By Sampo Hietanen, CEO and Founder of MaaS Global
There was a time when only a tiny fraction of the population owned cars. But so loud was the hum of progress echoing from combustion engines, so seductive the promise of freedom brought about by the car that soon the world started to organize itself around the automobile. Cities that were once planned around commerce or community or to celebrate emperors, to impress visitors or to fend off enemies, were now planned to welcome as many cars as possible.
And what do you need when everyone has a car and everyone needs to get to and from work at the same time? You need lanes, lots of lanes, big lanes, to all directions, throughout the country.
The excitement for the age of the automobile saw one of its peaks at the Futurama exhibition at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. A huge scale model of a future landscape set in 1960 featured vast suburbs and industrial areas, electric-powered farming and majestic cities with streamlined skyscrapers. Everything was, of course, connected with multi-lane motorways. ”Highway engineering at its most spectacular”, ran the tag line.
For the nation recovering from The Great Depression, this vision of ”A greater and better world”, dreamt up and executed by theatrical and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, was exhilarating. The General Motors sponsored exhibition became the main attraction of the fair.
People started buying into this dream, not just in the US but all over the developed world. Cities were organized and connected to suburbs and to each other according to principles familiar from Futurama. Although the high-point of this thinking may already have passed, a lot of the city planning principles remain the same today: suburbs that sprawl, cities that shoot up in the sky and lanes, lots of lanes. And many of today’s mobility inventions, Uber, Lyft and the self-driving cars to come, follow the car-centric thinking of the last 80 years.
Just to be clear, I do not have an issue with cars as such nor does MaaS Global, we are just challenging the wisdom of owning a car or adding more of them to our roads.
To illustrate, let’s jump from Futurama, the daydream of the ‘30s, and think roughly 20 years ahead from today. What would the world look like in 2040 if freedom of movement did not mean cars owned by individuals, but a pleasant transition from one place to another?
To be able to imagine this we must shift from lane-based thinking (the root of modern traffic planning is in waste treatment engineering) to hub-based thinking. And while we do that, we must also broaden our focus from efficiency engineering to efficiency benefits of aesthetics.
The future of mobility, as I see it, belongs to services that combine different forms of transportation, also cars. For this world to work, transitions from one mode to another, from tram to taxi, from train to underground, from Hyperloop to a flying car, must be made as pleasant as possible. The time you spend transferring from one mode to another must be your own – not a claustrophobic, scary, wet, cold and grey ordeal. So there must be hubs, a lot of hubs, and they must be visually pleasing, like piazzas in an ancient city. A general principle in traffic planning is that people are usually willing to walk up to 500 meters to get to public transport, but an Italian study shows that if the stroll is through a beautiful and interesting neighbourhood, folks are willing to walk several times that. Add the aesthetics factor, and the city planning parameters change completely.
This, I expect, is the most radical change in city planning to come. In the age of the automobile, the focus, when designing for humans, was the interior of a car. It should be luxurious, pleasantly functional, enjoyable down to the smell and the carefully tuned sound of the engine. A place to spend time in. The design principle of what was on the outside was efficiency: roads, streets, intersections, garages and parking spots had to be cheap, fast and safe – but not beautiful.
What if this changes? What does it mean that a hub or a walk to another hub is designed to be as nice and inviting as a good car interior? So well, that people choose to walk through a few fantastic hubs rather than sit in a private car?
We can continue our mind game as far as we want. What if, by the year 2040, there are radically fewer cars parked at the street side and this space can be used for commerce and recreation? What if parking lots turn into markets or sports courts?
But this is not just an aesthete’s daydream; it is a recipe for competitive edge in a fierce fight between the world’s cities. When they compete for cutting edge workforce, creativity and investment, which one do you think has the upper hand, the web of beautiful hubs or the sewer city? Why do you think people are moving to Vancouver, not to Detroit?
This, I must admit, is one of my biggest drivers to push MaaS and MaaS based thinking. I dream of walking the streets, around 2040, in one of the places we have been active in, with my kids, maybe grandkids, enjoying how wonderful these towns turned out to be.