What People Actually Mean When They Talk About 'Mobility'

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'Mobility' is a bit of a no-context buzzword these days and every transportation expert, city planner, and crazy architect uses it like the word will rain grant money down on their project like pixie dust. Here's what they actually mean when they say it.

Mobility means using a car without buying a car. That's basically it.

Well, it's a bit broader than that, but not by much. The principle just extends past cars — a 'bicycle mobility concept,' for instance, would get people to ride bikes without actually buying, owning, parking, and maintaining them. It sounds sexier than 'bike share,' mostly because it doesn't make you think about 'sharing' a bike with that sneezy guy you saw blowing snot all over himself on the way to work. It's much the same with how anything talking about 'automotive mobility' means using cars without having to buy a car, park it, gas it, insure it, and get it repaired.


'Mobility' means paying some private company or government project to do that for you.

Armed with this information, we can finally decode, for example, Reilly Brennan's admittedly wonderful article 'On The Evolution Of Driving And Mobility.'


The article envisions a light, easily-to-use, easy-to-tune car of tomorrow, one that people will drive but not own.


It's a great article and you should read it, but it does contain this confusing passage

But our entire way of thinking about these things will change, not in a solitary event but gradually like a tide. The reason for this has as much to do with the mobility entrepreneurs and their startups as it does the surge of technology literacy in the U.S: We will continue to expect technology to provide drastic improvements to all areas of life.


Now, however, we have a useful definition of 'mobility' and we can decode this paragraph. In short, people are going to be able to have easy access to cars and bikes without buying them.

The key figure is that everyone has a smartphone now. This is what experts call 'the ubiquity of mobile computing' and what that means is anyone will be able to pull out their phone and an app will show car-share cars and bike-share bikes that you can use nearby.


Not so bad now, is it?

I should say that while the previous definition covers almost all the obtuse expert talk, there is also a broader, more literal definition of mobility. In this definition, 'mobility' just means 'getting around easily.' For instance, when the Portland Bureau of Transportation says "We plan, build, manage and maintain an effective and safe transportation system that provides people and businesses access and mobility," what they actually mean is 'we try to not fuck up your commute.' It's that simple!


But for the most part, when people talk about 'mobility' they mean buying milk at the store without buying a cow that you milk yourself. They mean going to see a movie without having to own, operate, and maintain the movie theater. They mean using the service that cars, bikes, and whatever else provide, while paying for some other company to do all the dirty work of ownership.

It's not going to win any grant proposals or sound eloquent at a fundraising gala, but that's what people are talking about when they talk about mobility — if it's a transportation planner or expert, they mean using but not owning cars and bikes and if it's a city official, they mean not fucking up your commute. I hope that's been helpful.


Photo Credit: NYC DOT