The past 16 months have left our heads spinning. From complete lockdown and isolation, to phased reopenings, to two summers now that have encouraged (and promoted) holiday travel to destinations throughout Europe, the mobility landscape we have learned to navigate in and around has been ever changing.
Fellow urbanists (such as myself) have sought to use this opportunity during the “pause” in movement and economic activity to promote urban design and intervention schemes that were only visions and dreams just a year ago. Ranging from pop-up bike lanes and outdoor cafe seating to wider sidewalks, municipalities and governments across the globe have sought to expand their influence to take cities back from the car and give to the people.
Futurism, Circa 2016–18
While this new localized approach may now seem (somewhat) commonplace and more widely accepted as we moved into the fall of 2021, if we turn back the clock just one to two years, it was a completely different world we lived in. One that was autocentric, tech-driven, and extremely bold in scope and vision.
For example, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in 2018, it would captivate the attendee to witness the level of investment, R&D, and marketing in the autonomous vehicle and smart cities sectors. Booths upon booths — including some of the top OEMs, Tier 1 manufacturers, and consultancies — were selling their vision for a driverless future. This was not an aberration.
The interest (and hype) in this sector started to increase in 2016, with much of the investment on the part of ridehailers such as Uber and Lyft, who were looking to promote robotaxis and other driverless use cases. In addition, Waymo (formerly the Google self-driving car project — and a brainchild of Google X) was born out of a “moonshot” concept to first develop autonomy tech (no matter the cost) and then determine the use cases and business models as the R&D matured.
Other “Tomorrowland” concepts that began to flourish during this heady era of mobility futurism included numerous Hyperloop schemes, dedicated underground tunnels for Teslas (Boring Company), and an increase in vendors providing tech for flying taxis. In addition, we saw demos and pilots of low-speed autonomous shuttles at each and every mobility conference and trade show.
Mobility Industry Pivots
However, something interesting started to transform in 2019, even before COVID took the world by storm. Major investments in the ecosystem started to pivot, and VCs began to get impatient. They were failing to see a proper go-to market strategy and were worried that the time to fully develop and test the requisite tech could be extended not by months, but by years. This manifested itself in cancelled contracts, extended pilots, and product and tech pivots on the part of investors, startups, and OEMs.
So where does that leave us today? As has been discussed quite frequently, there are numerous trends that are beginning to emerge during (and in the wake of COVID). Governments are increasingly taking an active role in the mobility ecosystem and providing infrastructure investments to support public transport and shared mobility, on a level not seen in recent times. We also see a strong emphasis on active transportation (cycling, walking) and policies to promote such modes to maintain social distancing and prevent a return to personal automobiles.
Finally, there is a newfound emphasis on localism and regionalism. This means streets and neighborhoods are being repurposed for 15-minute cities and human-scaled activity. I would like to call this a transformation from a Moonshot to an Earthbound approach to mobility. Just over four years, we have come full circle and are starting to realize that cities — and the mobility in which cities provides — must be centered on communities and human-centered activities.