Mobility never exists in absolute isolation. It is always an interplay of user, mode and environment, jointly enduring in various possible relations. In this light, modes of transport operate as agents effectuating interaction between people, sites and the modes themselves. They are designed to outsmart, outperform, complement or cooperate with each other. But which relations are strong enough to withstand the test of time? How can we use them to design resilient mobility that leapfrogs shortcomings? To discover the underlying principles of these relations, we created a series of blogs in which we put on our ecologist’s hat to investigate possible interactions between different actors involved in mobility.
Each interaction can be an inspiration to reinterpret the existing system and to develop new design solutions fitting the ever-changing needs of mobility. Rather than focusing on a finished and closed design, the strength of this approach lies in its flexibility to adapt to situations based on inherent logic. It aims to create resilient answers by playing the system, not the object.
This first entry is about mobility with a negative outcome for at least one involved actor. In biology, this category is subdivided in three subsections: competition, amensalism and exploitation. A – is detrimental, a 0 has no effect, and a + is beneficial:
In competition, both species involved are harmed – like male deer fighting. Only the fittest will survive in a never-ending contest. Obviously, this type of interaction plays a powerful role in natural selection. Quite similarly, economical competition is a fundamental pillar in the creation of a free market in capitalistic ideology. Nevertheless, when it comes down to the physical level of the mobility mode itself, it can be tricky to find concrete examples of competition. Based on the example of two deer clashing their antlers into each other, we can easily imagine the parallel image of two vehicles crashing into each other. But that does not really count as competition, since it is rather unlikely that such incidents happen on purpose. So what does classify as mobile competition?
The common SUV might be an example of such interaction. Why? Because it surfs on the same principle as an arms race: each party competes to produce bigger, larger, greater and superior products with as main goal outperforming the competitor, who behaves in exactly the same manner. This one-upmanship of successively outdoing an adversary is also happening on our streets. Many families are buying a crossover to cruise the city with a better overview on the road and sturdy protection for their children in the back. However, the very presence of such vehicles creates exactly the situation they try to overcome: less overview in traffic and more potential harm towards other road users in accidents. It progressively develops drawbacks for smaller or less protected road users, including these very same families that decide to bring the kids to school by bicycle on a sunny morning. As a result, more people are tempted to buy an even bigger vehicle, thereby largely nullifying its original purpose.
When one species is doing harm to another while remaining unaffected itself, it is called amensalism. Studies show that on average, a car is used for hardly 5% of the time. The remaining 95%, it takes up precious space without having a useful purpose. Meanwhile, its presence as a lifeless artefact at the side of the street influences the quality of a streetscape heavily. As public space is limited, any form of space consumption prevents other actors of entering the urban scene. Urban infrastructure is so heavily customised for cars, that it imposes massive pressure on the existence of a human scale. Compare it to an invasive weed that takes up so much space that smaller lifeforms are struggling to see the daylight. Just imagine how different our streets would look like without parked cars; how little place the actual traffic flow takes and all the opportunities to redevelop newly vacant ground! Cars are capable of sucking out the life of a city as much as they could enhance it in the postwar decades.
When one species obtains a benefit by harming another, it is called exploitation. Nevertheless, let's call it parasitism, just for the sake of it. And because the term reminds me of nasty creatures sucking life out of others. Think of tapeworms, vampire bats or leeches and the like. Nevertheless, the concept of parasitism is a valuable mechanism to prevent overpopulation and enables the possibility to directly change a rigid system. It is exactly from that angle that we are approaching parasitic mobility: as an opportunity to provoke and change.
Due to rising costs for public transport in Europe and insufficient compensation for low incomes, some groups of people are increasingly facing the problem of limited access to mobility. Deprived of being amply mobile, they might lack connection to society, resulting in fundamental social issues. Without alternatives, it can even be seen as a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
In order to find a solution for this issue, creative design student Sebastian Lilge came up with the idea of a suction seat: a newly designed device as a tool of direct action, which allows activists to dupe the failing system. As a parasitic means of transport, it is profiting of its host while deliberately harming it. Attached to the outside of public transport vehicles, the user of the suction seat can take a ride without paying for a ticket. This provocative act shifts the focus from being solely a mode of transport to also being a tool of performance that creates awareness about the problem itself.
Stay tuned for the next part of this series!
(Wouter Haspeslagh, Sebastian Lilge, Vincenzo Seminara)