City mobility needs a diet

by Guest Contributor Michael Ehlting | October 23, 2019

Author: Michael Ehlting

Michael Ehlting

Cities around the world are facing huge challenges, not the least facilitating the daily commute as roads become ever more congested. To change this behavior, municipalities may need to follow similar advice to that offered in the movie Field of Dreams: "If you build it, they will come”.

Cities are magnets for business and people. However, real estate, transport and people are increasingly competing for the more and more limited resource of public space. With breath-taking densification in the city centres and urban sprawl in the surrounding areas of metropolises, cities in many places run the risk of becoming dysfunctional systems. The result is an explosion in land prices, collapsing traffic systems and increasingly critical environmental pollution. To make cities liveable and economically successful at the same time, a new balance must be created between all players.

Traffic in particular must undergo a fundamental transformation: it must become more space-efficient and environmentally compatible. This requires above all the citizens of cities to substantially change their mobility behaviour and local authorities to sustainably promote sensible, efficient alternative offers. We see in the global results of the Mobility Futures study that a large proportion of commuters, for example, are still travelling alone in their own cars. This is convenient, but highly inefficient and harmful to the environment. This behaviour cannot be changed so easily, as it is the result of longstanding decisions due to emotional predisposition and the characteristics of the existing transport infrastructure.


Even if these lonely commuters realize the negative effects of their behaviour, they will generally not switch over on their own due to a lack of attractive and socially desirable alternatives. Municipalities should not try one-dimensionally to regulate a desired development using only bans or restrictions. This only leads to frustration among the affected citizens, who will resist changing their habits. It cannot be the solution to simply put long-time drivers on the trains or buses of an inadequately developed public transport system and believe that this will work out. I agree with the experts we have consulted on Mobility Futures and see that intermodal services in particular, which can take account of the individual mobility needs of as many individuals as possible, have the potential to become this very real alternative to commuting by car.

It is like a diet: one knows that it would be better to change something, but most of the time it fails because of the habits engraved in our personalities. Further, our research shows that at least one in four city dwellers is already longing for a change, but they still lack opportunities that give them the initial nudge. With "appetising", reasonable alternative offers and empathic support, however, it can succeed. And it's also much easier if you don't feel alone on this path. The greater the social consensus on the change towards better urban mobility, the more determined such a change can be.

For more on the future of mobility check out our Mobility Futures website, meanwhile, what do you believe is necessary to get people to change their travel behaviour?


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  1. Izabel Vo, November 14, 2019
    Interestingly put - “lack of attractive, socially desirable alternatives.” The US has invested so heavily in our roads and highways, automobiles, gas/oil... its going to take some time to bring about this change. Companies should enable employees to work remotely, carpool incentives, etc. While government agencies and transportation need to work together to reduce event driven traffic, DUIs with use of trolley systems, etc. We can do it!!!
  2. Joshua, October 23, 2019
    Having modified my commute and diet recently, I can attest to the outlined model.  Committing to change is hard and creates all kinds of emotions, but slightly modifying has opened my eyes to alternatives and the benefits of the 'new' far out way the 'old', which has further modified my diet and commute, as well as other aspects of my life.  
  3. Ed C, October 23, 2019
    I'm not sure the answer but this reminds me of another baseball quote, this one from Yogi Berra, paraphrased: "No one goes there anymore, as it's too crowded". I lived in Europe and public transportation was much more acceptable. I currently live in the US and individual mobility is almost a cultural right, where some (my older father for one) look at someone taking away this right to drive (when one becomes completely senile) as akin to death. I'm not sure we can change the transit to popular locations directly, but given most of the traffic is caused by workers, can we (as workers) make more attractive the alternative of working from the home office, where many millions can likely do their job as good if not better?

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