• Gabriela Barón

The social and urban transition path towards a sustainable mobility paradigm

Updated: Oct 22, 2018

Below there is an english version of my article published in Cuadernos del Centro de Estudios de Diseño y Comunicación Nº80 (2020). ISSN: 1668-0227. Transition design, a joint research between Carneguie Mellon University and Universidad de Palermo.

The complete article in spanish can be downloaded here. You can find more research from the author here.


When shifting from transportation to mobility, accessibility has become a fundamental aspect of trip making by analyzing the ease of access, not only in a physical dimension, but also considering the underlying emotional and cognitive processes.

By returning to a human-centered approach, it is not difficult to foresee how the necessary transition towards sustainable mobility systems could take place. Research leads to the understanding that radical change will operate in a cultural and behavioral sphere as opposed to a material one. Diverse groups of social innovators are exploring alternative bottom-up mobility trends and co-designing urban spaces that, connected, have re-oriented the scale of cities from vehicle-centered to people-centered.


Keywords: sustainable mobility, placemaking, social innovation, human-scale design, pedestrian, cyclist, urban well-being


1. Introduction


The journey back from transportation to mobility

Walking is the most basic and natural human action, it is in fact the most equitable travel form and yet, it has not been the medullar mode for transportation planning in most of urban projects of the last century. This simple fact illustrates the deep crisis that transportation studies have faced by focusing mainly in technical solutions, while losing sight of the subject they were planning for: people. And yet more precisely: people in context.

Transportation has historically been analyzed from a cartographic or/and a technical approach, where the object of study is the trip and the approach is material. These quantitative studies often have often focused on subjects like the transportation system itself, the urban influence on travel patters or the economic policies on public transportation, amongst others. On the other hand, many qualitative studies have analyzed transport from a sociological and perspective, based on the subjects’ socio-economical characteristics and their influence on its transportation patterns. According to Handy (1996), the majority of accessibility studies fall in 3 categories: simulation studies, aggregated analysis and disaggregated analysis. The first two categories have a top-down approach, meaning that the urban form influences mobility patterns, and the third category has a bottom-up approach, where the individual specific factors prevail in transport modal choices. Both perspectives are valid, but seem limited in their analysis, since individual choices will be utterly influenced by a combination of variables from both.


Around the year 2000 new methodologies started to arise in published bibliography, widening the scope towards a more inter-disciplinary and holistic interpretation of the problematic. There is a shift of paradigm from transportation to mobility, where the field of study (the territorial movement of people) is still the same, but its traditional boundaries have expanded, and instead of being separate approaches, they are complementary. Their convergence, the area where space, time, objects, services, communication and emotions meet, is best described by experiential disciplines. Miralles and Cebollada (quoted by Hernández, 2012: 119) intend to highlight that mobility and transport are just means to satisfy needs and not ends themselves. Accordingly, Gutierrez (2012) states that transport is a necessary but insufficient aspect of mobility, since it does not describe the mediation between society and territory. Finally, Hernández (2012) emphasizes the notion of potentiality, indicating that accessibility studies should consider further than the observed or known displacements. In fact, many transportation surveys carried out in Latin America in the last decade (Miralles-Guasch, 2012) have been criticized by their limited scope, due to their lack of unmade or potential trip data.


The revision of these authors evidences the growing necessity to study human transportation as a transversal problematic of many varied fields. It seems that most studies still fall in a mechanistic/reductionist worldview, inadequate for understanding the nature of complex systems (Capra and Luisi 2014). Shifting from transportation to mobility sheds light on multidisciplinary, creative, systemic and human-centered approaches that could bridge the existing gaps.


In efficient mobility systems, active modes such as walking and cycling are considered a tangible and manageable transport resource, not only for short distances, but as a complimentary mode for motorized transport, since every trip begins and ends with an access segment. Thus, the ease of flow through access and transition spaces becomes a great determinant of public transport (PT) as a mobility choice, specifically within the political framework of private car discouragement (Hsiao et al., 1997; Murray et al., 1998).


