Why sustainable mobility matters

Roads and the pathways have been the subject of both commerce and romance. For everyone without exception, traveling on a road (a modern one at that in today’s context, one that is motorable), is indeed considered a pathway to exploring new worlds, meeting new people and opportunities, finding and managing new challenges, opening one’s world view and of course traveling the distance to meet near and dear ones (aka “I drove all night to be with you” by Celin Delon) Nowhere is this reality more felt that when villages cut off for multiple years from urban areas finally get a road that leads them to the nearest large town, city, economic vitality and livelihood opportunities.

Roads, skies, waterways that lead us to a different place then are the instrument of mobility, which in turn is a device for betterment. This mobility is also, by its very nature, environmentally damaging owing to the carbon footprint it creates by virtue of millions of people utilising millions of modes of transport to reach their destinations. Mobility while being a panacea to economic growth thus also delivers a resounding negativity that is compounded further by the intentions of the traveler in new places. Colonisers affecting indigenous populations, cultural imperialism subsuming local traits and practices and the politics of dominance played by the incoming traveler to the new land, are factors that have historically maligned mobility. Today, the crucible of mobility also sees the teeming tide of refugees escape political crisis in the Arab world and migrate thousands of miles in search of the definitional better opportunities.

Mobility affects all of us and all of us are mobile owing to the travel we undertake. Yet, very few of us or even for that matter large governments of corporations consider building the notion of sustainability into mobility, making it more environmental friendly and socially just. This is not only a design problem but also a paradigm shift that has the ability to change notion of mobility as we know it.

The challenge indeed is managing environmental footprint and social impacts in realtime. Contrary to most practitioners, I do not see sustainability as merely environment oriented. I also don’t see corporate social responsibility as merely philanthropy oriented. And I also don’t see philanthropy as the manna from heaven that should always stay in existence just because economic and political theories and policies will always make people poor. Hence, when it comes to mobility, I believe the true essence of designing sustainable mobility futures is to ensure:

  1. producers and users of transporation are able to justify and share their travel and related processes as not harming the environment, society,
  2. the abilities of companies to make profits as a result of people traveling and that of governments to make tax gains because of the same reason.
  3. It is a classical application of triple bottom line approach to mobility — people, planet and profits.

Over the past year, I have been studying how cities have designed the shift to sustainable mobility — more so Amsterdam in Netherlands, which is indeed the bicycling capital of the world and a city that apart from its multi-cultural and inclusive prowess, also boasts of continuous and consistent partnerships between the city council, civil society, creative and design buffs and businesses to improve the overall sustainability ranking of Amsterdam. My attempt is to apply the sustainable mobility thinking to the cities and villages in India and Asia, or more so to crowded geographies globally where multiple forms of transport — from animal to automated, from polluting to green, from fancy fuel guzzling cars to polluting fumes belching heavy vehicles struggle to co-exist!

Where the mere satisfaction of having access to transportation is enough not to do anything about sustainable transportation, since the former took so may years to obtain. Middle class consumers the world over are less interested in the social and environmental impact of their actions since they are enjoying the benefits of access, disposable incomes, consumerism and asset ownership. This is applicable across sectors and segments and very much comparable to the climate change dialog where emerging nations are not keen to give up industrialisation gains (created through a environmentally and socially negative strategy) since they are just about tasting blood. The hunt has just begun…

Sustainable Mobility Futures is a forum that looks to apply proven and emerging sustainable mobility strategies to specific in-country situations globally. It draws learning from other country experiences and weaves in the learning into localised strategies that create a better mobility experience.

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