10 January, 2021

Mobility of the future: Euphoria will give way to disillusionment sooner or later

Against the backdrop of technological developments, we can dream of a supposedly better future for mobility. However, if we consider the "big picture" and ask ourselves where scarcity could prevail in the future, euphoria quickly gives way to disillusionment. This article presents a chain of arguments that lead to a very cautious assessment of the future of mobility.

A large number of studies paint a picture of the future of mobility, which is characterized by a greater diversity of mobility tools (available means of transport and forms of access, e.g. a car or a general subscription), high proportions of sharing business models (increasingly fewer mobility tools are owned by those who use them; e.g. mobility car sharing) and a networking of different modes of transport, with MaaS (mobility as a service) as the ultimate business model. Many players in this happening therefore dream of being at least an intermediary with their own platform and thus quasi "asset-light" at the center of future mobility and transport systems and their networks. And the manufacturers of various mobility tools (namely the carmakers) are counting on being able to compensate for future slumps in sales with the aforementioned "sharing" offerings. Automated driving also offers productivity potential, since humans are no longer needed to operate these vehicles. Last but not least, the owners of transport infrastructures assume that these infrastructures can be operated even more productively in the future. So we are all on our way to a promising mobility future.

Really? Below I allow myself to make a few reflections that shake this ideal image.

The mobility of people is mostly "given" and therefore habitual. Why are people mobile? Because they pursue at least one form of activity at the starting and/or end point, often connected with a social and/or economic exchange. Decisions for such activities are rarely made randomly; much mobility is constrained by time and place, and thus also by route choice. This constraint is either direct (e.g., by the place and time of work or education) or indirect (e.g., by the time and place left for shopping or leisure activities). Mobility patterns are therefore largely driven by habits and routines and mostly vary only for leisure activities.

The production of mobility is essentially driven by the individually available mobility tools (et vice versa). Whether a person has a travel pass, owns his or her own vehicle of whatever type, or uses it only temporarily as part of a sharing model is ultimately of secondary importance. The differences in a portfolio of mobility tools are - apart from the obvious differences regarding the qualitative characteristics of individual and collective means of transport - their costs and here in particular when and to what extent these are incurred in the form of ex ante and ongoing capital expenditures (e.g. purchase of an own vehicle), possible access expenditures (e.g. in sharing models) and operating expenditures (e.g. per trip). The composition of this portfolio is then essentially driven by the type and extent of individual mobility demand and, in extreme cases, can manifest itself in the form of a "captive driver" (only driving his own vehicle) or "captive rider" (only using "public" collective means of transport). In between, there is a multitude of hybrid forms; sharing models can also be counted among them - as an admixture, so to speak. 

Mobility demand and production is a function of the number of interaction points. The number of starting and ending points (in their function as points of interaction and transaction) is essentially driven by the growth of population and locations for exchange (work and consumption locations); so is the extent of potential mobility. Transportation, in turn, is a function of the mobility of all.

Communally agreed living conditions ultimately lead to mobility peaks and congestion. How mobility demand is satisfied may be secondary. What is central, however, is that a large part of the demand for mobility, regardless of how it is produced, occurs simultaneously, in the same place and in the same direction. This triple parallelism is exogenously driven , e.g. by commonly agreed living conditions or even conventions (e.g. working hours, opening hours, holidays, etc.). Many of these living conditions are - and this cannot be emphasized enough - ultimately also a function of astronomical or biological conditions: The day has only 24h and the year 365 days; humans allocate the 24h of the biological clock differently - not least to rest and sleep breaks, the latter ideally being taken during darkness. This also leads to the habits and routines mentioned earlier, which in aggregate also contribute to the peaks.

The ultimate scarce resource in the "mobility" system is traffic areas (networks). The provisions for their use become crucial. While mobility tools are scalable (e.g. also through multiple use in automation), another central resource for the functioning of mobility - traffic space - can only be increased to a limited extent (at best in height; unless land could be increased). Scarcity of transport space - incidentally, for stationary as well as moving and increasingly different vehicles, regardless of whether this is road- (rail-), track-, or non-track-bound - generates rivalry, as with other goods. If then the price or a governance with fair (political) processes for the allocation of this scarce resource as market clearing mechanisms fail, conflicts have to be expected. Such conflicts can already be observed today in cities in the "struggle for space" between increasingly diverse means of transportation (including pedestrians) or parking space seekers (for illustration: in the city of Zurich, there are approx. 2m and 1m of road length per inhabitant and workplace, respectively; in the mountainous area of Graub√ľnden, these values are approx. 8m and 12m).
Prices alone are unlikely to prevail as a market clearing mechanism for the use of transport space. It is much more likely that owners (municipalities, states, federal government) will increasingly regulate access. Regulation of access to transport land is synonymous with temporal and local permits and restrictions to parts or all of transport land.

Conclusions. A number of conclusions can be drawn from the above considerations.

(1) Mobility production increasingly takes place according to the prevailing spatial density of stationary exchange points and thus mobility demand: with more collective means of transport (on-supply) in high-density areas and more individual (on-demand) in sparsely populated areas. Mixed forms on the last mile in high-density areas are conceivable.

(2) Competition in densely populated areas with high mobility demand will mainly be around access to the network (road and rail), while in sparsely populated areas with low mobility demand it will mainly be on the network. Competition for access to the network can be justified primarily by the fact that more than one provider geared to maximum capacity will overload the infrastructures.

(3) Incumbents, and in particular providers of collective transport services (OeV), have an advantage because they already operate a backbone of transport services in high-density areas and thus also control the customer base.

(4) Future providers of MaaS will therefore find themselves in a competitive bidding process in high-density and high-demand areas (cf. competition for access to the network); in sparsely populated areas, access to the network will be free, whereas competition on the network must be expected at best. Ultimately, a "raw material" (mobility provision) will be put out to tender, for which the price will play a central, if not the most central role (this also from the point of view that the public sector pays substantial parts) and cannot under any circumstances allow private parties to make large profits at the expense of the taxpayers.

(5) In attractive high-density areas, automobile manufacturers will therefore also have to face commodity competition with their sharing models. Opportunities exist in particular if they can ally themselves with the central players in collective transport and thus contribute to providing the last mile, for example. However, this will hardly be possible on the basis of premium prices.

Where is the euphoria surrounding the mobility of the future?
In the abysses of commodities....truly a sobering picture.

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