On the urban scale, public space plays a fundamental role in pedestrian mobility. Pedestrian environment is defined as the area where there is a predominance of journeys by foot, based on the presence of factors that promote pedestrian mobility (Borst et al., 2009; Zacharias, 2001). The presence or absence of specific elements along the journey, as well as their physical characteristics, can either potentiate or dissuade mobility patterns (Valenzuela-Montes and Talavera-García, 2015).


In synthesis, we could say that mobility is a broader interpretation of the social phenomena of transportation that includes the material dimension (cartography, infrastructure and service offer), the more subjective, socio-economic social dimension (Lévy, 2001; Kaufmann, 2002; Orfeuil, 2004) and the experiential dimension (Valenzuela-Montes and Talavera-García, 2015).


Accessibility: the human scale of urban mobility

The term accessibility has been employed to express several facets of trip making. Consistent with Max-Neef’s theory of needs and satisfiers (1992), the need to move from point A to point B will be “satisfied in a unique manner related to their era, culture, geographic location, age and mindset”. It should be noted that many other factors affect accessibility, including land use factors (such as the location of activities) and mobility substitutes (such as telecommunications and delivery services) (Litman, 2008).

Throughout this paper, the use of the word accessibility will be the one proposed by Gutierrez (2010) that clarifies the difference between access and accessibility. Access refers to the possibility of concretion of needs or desires that motivate the trip, while accessibility refers to the easiness of this trip. The concept of accessibility as the easiness of the active, non-motorized trips sheds light on a variety of factors that affect mobility in a human scale. Within this framework, accessibility will be directly influenced by the unique material characteristics of the traveled path, which will result in individual experiences that directly affect modal decision-making.


Reducing automobile space to a human scale: Before and after image of intersection in Buenos Aires. Source: Bisiau, 2014

1. Small, Local, Open and Connected Mobility


Streets as an inter-connected network of public space

In mobility, the public vs. private dichotomy has a strong political dimension and has been subject of profound debate. From a sociological perspective, Hernández (2012) defines accessibility as the degree of correspondence between mobility opportunities (given by the service and the structures) and the household resources to access them. On the same field, Miralles and Cebollada (quoted by Hernández, 2012: 119) define accessibility as the “easiness for citizens to overcome the distance that separates two places, and their subsequent capability of exercising their citizen rights to mobility”.


However, the public vs. private debate in mobility not only refers to service access, but to the use of public space itself. “Public spaces are all places publicly owned or of public use, accessible and enjoyable by all for free and without a profit motive, they may consist of open environments (e.g. streets, sidewalks, squares, gardens, parks) and in sheltered spaces created without a profit motive and for everyone’s enjoyment (e.g. public libraries, museums)” (Charter of public space, 2013). These spaces must be physically accessible by every citizen aiming towards total diversity, inclusion and versatility.


Equitability in the use of public space is a strong argument in the discouragement car-centered cities. Within this perspective, streets must be considered the emblem of public space, covering a vast amount of urban area as networks of interconnected space, they should serve as multimodal networks of social and economic exchange.


The discipline of placemaking balances top-down urban design, proposing a people-centered approach based on a network of connected, smaller-scale, participatory bottom-up initiatives. “Placemaking promotes a simple principle: if you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places” (PPS, 2012). The process of placemaking turns streets from transition spaces into destinations themselves. Successful, vibrant places build democracy through participatory processes with the community and through partnerships and alliances with local actors.


In synthesis, dense public spaces enhance social interactions resulting in increased safety, security, public health and community engagement. Co-creation allows for appropriation of the common environment, fostering repeated interaction, versatility of use and continuous re-invention.


Placemaking: from parking lot to public space in Milwaukee. Source: Project for Public Spaces, 2015

User experience as a way to collect qualitative data

The term user experience (UX) comes from the Service Design (SD) field. SD is a multidisciplinary discipline that gained popularity as an approach to modern business, design research and design education. With the introduction of Design Thinking (Martin, 2009) the evolvement of service design also sparked strong interest in user experience.


