Is this a key moment in the history of mobility?

Enlighten • Pulse #7 • 5 MIN
By Tiphaine Clotault By Mathieu Flonneau Historian of mobility and motoring By Peter D. Norton Technology historian

Ecological and technological transition, new usage trends, public health crisis — mobility is being impacted by many changes, and so far their transformative potential is hard to gauge. To better understand what’s at stake today, two historians give us their analysis of developments in their countries: France and the United States. They describe two distinct parallel realities — the urban centre and its outlying areas — and a shared challenge: put an end to private car dependency.

Mathieu Flonneau

Mathieu Flonneau is a lecturer in contemporary history at the University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne and the Institut d’Études Politiques. He’s also President of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility (T2M).

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From car dependency to shared mobility redefining Los Angeles

4 min


Always further, faster and for less: the restrictions on movement imposed with the first lockdown pulled the handbrake on a mobility model that was no longer tenable anyway. But, like all crises, Covid-19 has also exacerbated a number of underlying trends that have been at play for a decade. These should prompt us to think about our collective direction of travel, or the “sense of history” we want to give to mobility.

The first trend is private car dependency, made worse by fear during the pandemic. It undermines the scenarios of a mobility deemed more “virtuous”, which some had hastily framed as “going in the direction of history”. Does progress necessarily mean denying people use of our roads? This question was one of the factors that sparked France’s Yellow Vests crisis in late 2018, and it needs to be settled, because our outlying suburbs are currently facing a deep mobility crisis. And the necessary ecological transition is only widening the gap between people in city centres, who are well served by public transport or alternatives and those in outlying or rural areas.

If private motoring was the norm throughout the 20th century, it’s because it met a need. In France, framework legislation on mobility adopted in December 2019 has brought the issues around routine road travel back into the domain of public policy, at least in part. Central government and local authorities will be better able to take account of the only real-world principle that will matter more than ever after movement restrictions are lifted: the individual and collective cost of mobility and, in turn, the economic sustainability of progressive objectives, which are often left free-floating.

The current economic crisis is also likely to exacerbate changes undermining the notion of the common good, which is the very purpose of progress: the juxtaposition of modes of mobility, more operators and — what’s more concerning — the threat of deregulation. Especially since another disruptive issue is emerging: the control of data, which in my view should be held sacred.

In the history of public transport in France, the public interest has always been upheld and regulated by an extremely strong state. Today, however, public discourse and decisions are constantly being called into question.
Why? Because there has been a diluting of how we measure progress, which is no longer recognised or shared by most people. It’s time to rebuild consensus on this issue by fostering a conversation at regional and local level that includes life in outlying areas. Finally, then, we might just allow mobility to lean into a realistic curve that we hope will be virtuous and desirable.

Peter D. Norton

Peter D. Norton is associate professor of history in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia, where he teaches history of technology, social dimensions of engineering. He’s a member of the University of Virginia’s Center for Transportation Studies and has written on transportation history and policy, traffic safety and autonomous vehicles.


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!


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