Shifting Gear – The Politics of Sustainable Mobility

October 12, 2012 in Reflections & views, Research, Visioning


Mobility is the elixir of modern society. Man has been a travelling species for longer, of course. The quest not only for food, power and wealth, but also for ideas has inspired people to travel for ages. But during the modern era, we have perfected the mobility system. We now have a global economy that is not only functionally highly integrated, but celebrates this interconnectivity as well. This cultural celebration of the sheer endless opportunities is symbolized by the intercontinental holidays of middle class families. Sending images and story lines from faraway places and bringing insights and paraphernalia have become an indicator of social success. Less discussed but increasingly significant: Modern society thrives on the fuels, food and other resources (from rare earth to phosphates) that we extract or grow at faraway places and ship between different continents.

This era of ‘hypermobility’ has long been known to be unsustainable.The metabolistic dimension, the flows of resources and environmental effects, from oil drilling to CO2 to spillage of phosphates into the seas, are the flip side of our progress and are something we now urgently have got to come to grips with. The knowledge of ‘limits’ dates back to the 1960s but is now finally giving way to knowledge that focuses on potentials, on transformations and on transition. Interesting is what this shift in emphasis could also mean for the debate on (car) mobility. After all, it was in the 1960 that the initial idea of allowing as many people into the world of car mobility (a car for everyone) started to arouse feelings of discomfort, something Phillip Larkin describes so well in his bleak 1972 poem ‘Going, Going’ (Larkin, 1972).The new post-war generations grew to matu- rity holding ‘post-material’ values (Abramson & Inglehart, 1995) and eloquently stated to raise question about the price of progress and growth.

While the occasional faraway holiday is a symbolic marker of success, it is the everyday reality of ‘auto mobility’, which has become the comfortable basis of Western day-to-day life.1 This article focuses on this cornerstone of the system: the car. Cars are no longer a luxury belonging to the middle classes but are within reach of nearly everybody. What is more, the car can no longer be regarded as an individual technological artefact but has evolved into a ‘large technological system’ (Summerton, 1994) that has been perfected to include multilane motorways with giant petrol stations, parking houses in the inner cities, out of town shopping malls and also much of our urban fabric and form, from the cul-de-sac to the very idea of a suburban life styles as a blend between city and country living. This large technological system also comprises a powerful ‘car industrial complex’, that is crucial component of the economy, for instance, in terms of jobs, knowhow and innovation.

Car-based mobility is our default option, well embedded into our routines. It is our ‘normalcy’. It is a cultural cornerstone that we cannot simply remove. Organizing mobility on a sustainable footing is a tremendous challenge. But it is one that, somehow, needs to be met. The ‘small’ agenda is one of direct environmental impacts, of health-related effects, of noise, particles and spatial impacts. There we at least know where to find solutions. The ‘big’ agenda is that of climate change and natural resources. Here many options to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport have been identified. But strategic decision makers stare the scientific facts and predictions in the face like a rabbit looks at the headlights of a car approaching.There is a scientific consensus that achieving the 2°C target is technically feasible, for rich countries this would require a stunning effort to reduce emissions with a factor 5 (Rogner et al., 2007). Unfortunately, little progress towards the ultimate goal has been made over the last 15 years. In fact, current policy scenarios predict that the share of transport (which of course is more than merely cars) in greenhouse gas emissions may rise from the current 25 to 50% in the year 2050 (European Commission, 2011a). Hence we simply have to rethink the mobility strategies in a fundamental sense.

Hence the question is not if this legitimizes government intervention but what sort of intervention can be envisaged in the first place that may be promising to bring this transition about. Here serious ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking is required, or, in this context perhaps appropriate, ‘gearbox’ thinking, as we need to urgently shift gears.

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