In a human-scale urban design perspective, there is a need for understanding the pre and post trip circumstances of Transportation as a service. That is where the discipline of UX provides valid framework to describe qualitatively these circumstances. Costumer Journeys, explained by Miettinen and Koivisto, (2009) are described as follows: “Services are processes that happen over time, and this process includes several service moments. When all service moments are connected, the customer journey is formed. The customer journey is formed both by the service provider’s explicit action as well as by the customer’s choices”.


In the mobility field, UX has started to arise by providing participatory tools for understanding the ecology of experiences. As an example, the work of Culén et. al (2014) proposes a set of travel experience cards is proposed to elicit rich responses from costumers in order to understand the complete experiential aspects of mobility from trip planning to arrival at destination.


User experience: Touch point cards that relate to a trip segment, in this case “Station”. Source: Culén et al. 2014.

2. Accessibility in the urban environment: A three dimensional effort

According to Valenzuela-Montes and Talavera-García (2015) it is necessary to achieve a better understanding of the factors that encourage people to walk as a form of viable transportation in the city, and improve the quality of mobility when pedestrians attempt to access central urban areas, public places or public transport hubs. These authors have carried out a thorough bibliography analysis classifying publications in three groups, always with a human-centered approach. The pedestrian-transport approach focuses on walking as a mode of transport that has an origin and a destination, refers to the functional dimension and has specific variables like “distance”. As a complement, the pedestrian-environment approach assigns more relevance to urban characteristics of the places where the trip is performed, refers to the morphological dimension and has variables like “connectivity”. Accordingly, the mixed-approach refers to the environment of the trip, mixing functional and morphological variables in an environmental dimension, where combined variables like “effort” can be inferred.


This is where the framework first introduced by Wardman (1998), and mentioned by Shakespear (2014) during his signaling works for the city of Buenos Aires, becomes the most suitable approach in designing with a human-centered perspective (Papanek, 1983). This framework states that human effort is a three-folded variable: physical, cognitive and emotional. This approach considers people with all the dimensions that makes them human, going beyond traditional studies that separate these aspects for a better analysis and then fail to integrate them again in a holistic manner.


Human effort in mobility is presented as a three-folded variable: physical, cognitive and emotional. Source: Barón, G. 2017.

Physical effort

Physical effort is the one consumed during all the stages of the trip, whether by walking, waiting or just by keeping the bodily postures (Shakespeare, 2014). When people interact with urban environments, physical aspects like topography, steepness and climate conditions will particularly affect mobility actions.


Distance is the most influent factor when deciding whether to walk or take another mode for transportation (Valenzuela-Montes and Talavera-García, 2015). Although several authors have calculated the distances that pedestrians are willing to walk for reaching a public transport stops, results vary in relation to buffer area, demand, system redundancy and cultural aspects. Distance is influenced by topography, the surface quality of the path chosen as well as steepness. In addition, urban form determines the connectivity of the grid, in relation to the quantity of intersections located within a catchment buffer area.


Accordingly, temperature and climate will influence access experience (Kuby et Al., 2004; Lam and Morrall, 1982). However, existing studies are not conclusive in the relation between climate and walking or cycling, since some of the cities with the most quantity of cycling trips, such as Amsterdam o Copenhague, have a more rigorous climate than other cities with notably gentler climate, such as San Francisco (Pucher and Buehler, 2008).


Emotional effort

The affective factor refers to the emotional energy consumed during the trip in relation to the uncertainty of a safe and comfortable trip or the arrival to destination on time (Shakespeare, 2014). We have to consider that from the point of view of the individual, the city is not an undivided space identical at all points, but a mosaic of known and unknown spaces. The individual qualifies space subjectively and this qualification explains how he chooses to get around: for instance, a person could make a detour to avoid a neighborhood he does not like (Institute pour la Ville en Mouvement, 2013).


