Can technology make our commutes happier?

Houssam Elokda
Jun 4, 2019 · 10 min read

Three questions to ask when considering a new mobility solution for your city.

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Credit: Houssam Elokda

It’s Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Like most Egyptians, I’m fasting from dusk till dawn. And today, a crosstown journey has me battling traffic in Cairo’s scorching summer heat. I’ve been stuck in congestion for almost two hours. Hunger and fatigue have put my brain on autopilot.

The cars around me are barely moving, but I see an opening and gently step on the gas. When stuck in Cairo’s traffic, you always go for the opening.

Suddenly, a high-pitched screech breaks the dullness. I don’t realize I am painting a masterpiece on the door of a brand new blue Subaru until it’s too late. The driver, a sweat-drenched man in his thirties, climbs out of the car and charges toward me, red-faced and yelling. He pries my door open, drags me out of the car by the scruff of my neck, and raises a fist to pummel me.

“You aren’t going to hit a fasting man during Ramadan, are you?” I plead.

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Cairo traffic. Source here.

How did we end up here — angry, frustrated and driven to a moment of violence in what was supposed to be a day of reflection? You could blame my failure to pay attention, and you wouldn’t be completely wrong. But this kind of commuting misery is actually the norm in Cairo.

Angry Subaru Man and I were, in part, victims, failed by a mobility system that brought out the worst in us.

All over the world, people accept excruciating commutes as necessary parts of life. At their worst, these long, soul-destroying journeys corrode our health, our economy, our environment, and our relationships with friends and family. They even make car drivers more stressed than fighter jet pilots or riot police.

For nearly a century, engineers pitched more roads as the solution to commuting misery. In most cases, increasing supply actually ended up spreading the disease of congestion. Now, a new generation of technology companies are pitching an entirely new set of prescriptions for commuting happiness.

Whether it’s automated vehicles (AVs) or electric scooters, the promise is the same: to make our commutes easier and our lives happier. Some of these ideas have succeeded. But others actually erode happiness — or offer it only to a privileged few.

How can we ensure that new mobility technologies actually boost happiness for everyone? I looked at this challenge through the lens of Happy City’s wellbeing framework, and came up with three questions to ask when anyone prescribes a new mobility solution for your city.

I think back to my near-brawl in that Cairo traffic jam. Our stress began the second we realized our trip was going to take much longer than anticipated. At that moment, stuck in a sea of traffic, we lost control. Traffic’s unpredictability fanned the flames of stress.

This happened because humans have a primal need to feel in control over their environment.

New innovations in mobility strive to help us meet that need. They pledge to make trips more convenient, more predictable and less stressful — but they have not always been true to their word.

For example, ride hailing applications like Uber and Lyft have actually make travelling worse in cities. In San Francisco, ride hailing has nearly doubled the growth of traffic congestion and represents two-thirds of the city’s downtown traffic violations.

If we really want to give more people more control, we need to find ways to enable new forms of freedom of movement that don’t slow everyone else down.

As long as people drive alone (or ride as single passengers), we will always get in each other’s way. Technology purveyors must acknowledge this truth: in traffic, a car takes up the same amount of space whether it’s being driven by a commuter, a computer or an underpaid Uber driver.

To actually help people escape congestion, we need to privilege commute modes that use less space.

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There is still no technology that moves people more efficiently across congested cities than public transit.(Credit: National Association of City Transportation Officials)

There is still no technology that moves people more efficiently across congested cities than public transit. I’m talking about trains, trams and busses that, when freed from vehicle traffic congestion, can move many more people for every single square metre of surface area they use. These tried-and-true technologies must be the backbone of future mobility systems that link various ways of moving.

New tech can improve users’ transit experience, but we need to make space for it. For example, driverless busses could fly through intersections by using transit priority signals to turn lights green when they approach. But in a future where AVs and Ubers will gobble up road space, transit riders will only feel increased freedom if busses get road space of their own, out of the single-occupant vehicle crush.

Transit systems could be super-charged if we equip stations with shared micromobility options, like bikes, e-bikes and e-scooters, that help transit users travel the last mile home with ease. These micromobility solutions require only a fraction of the space cars do. The more people use them, the more autonomy everyone on the road will feel. And of course, walking takes up the least space of all.

People who walk or cycle consistently report themselves to be the happiest of all commuters.

I experienced this firsthand when, years after my confrontation in Cairo, I moved to Happy City’s home base in Vancouver, Canada. The city gives me the option of biking to work on a safe, separated bike path. Now my daily commute takes between 12.9 and 14.1 minutes every time (yes, I time my trips). I avoid traffic and always feel in control. No more fights. Vancouver’s safe bike routes allow users of many ages and abilities to feel the same way.

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Vancouver’s bike paths already carry more than just bikes. (Credit: Houssam Elokda)

But like many commuters, I avoid hills and arduous trips that make me sweat. That’s where motorized microcromobility solutions can help. Nearly half of trips in American cities are less than five kilometers. These are just the kinds of trips that e-bikes and e-scooters can handle.

If we prioritize technologies that are truly more efficient, commutes will be more predictable and more convenient for everyone.

Positive social connections are the foundation of human happiness. And commute choices shape our social lives. Long commutes steal our time with friends and family, and reduce our likelihood of making new friends.

Velocity matters, too. People who start their commutes on foot or on a bicycle are more likely to know their neighbours. That makes sense. Who slams the car brakes to say hello to a stranger?

