Micromobility technology, on the other hand, is evolving as fast as fruit flies. As Anthony Townsend notes in Ghost road, the dockless bike operator LimeBike “has put into service no less than nine versions of its flagship bike in its first year and a half of operation,” while scooter company VeoRide, he notes, can turn a new idea into “street material in 15 days.”
And yet, despite all the hustle and bustle of micromobility, the state of macromobility – which in the United States means the car – has changed little and, in some ways, is declining. “The empty weight is higher than ever, and it’s the second biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade, ”said Greg Lindsay, director of applied research at New Cities, a town planning think tank . “The OEMs – who don’t seem particularly healthy financially – have basically hung the earth on these extremely expensive vehicles. It’s as if the SUV boom happened against the backdrop of this supposed mobility revolution.
One of the problems with futurism is that it must necessarily occur in the present – and therefore comes time stamped with all the trends and perceptions of an era. Think of the gee-whiz, 1950s image of a nuclear family playing a board game in their convertible as they whistle independently on a scenic country road. As Townsend notes, in The ghost route, the picture is wrong about many things about the future: no trucks are shown (although the transport of goods by road is more important than ever); the family structure represented is now the exception; and most people travel on urban roads blocked by traffic.
But, he argues, we are not questioning the picture’s key assumption: “Why, in this coming world of wonder, are we still moving? cars? The private car dominates our thinking so much that we do not find it desirable or possible to easily imagine alternatives. “Even in our wildest dreams,” Townsend writes, “we cannot break free from the status quo.”
The future of mobility doesn’t have to end – as much of the current discussion apparently would – with 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 this fashionable intersection of Manhattan, 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 runs the Harvard MetaLab, a sort of speculative design studio. A few years ago, Schnapp (along with architect Greg Lynn) was approached by Italian Piaggio – the maker of the venerable Vespa scooter as well as the three-wheeled “tuk-tuk” Ape – to run a design lab called Piaggio Forward. The question, Schnapp said, was, “How did they get out of the fold of this 133-year-old company and think about 21st century forms of mobility.”
The company clarified two things, says Schnapp. First, he didn’t want a think tank. “They said to me, ‘We’re not an automaker, we can’t afford to produce expensive demo vehicles,’ Schnapp told me. Second, he says, “Piaggio was very clear that they didn’t want to see improvements on existing vehicle types. They didn’t want a scooter that could park on its own.
Fast Forward has played with a number of concepts, including a “human powered autonomous vehicle”. Wanting to “overturn the whole paradigm of autonomy”, they instead turned to the oldest means of transport of all: walking. “This is the most fundamental expression of human mobility, but also the area where the least innovation has occurred during the digital revolution,” says Schnapp. But, as walking becomes more and more important as a measure of quality of life, he notes: “Why couldn’t there be vehicles that support or increase this activity rather than trying? to move it? “