Safety is a two faceted problem; one is the real risk of being a victim in an accident or an attack, while the other is the fear of becoming a victim. The second is called perceived safety and is the emotion that will influence trip choices (Gomez, 2000). While this problem affects all social groups, the most vulnerable are those who have no transportation alternative and decide to avoid the trip and cease the activity that motivated it. In many cases, this activity is fundamental (like working or studying) and this limitation causes great impact on the economy and social mobility of the most vulnerable groups (World Bank, 2002).


- Civilian Safety

Civilian Safety is defined as the vulnerability of travelers towards antisocial or criminal acts (World Bank, 2002). This is a complex social problem that highly affects developing countries, while it reaches far more than the transportation sector, it is a great determinant of mobility choices. In particular, Latin America has one of the highest indexes of civilian attacks during non-motorized transportation circumstances (World Bank, 2002).


Bibliography is scarce on data related to civilian safety and modal choices, which highlights the importance of data collection in order to understand the dimension of this variable. In general terms, personal violence and sexual harassment acts are not reported or quantified if they do not have a seriously injured victim (Gomez, 2000).


On the urban level, civilian safety (whether perceived or real) will be influenced by land uses, time of day, population density, among others. In an infrastructure level, factors like the existence or public lighting and the presence of surveillance cameras can discourage crime.

- Traffic safety

In developing countries, almost half a million people die and 15 million suffer accidents in transportation incidents, most of which are pedestrians and cyclists (World Bank, 2002). Pedestrians are the most vulnerable group of travelers since they share the space with motorized vehicles and are exposed to accidents during the first and last miles of their PT trip (World Bank, 2002).


The characteristics of the built environment directly influence traffic safety, which is considered a key variable when trying to encourage pedestrian access (Fitzpatrick et al., 1997; O'Sullivan and Morrall, 1996; Schlossberg et al., 2007). The provision of adequate infrastructure can provide protection for cyclists and pedestrians, such as continuous sidewalks, signalized crossings, bicycle lanes, etc. (Schlossberg et al., 2007. In general, it is clear that non-motorized infrastructure favors more equitable mobility modes and is far cheaper in comparison to motorized vehicle infrastructure.


There is a difficulty in relating accidents to the built environment in Latin America, since the documentation of Non-Motorized mobility is rarely documented and organized. In general, motorized vehicle accidents are correctly documented, but it is estimated that only 35% to 88% of non-fatal pedestrian accidents is reported (Hook, W. 2005). The reason behind this is that the victims fear an arrest or a fee, and that the authorities are not qualified for collecting specific location data about these incidents (World Bank, 2002).


While there are scarce methodologies to measure emotional effort, the concept of stress levels has been thoroughly studied within the fields of traffic safety. The published “Level of Traffic Stress” methodologies (Landis et al., 1997; US Federal Highway Administration, 1998; Minetta Institute, 2012) have a consolidated application for pedestrian and cyclist safety.


Cognitive effort

Two types of networks are needed for an intermodal mobility system to function: the physical ones and the semiotic ones. The first ones include infrastructure and all its components, the second ones are the networks formed by communication which will allow users to understand, interpret and be part of the service. Cognitive effort depends on the capacity of recollection and processing information during trip planning, navigation (trip monitoring) and eventual error correction (Shakespeare, 2014). Availability of information is fundamental for the adoption of any PT system (Blair and Burckhart, 2009).


Thaddeus and Maine (1994) acknowledge the planning stage as an integral part of the trip itself, stating that trips are composed of three moments. These are the pre-trip moment (linked to decision-making, planning and organization), the trip moment (material journey from origin to destination), and the post-trip moment (the making of the activity that motivated the trip). This approach facilitates the analysis of the experiential characteristics of a trip, by collecting field data from its planning stages, often where modal decisions take place. In the pre-trip moment, the socio-economic characteristics of the individual will prevail (Gutierrez, 2012), while on the second stage, infrastructural characteristics of the built environment and the PT offer will characterize the journey.


The availability of trip-related information will influence the cognitive and emotional stress levels of the individuals, which will have access to more or less knowledge of their trip details. Four types of information channels have been identified: road signals, graphic information, real-time information and online information (world-wide-web).