Between the sharing of smiles, the meeting of eyes and the holding of open doors, we come to recognize new faces in our community. These seemingly shallow encounters with strangers boost our daily happiness just as much as time with friends and family. And they seed new connections that enrich our lives.

Unfortunately, most people in North American cities start their trips from a garage, or from a car, steps away from their front door. There, the opportunity for chance encounters disappears. No wonder loneliness is on the rise.

And it could get worse: New technologies may bring AVs to our garages and spur even longer solo car trips, creating a deep cycle of isolation. If the titans of new mobility tech get their way, we will indeed be headed for a more antisocial future. Elon Musk’s vision of creating super-fast car-carrying tunnels in the bowels of our cities embodies this danger. These tunnel systems will be the ultimate demand-inducers. Their siren song will encourage more people to take entire journeys alone, worsening congestion outside tunnel zones for everyone. If governments participate in funding them, they will have even less funding available for more efficient, shared transport.

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Musk’s company, Boring, has already constructed a test tunnel in a parking lot in Hawthorne, California. (Credit: Mashable)

The real social innovation in mobility is that which acknowledges the scarcity and social potential of our streets and the behavioural cues that technology sends.

Some municipalities are facing up to this reality. British Columbia cities Vancouver and Surrey recently proposed a smart mobility corridor that would give dedicated space to shared AV shuttles, linking them with local micromobility options. The road space gained from such efficiency would be dedicated to expansive pedestrian space.

This is a win for freedom, but also for sociability. People make more friends on streets with low traffic volumes and speeds. The same goes for noise levels.

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This diagram was based on English-American urban designer and theorist Donald Appleyard’s ideas. (Credit: @streetfilms)

The European Union is doing its part to enable slower neighbourhood streets. The EU Commission completed an agreement enforcing that all car manufacturers install GPS-controlled automatic speed limiters by 2022. That means cars will be incapable of travelling faster than the speed limit that cities set for neighbourhood streets, no matter how fast their drivers want to go.

For more than a century, our mobility technologies literally drove us apart. New mobility innovations can be leveraged to make our systems more efficient while promoting regular face-to-face encounters on slow, safe, comfortable streets.

Did you feel sorry for me or Angry Subaru Man at the start of this story? You shouldn’t have. We are both incredibly privileged people. Only about 15% of households in Cairo actually have access to a car, but most of the roads are designed to prioritize drivers.

In cities all over the world, mobility systems are exacerbating inequalities. They are failing children, seniors, women, people with disabilities and the poor.

Single drivers, like Angry Subaru Man and me, are rewarded with road space. But the pain from our privilege is distributed to many.

While it was bad that 20th century technology favoured the few, some new mobility technologies could make things even worse.

Automated vehicle trips are predicted to be expensive, which will limit low income people’s access to them. Further, the technology itself is racist. Automated vehicles today are more likely to hit and kill people of colour than white people. And ride hailing companies are being sued by people with disabilities for refusing or not offering rides.

However, some new mobility technologies are extending freedoms to people who have often been excluded. Take my father: I have never seen him run, due to a bout with polio as a child. He can ride a bike, but he falters at the smallest challenge. Over the years, his frustration caused him to shun physical activity altogether, putting him at higher obesity and diabetes risk as he grew older. But now he owns an e-bike. Suddenly he is free. I see the joy in his eyes — a joy that technology brought him. That gives me hope.

Another great example: A bikeshare system in Detroit started offering adaptive bikes (tricycles, hand-cycles, etc.) for all kinds of cyclists and saw ridership soar.

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A selection of the adaptive bikes that are part of Detroit’s bikeshare system. (Credit: MoGo)

What about women? Research shows that women are three times less likely to use bikeshare systems than men. But early data gathered by Populus, a mobility research group, indicates that the gap is much smaller with electric scooters.

Unfortunately, micromobility and bikeshare systems tend to concentrate in wealthier communities. But cities like Seattle, have been mobilizing to ensure these systems reach low-income areas as well. More cities should follow.

Flying cars, driverless cars and underground cars will not make commutes easier for the vast majority of people. Cities need to focus, instead, on mobility options that can scale to serve everyone.

In the end, I managed to convince Angry Subaru Man not to punch my face on that sweltering Cairo afternoon. Maybe it was my desperate reminder that we were in the middle of our holy month.

But the incident ruined both our days. I don’t know about him, but I was grumpy all day, passing on the aggression I had experienced on the avenue. We were victims of our own bad decisions. But we were also victims of bad transportation planning, and a system that nudged us to make terrible decisions about how to travel through our city.

Our mobility systems reflect who and what we prioritize in our city. They influence everyone’s wellbeing. So when it comes to new mobility, we need to get past the shiny glare of new technology and take a clear-eyed look at their impact on wellbeing, connection and equity. The happiness lens is a good way to do that.

Happy City is an international urban planning, design and architecture consultancy that uses an evidence-based approach to create happier, healthier and more inclusive communities. Email us: info@thehappycity.com

Happy Cities Digest

Ideas + evidence + inspiration for urban wellbeing.

Houssam Elokda

Written by

Egyptian-Canadian urban planner. Operations Manager at Happy City. www.thehappycity.com

Happy Cities Digest

Happy Cities Digest is the home for stories and evidence on the link between urban design and human wellbeing. Follow us to get the latest content right away. www.thehappycity.com

Houssam Elokda

Written by

Egyptian-Canadian urban planner. Operations Manager at Happy City. www.thehappycity.com

Happy Cities Digest

Happy Cities Digest is the home for stories and evidence on the link between urban design and human wellbeing. Follow us to get the latest content right away. www.thehappycity.com

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