The Pandemic Gives Us a Chance to Change How We Get Around

Micromobility technology, by contrast, is evolving as fast as fruit flies. As Anthony Townsend notes in Ghost Road, the dockless bike operator LimeBike “put no fewer than nine versions of its flagship bike into service during its first year and a half of operation,” while scooter company VeoRide, he notes, can transform a new idea into “on-street hardware in 15 days.”

And yet for all the flurry of micromobility activity, the state of macromobility—which in the US means the car—has changed little, and in some ways is going backward. “The curb weight [of vehicles] is higher than it’s ever been, and these are the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade,” says Greg Lindsay, director of applied research at New Cities, an urbanist think tank. “The OEMs—who don’t seem to be particularly financially healthy—have basically hooked the earth on these extremely expensive vehicles. It’s like the SUV boom has happened against the backdrop of this supposed mobility revolution.”

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One of the problems with futurism is that it, by necessity, must occur in the present—and so comes time-stamped with all of an era’s proclivities and perceptions. Think of the gee-whiz image, from the 1950s, of a nuclear family playing a board game in their convertible as it whizzes autonomously down a scenic country highway. As Townsend notes, in The Ghost Road, the image gets wrong many things about the future that has come to be: There are no trucks shown (though moving goods by road is bigger than ever); the family structure depicted is now the exception; and most people get around on traffic-clogged urban roads.

But, he argues, we don’t challenge the image’s key assumption: “Why, in this coming world of wonder, are we still getting around in cars?” The passenger car so dominates our thinking that we find it neither desirable, nor possible, to easily imagine alternatives. “Even in our wildest dreams,” Townsend writes, “we can’t free ourselves from the status quo.”

The future of mobility doesn’t have to stop—as much of the current discussion would seemingly have it—at a self-driving, electric car. Maybe it’s not a car, maybe it doesn’t require new infrastructure, maybe it doesn’t even move people. A week after my walk through that mode-rich Manhattan intersection, I found myself being followed by a robot on a quiet gravel road in Vermont.

My family and I were renting a guest house from Jeffrey Schnapp, a Harvard literature professor who directs Harvard’s MetaLab, a sort of speculative design studio. A few years ago, Schnapp (along with architect Greg Lynn) was tapped by Italy’s Piaggio—the maker of the venerable Vespa scooter as well as the three-wheeled Ape “tuk-tuk”—to head up a design lab called Piaggio Forward. The question, Schnapp says, was, “How could they step outside of the fold of this 133-year-old company and think about mobility forms of the 21st century.”

The company made two things clear, says Schnapp. One, it didn’t want a think tank. “They told me, ‘We’re not an automobile company, we can’t afford to produce expensive showcase vehicles,’” Schnapp told me. Second, he says, “Piaggio was very clear that they did not want to see improvements on existing vehicle types. They didn’t want a scooter that could park itself.”

Fast Forward played around with any number of concepts, including a “human-powered self-driving vehicle.” Wanting to “turn the whole autonomy paradigm on its head,” however, they instead turned to the oldest transportation form of them all: walking. “It’s the most fundamental expression of human mobility but also the domain where the least innovation had happened over the course of the digital revolution,” Schnapp says. But, as walkability grows in importance as a quality of life measure, he notes, “why couldn’t there be vehicles that support or augment that activity rather than trying to displace it?”

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