- Urban signage

Urban signals have the purpose of guiding subjects and provide them with coherence during the trip, lowering the stress levels and favoring safety (Thompson et al., 2013). Dedicated path signalization is highly important for pedestrians and cyclists, since their segregated lane network is in general discontinuous, and often requires difficult connections.


Pedestrian signage has proven to highly improve user experience while encouraging this sustainable mode of transport as a complement for public transportation. The communication of walking times (see image below) and availability of connections favors inter-modality, especially amongst tourists.


Human-scale design: Pedestrian signaling in Buenos Aires. Source: IVM, 2014

- Graphic Information

Schematic graphic information is probably the most validated means of communication between PT service providers and citizens. The most famous example is probably the London underground map of 1931 that did not have a strict geographical accuracy, but consisted of a colored linear diagram for communication purposes (later validated by behavioral neurosciences). A survey conducted by IVM (Institute pour la Ville en Mouvement) among Latin American passengers revealed that 96 percent of them considered diagrams necessary, indicating their route, stops and connecting points. Furthermore, given the thousands of tourists who use public transport, the authors thought it necessary to add sites of interest to the mobility diagrams in order to create a more direct relationship between public space and mobility offer (Institute pour la Ville en Mouvement, 2013).


Cognitive effort: Backlight poster representing a complex intermodal system for transshipment areas in the city of Buenos Aires. Source: IVM 2014

- Real-time Information

Since mobility is an urban action highly dependent on time, real-time information has proven to increase efficiency in PT systems. This type of communication becomes highly important in case of alterations of the service due to unforeseen events. While generally implemented using digital signs that tell how much time can pass until the next medium passes (so that users can make decisions and eventually change their mobility strategy based on the current state of a service), other approaches use GPS data and communicate through people´s smartphones on demand.


- Virtual Information

The extension of urban centers y their mobility complexities demand virtual presence and online mechanisms that represent those systems in a comprehensible manner (Institute pour la Ville en Mouvement, 2013), thus reducing urban complexity. The presence of official websites with service information is increasingly growing in the World Wide Web. Complimentarily, third party virtual cartography tools like Google maps, have significantly improved mobility experiences for those individuals with access to these technologies.


3. The social and urban transition towards a people-centered mobility

Finally, the important question arises: Which are the steps for the necessary transition towards a sustainable mobility paradigm? Professionals from different fields have undertaken the task of developing environmentally sustainable transportation alternatives, both at an individual or a regional scale. Just as the design profession has evolved from its traditional roles towards more intangible assets, different levels of intervention that range from technical and material aspects, from product-design to urbanism, to social and cultural innovation have been proposed. Based on the concepts of Tukker (2004) and Vezzoli (2007) a personal interpretation of the problematic is presented below.


a) Incremental innovation at the product level

One of the first approaches towards mobility pollution has been the design of greener products. This level involves incremental innovations, where existent products have been improved in order to have less environmental impact, usually by replacement with cleaner materials and energies. In the automotive industry, most effort has been placed in fuel management, with the aim of reducing the amount of emissions.

From a life-cycle approach, the environmental improvement is only reflected at the use stage. This level of intervention does not require a substantial change of behavior from users, and it´s in general the result of top-down, for-profit initiatives. Nevertheless, it is important to mention as well other notorious initiatives in the field of active transportation where the product´s functionality is expanded allowing extended use for circumstances that were not possible before, such as foldable bicycles.


b) The proposal of new sustainable products that replace existing ones

This level implies the replacement of existing products with new ones conceived to be environmentally efficient in every stage of their life cycle. Different innovative products have been conceived, from unicycles to rolling shoes in order to favor a new greener mobility paradigm.


