We’re living a counter-revolution! On 29 January 2020, San Francisco closed off Market Street to private cars and opened it to pedestrians, cyclists, trams and buses. This decision was welcomed by most. Why? Because it has made their daily lives more liveable, safer, cheaper and more eco-responsible. Even in the United States, a country hyper-dependent on the private car, liberation is on the way.
History has rather forgotten it, but the first transport revolution toward the ubiquitous car took place between 1920 and 1950. Led by the carmakers, it transformed social norms and regulations, in parallel with technology. An illustration: 100 years ago, it was “normal” to walk anywhere in the public space. This, of course, was a hindrance to the development of the car. So, by calling it “jaywalking” and making it “abnormal”, the pro-car lobby simply ridiculed pedestrians. The stick-to-the-sidewalk norm was born.
To ensure this counter-revolution succeeds today, we need to appropriate these same effective weapons. The first battle, of course, is communication. In the United States, the bus should no longer convey the negative image of transport “for those who have no other choice”. To make this future desirable, we must stop portraying a world without private cars as a negative imposed by climate change. Getting back the freedom to choose how you travel — that’s the real revolution!
The second, related battle is semantics. To allow the vocabulary of this counter-revolution to be preempted by those — and there are many of them — who are simply preparing a high-tech version of individual mobility is to lock ourselves into a status quo. No, the “electric vehicle” doesn’t have to be a battery-powered car, which itself raises a bunch of new issues. The first urban electric vehicle was the tram with overhead wires, which is still the most efficient invention for decarbonising mass transit in cities. For me, “shared mobility” isn’t these new modes of transport that are rented, sometimes at a high price, but genuinely public transport supported by the public authorities and where the cost is shared.
The mobility counter-revolution will require us to act in coalitions — between operators, transport authorities and advocacy groups that reject this status quo. But if there’s one lesson of hope to be learned from the first mobility revolution, the automobile, it’s that changing everything is possible!