organizations. This could be in form of a campaign featuring a variety of age groups walking, cycling or taking transit with the slogan “My Mobility”. Think of it as improving the public image of mobility. Prof. Udo Becker, for example, at the Technical University in Dresden uses the motto “more mobility, less traffic”. Correcting mobility’s connotation must also be addressed at the university level. Transportation engineering and planning programs need to provide students with a clear definition and understanding of mobility that is free of modal bias.
This isn’t to say that accessibility is any less important when discussing transportation. Integrated (sustainable) transportation planning means transportation planners need to work collectively with city planners and other disciplines to make sure that land-use, spatial and transportation planning complement and strengthen each other. Additionally, the overall goal of a transportation network should be not only to fulfill mobility needs, but to fulfill them as safely and environmentally friendly as possible. This means reducing fatalities needs to be a priority. But it also means we need to work on reducing the amount of energy and (paved) space our transportation system uses, as well as reducing noise, greenhouse gas emissions and fine particulate matter. Most importantly, transportation planning experts need to stop accepting mobility’s auto-centric connotation as a matter of fact and recognize that they, too, are responsible for propagating this misinterpretation.
Handy, S. (2002, May). Accessibility- vs. Mobility-Enhancing Strategies for Addressing Automobile Dependence in the U.S. Retrieved May 16, 2011, from University of California at Davis, Department of Environmental Science and Policy: http://www.des.ucdavis.edu/faculty/handy/ECMT_report.pdf
Litman, T. (2011, March 1). Measuring Transportation: Traffic, Mobility and Accessibility. Retrieved May 24, 2012, from Victoria Transport Policy Institute: vtpi.org/measure.pdf