At this level, a notorious example could be a modular dynamo that turns regular bicycles into electric ones, thus making the best use of materials an energy throughout the product´s life cycle, since the innovation does not require the purchase of a new bicycle to replace the existing one. Although still working on a technical level, the resulting proposals tend to have more difficulty fitting in existing consumption patterns, and require a change in values and cultural context of consumption (Vezzoli, Manzini, 2008).


a) The proposal of new (inherently sustainable) Product-Service Systems

This level shifts the focus from the product itself towards the satisfaction of the need that requires the product in a basic level. This focus mostly innovates through the connections and arrangements between different stakeholders involved in the offer. For these proposals to be effective, they need to be culturally and socially appreciated, usually through strategic communication.


In a systemic level, substantial innovation can be achieved by the strategic combination of different travel modes. Materially, the user might have a pre-paid card to access different shared options that together serve a large urban area. Innovation lies in the multiple route possibilities that will be complemented with the user´s capabilities. Versatility empowers the user, enabling him to plan and choose the most suitable mode for his trip purpose. As an example, we can imagine a user that goes to work choosing the strategy of cycling + public transport + walking; but would choose to take a shared car to go grocery shopping or taxi to a doctor´s visit.


b) The proposal of alternatives to product ownership

If we move from a product-based to a service-based economy, a crescent sustainability strategy has emerged, called servicization. The service economy focuses on the optimization of the utilization (or performance) of goods and services, and thus on the management of existing wealth (goods, knowledge, nature). In this realm, traditional transportation services have ranged from individual private use, such as leasing, to individual public use, such as taxi, to shared public use, such as bus.


Although in the last decade new offers have started to succeed mostly exploring private/shared use, such as car sharing, where many car manufacturer brands (like Peugeot) have expanded their business models. The environmental benefits range from extending the life cycle of the product itself to intensifying the use of the same material product (by sharing). If instead of a consumer owning a product they lease it, a manufacturer is incentivized to design products that are durable, maintainable, upgradeable and re-usable (Dooley, 2013).


- Private driver services

Another type of mobility has grown in the last decade taking an important share of the taxi market using location-based apps. With these services users can hire an on-demand private driver (and share the ride or not) paying less than with taxis. Perhaps the most popular service of this kind is Uber.


These kind of services tend to be more sustainable both socially and environmentally since they make a better use of resources. The app efficiently manages demand and supply based on location, sending the vehicle closer to the client, saving fuel and time. Clients can choose to share the ride (with the incentive of paying less), so the app tends to group people that go the same direction, reducing the environmental burdens of fuel (allocating CO2/km/person).


Socially, important issues like safety have been successfully addressed, as passengers get to rate their driver and overall experience after each ride (drivers are reliant on good overall ratings) and likewise, drivers get to rate the passenger after each ride (so other drivers are protected as well). Drivers are also encouraged to be friendly to their passengers, which in general strengthens their community. These initiatives are socially sustainable for the service provider as well, allowing a flexible, voluntary workload as independent contractors, under the motto “drive your car and be your own boss” (Uber, 2017). This flexibility accommodates vulnerable groups that are in-between jobs or that have difficulty committing to fix schedules (like a single mom or a cancer patient).


Transition has been difficult. Most countries are having legislative issues with this kind of services, since they don´t clearly fit in existing business models. Operating within the boundaries of private and shared, externalities like liability have been redefined. In addition, costumers and drivers have had to be educated on the use of this new mobility offer, where strategic communication, design and user friendliness have had a key role. Perhaps the hardest part in Latin American countries has been the opposition from the Taxi´s guild, which has considerably lost share due to the low level of service they were previously providing. Nevertheless, services like Uber have opened a gate of higher service standards based on real needs, and other providers like the Taxi´s guild itself have upgraded their offer in order to stay in the market. Innovation in this field is just beginning and smaller groups are diversifying their services using similar business models.


c) The proposal of new scenarios of sustainable lifestyles

Transition Design proposes the development of future visions that are the result of bottom-up, local innovation. This type of visioning is constantly evolving, learning from its mistakes and adapting to cultural change. Sustainability is achieved through the subsequent lifestyle choices that will be encouraged by the proposed scenario, creating spaces for discussion and debate about new ways of being and doing. Envisioning helps users to suspend disbelief and wonder about how things could be (Dunne and Raby, 2013).


