The future of mobility and the person in the street

There is great power in focusing on the present. I’ve tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to practise meditation and mindfulness so I can do just that. In the past few days, however, I had to look to the future.

I accepted an invite to join the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils. Spending two and a half intense days in Dubai with some of the finest minds I’ve ever come across left me in awe. But it also made me long for the reality I work with daily — a real need to make connections at street level.

What do things like AI and advanced energy technologies mean to a Cape Town mother whose priority it is to get to work on time despite train delays? Or her child who needs to get to school in the midst of pervasive crime?

It might be that one day that child will move around in a driverless car and receive their shopping via drone delivery. But engaging with those ideas seem like futile fantasy when dealing with the problems of the present.

And so I’m back in Cape Town, wondering how I can share the amazing experience I had in Dubai in a constructive and practical way.

When I received the invite to join the council on mobility, I was sceptical that I was the right person for the job, given the high calibre of membership in the group. Members have expertise in the type of tech developments, master plans and business models that seem like fiction to me.

Notwithstanding these reservations, I quickly realised that our work with Open Streets in different communities is essential in drawing up future scenarios for urban mobility. We work on a model that connects and mobilises people around experiencing streets differently.

The chasm between perception and reality came up strongly in the discussions about the need for behaviour change and public engagement in issues around urban mobility. We agreed that, at a global level, both the public and the private sectors have failed to price mobility in a fair and accurate manner so that we ‘users’ understand, appreciate and factor in the real costs of traveling.

The conversation around externalities is an old but incomplete one. So the perception that transitioning to sustainable transport forms is expensive and not necessary misses the point of the great costs to our physical and mental health, our productivity and efficiency, our social fabric and, of course, the planet.

In an example closer to home, it’s a constant battle when we encourage people in Cape Town to cycle to work or with their kids to school. Everyone seems to agree that it would be a fantastic way to commute — and on all the reasons why in a different place and time that would be desirable and possible. But what inevitably follows is a litany of reasons why commuter cycling is simply not possible in Cape Town.

While some of the issues — such as not having showers at work and the weather being ‘too harsh’ — are easy to get around, the perception that our streets are not safe is not. And though we can discuss the extent to which fear mongering is at play, the bottom line is that such perception exacerbates a reality we can’t deny: our streets are not always safe.

The good news is that other cities are grappling with similar issues and the gathering in Dubai highlighted some interesting ideas. I was particular excited, as will come as no surprise, about the conversations on urban ‘experiments’. This idea that humans learn by experiencing is the tune organisations like Open Streets have been singing for years.

It was reaffirming that the councils on mobility and cities and urbanisation both highlighted temporary car-free zones as practical exercises in improving our urban experiences.

The idea that we make our cities as we go was clear at the event: the future is not cast in stone. This was a reminder that no matter how small we think our actions or initiatives might be, there are others who share similar sentiments.

There were big wigs in that place, minds that were too bright for me to have a sensible conversation with. But there were also people like me, with simple ideas who have tested them with some success and are eager to share the experience.

As I packed to return to Cape Town, I was overjoyed to see a video about Open Streets in Cape Town posted on all the World Economic Forum social media channels.

It was a pity all the footage came from Bree Street, which is not really the place where the power of the programme is most evident. But, be that as it may, the World Economic Forum has identified Open Streets as a positive inspiration for the rest of the world. They asked viewers of the video if they could imagine experiencing something similar in their own cities.

Of course, the citizens of more than 400 cities already do, but there is potential for more. In fact, we recently started a conversation with like-minded people in other parts of Africa, in the first Open Streets Exchange for African Cities. If we can plant a seed where residents of cities can get involved not just in adjusting to a future of uncertainty but in shaping it as well, we will have, in my mind, come a long way in establishing real sustainability and inclusivity.

The future of mobility is in the hands of each of us and the real challenge is to get the masses talking and sharing ideas. After all, if the mobility of the future is safe, clean and inclusive, we cannot only have those discussions in Davos and similar events.

We must find ways to connect on the ground. This can happen via social media, academia, artistic channels and through the myriad of new technological tools. I’d like to think, of course, that a lot of the connectivity we crave and miss can also take place in a very low-tech way, on the street.

I am passionate about cities, public space & community engagement. Born in Colombia, I have spent my adult life in the US & South Africa. Cape Town is home.