These mobility scenarios operate in a cultural sphere since they are based on research, collection and re-interpretation of existing promising cases. This level acknowledges the transversality of the problematic and its deep social roots, and addresses not only its environmental, but its social and economic implications as well (Barón, 2007). Below, I have theorized on how the SLOC scenario (Manzini, 2009) could take place in relation to mobility.


- The Small, Local, Open, Connected Scenario

Ezio Manzini forged the Small, Local, Open and Connected (SLOC) concept as a way to synthesize all his research in relation to Design for Sustainability and Social Innovation. Stating that “The only sustainable way to get out of the current global financial and ecological crisis is to promote new economic models, new production systems and new ideas of wellbeing” SLOC has become a comprehensible and universal rule that renders any project viable and sustainable socially, environmentally and economically (Manzini, 2009).


SLOC, in general terms, refers to a distributed (but connected) production and consumption system where the small scale of each node makes it comprehensible, controllable, democratic, resilient and highly context-related. The application of this scenario for any kind of project provides designers with insight on how transition paths can take place.


From Social Innovation to Placemaking, hundreds of small mobility projects from around the globe, successful at a local scale, are available for study and interpretation published on the internet. The examples are varied, from Walking-Bus groups of children (safely supervised in their walk trip to school by a volunteer adult, reinforcing a healthy and socially rich daily routine), to bicycle repair clubs, to guerilla urbanism, to car sharing (Meroni, 2007).


These single projects might be different in their execution but have some common characteristics that provide insights on how transition can take place. They defy existing mobility paradigms and represent radical change at a local scale. They show that time, money and social relationships can be measured differently in the pursuit of a more coherent lifestyle. Thus, they serve as a “laboratory of possible futures”, where in each case a group of highly innovative individuals have successfully re-oriented their mobility habits towards more sustainable solutions, incrementing at the same their level of well-being and strengthening their community.


Each initiative might seem too small to make a difference, but all together, connected, these groups of social innovators provide inspiration and example, stimulating the collective imagery and therefore breaking the inertia of the majority towards radical change.


4. Conclusions

So which is the most sustainable form of urban mobility? When dealing with complex systems, there is no single answer to this question. However, there are keywords that describe it: it should be human-centered, versatile, clean, transparent, participative, efficient, inclusive, context-based, error-friendly, diverse, open…


There is nothing new here, since these words could apply to most proposed solutions to any of the wicked problems humanity is facing. Nevertheless, sadly, many decision-makers still invest public funds in subsidizing the weakest proposals (i.e. the electric car industry) led by a limited vision of the problematic and not acknowledging the bigger picture of market-led individual car ownership.


The vision of the most sustainable proposal could be a public/private shared mobility system, formed by different sizes of vehicles, preferably powered by the cleanest technologies available in a specific context. It would be an affordable, smart system with excellent communication channels, easy to understand and use, with real time-information platforms. This system should be immerse in a multi-centered, dense and compact urban context with mixed land uses. A safe, beautiful, vibrant and diverse context. A city with great pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, with low-speed regulations for motorized vehicles. This system would happen in a city where commuting will not be necessarily an obligation, since many tedious trips could be avoided thanks to remote action (no-need context).


At the urban scale, the SLOC mobility scenario, shows that small groups of social innovators, connected, provide a significant amount of bottom-up alternatives to private vehicle use. In developing countries where private transportation is accessible only to the highest socio-economic sectors and public transportation is insufficient, community-led initiatives do mean a substantial alternative.


In synthesis, decision makers have to grasp the fact sustainable urban mobility will not be achieved through technical solutions. This urban problematic, transversal to every human activity, has deep cultural and political roots. Thereby, the most effective proposals will have to operate in the cultural sphere. Design has a key role to play in these transitions, from proposing compelling, attractive and viable alternative scenarios to well-being and mobility; to strategically planning how these visions can take place in each context. New, sustainable products may be required, but the leading innovation will be of immaterial nature, revolutionizing social, economic and political systems at their core.


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