The symbiosis of mobility, part 3

Third and last blog in this little series! If you didn't read the previous entries, you might have a hard time following the discourse. Catching up is easy: here are part 1 & part 2.

This final entry is at first sight the most positive of all three. We'll be completing the table of interaction by zooming in on mutualism, the type of interaction that grants every involved actor a favourable outcome.

 
 

Mutualism is all about cooperation; about teaming up with partners to achieve goals you are unable to accomplish all by yourself. In extremis, such relations could exist to the level that the individual partners cannot exist without each other. Although you might remember the example of the lichen from your biology classes in school, this extremity is quite rare. Most mutual relations occur on a less rigorous level, as is also the case for mobility.
 

Ride sharing

A classic case of mutual mobility is the paid variant of ride sharing. Take BlaBlaCar for example, currently world's biggest long-distance ride sharing community. The platform allows people travelling with seats to spare to offer their services to strangers, that in return pay a fee to cover a part of the driving expenses. Contrary to the classic form of hitchhiking in which generally no financial compensation is required and therefore classifies as commensalism, the BlaBlaCar system is beneficial to every party involved.

"Eighty percent of city-to-city travel in Europe is done by car. What we’re doing is tapping into empty seats in cars – and there are maybe ten times more empty seats in cars travelling between Paris and Brussels than seats in trains or buses. So you unlock by far the biggest world inventory of seats available."

BlaBlaCar COO Nicolas Brusson in Wired Magazine, May 2015

The Norwegian startup Nimber operates in the same spirit, although its service is not meant for people but for freight. Even though the platform is accessible worldwide, the service is currently only being promoted in Norway and the UK. The company's slogan suits the basic idea of ride sharing very well: "going your way, anyway"!

 
Brian always combined the hell out of existing ride sharing apps...

Brian always combined the hell out of existing ride sharing apps...

 

Vehicle relocation deals

Companies like Transfercar, iMoova or Jucy help rental car companies around the world to relocate vehicles between their branches, while offering a way for travellers to travel for free or nearly nothing. The locations for pick-up and drop-off are defined beforehand, together with a deadline before which you'll need to reach the destination. Trips are per definition always one-way. All that is required is a full driving license valid in the areas you'll cross on your trip. It goes without saying that travelling this way lacks any kind of flexibility, so you'll need to be quite flexible yourself to make good use of it.

For a rental agency, relocating a car or RV for any reason is expensive. It involves hiring a transport vehicle, or paying someone to drive one way and cover their flight back. The mutually satisfying alternative is to sway customers with a low price. This ensures a prompt booking when a vehicle urgently needs to be moved, and best of all, creates a cheap road trip!
(Fragment kindly stolen from Thrifty Nomads

The upside is that all sorts of vehicles need to be driven across the country. Fancy a short journey with a fully equipped camper, a sedan or even a commercial truck to finally move that fridge to a next-state relative? No problemo! Sometimes it is even possible to buy yourself some more time for a very low rate. Potentially a great start for a motoring holiday!

The same principle was added to the operation of Villo, the Brussels bike sharing system. The Belgian capital is quite hilly, which makes that more bicycles are borrowed from stations located on higher grounds, while later returned to stations in the city's lower areas. To go uphill, citizens tend to walk or take motorised public transport rather than cycling. This behaviour results in a system out of balance, in which the poor operators are busy all day relocating bikes back uphill. After assessing the Villo system in 2012, researchers found that 36 percent of its frequent users would be willing to return bikes to higher stations more often if some sorts of compensation would be granted to them. Not much later, the operators started to reward the fit users leaving their bikes at the highest stations with extra credits on their card. In the light of these series, we could say they improved the resilience of a limping system by including a mutualistic relation.

A modern Sisyphus redistributing shared bicycles to uphill stations in Brussels. Picture by TIMB.

A modern Sisyphus redistributing shared bicycles to uphill stations in Brussels. Picture by TIMB.

Joint venture for a better user experience

Recently, the Dutch railway operator NS added targeted media add-ons to their monthly subscription model. Travellers can now choose to include the add-ons for a reduced fare, giving them access to services that increase their on-board experience. The first collaboration of such kind was with the digital media company Blendle, which offers an online platform with access to over 120 newspapers and magazines. By understanding the potential of the time spent travelling on trains, the NS was able to focus on experiences that benefit the user on a different emotional level. In this case, the need of self-actualisation by reading trumps the need of getting from A to B. Not only do these types of media add-ons create a new type of value for the NS, they also allow for young and innovative companies such as Blendle to promote their services to a large user-base.

Such deep understanding of user-journeys and the potential of downtime, is something the airline industry has traditionally been very good at. From offering tax-free products at airports, to integrating car-rentals in the online booking process - add-on media and services are an integral part of how companies create value. The extent to which these add-ons contribute to the user experience is of course up to debate, but what is clear is that they are resulting in more networked and shared value propositions.

Thanks to a simple joint venture, all NS trains transform in a kick-ass riding news library.

Thanks to a simple joint venture, all NS trains transform in a kick-ass riding news library.

Mobject

A mobject (short for mobile object) is a vehicle concept conceived by MMKM – not to be confused with a concept vehicle. The key point of this concept is that a mobject should rather be approached as an object than a vehicle. The reason for doing so is quite simple: the essence of a vehicle lies in its ability to move. Therefore, it is only relevant for its direct users: the people it carries around. This means by consequence that the vast majority of people in the vehicle's environment are not addressed at all. The essence of an object, on the other hand, lies in its set of attributes that make it what it fundamentally is. Motion is not necessarily part of this set, which makes an object potentially useful and meaningful for everyone interacting with it.

Too philosophical? Some might say so. Nonetheless, this approach has a lot of relevance that reaches far beyond mere semantics. A mobject becomes very meaningful in places characterised by lots of direct interaction with people, such as urban cores and pedestrian cells. By blurring and fading the boundaries between urban infrastructure and vehicle, it makes a positive contribution to its complete environment of users as well as non-users.

Investigation from a pre-mobject era. The publipods as designed in 2012 had interactive screens, making them more versatile for urban dwellers. The ideas were later deepened into the mobject concept.

Investigation from a pre-mobject era. The publipods as designed in 2012 had interactive screens, making them more versatile for urban dwellers. The ideas were later deepened into the mobject concept.

Afterthoughts

After writing these 3 blogs, an interesting insight we gained is that there isn't really such a thing as a symbiotic hierarchy in which you have to endeavour reaching the top. Parasitising a mode to prevent monopolisation and challenge market convention might be as valuable to the entire mobility system as mutually sharing a ride. A single mode can have many concurrent relations: it's not a story of "or", but one of "and". The one is not necessarily excluding the other.

Nevertheless, some types of relations do seem to put a primary negative mark on the system. Think of the parked cars taking up public space as example of amensalism in our first post. Other types have a rather dubious position in the system. From a sheer ecological point of view, a mutualistic service like vehicle relocation might even be a poor idea, since transporting those vehicles all at once by trailer or train is arguably better for our environment. From an economical point of view, the practice makes sense though...

It is nonsense to strive for a mobility ecology that is entirely based on mutualistic systems. This shouldn't really surprise, since the very same applies for symbiosis in nature. The question we initiated this series with – which relations are strong enough to withstand the test of time? – is therefore poorly chosen. All relations persist in one big system of constant challenge in which one is potentially as valuable as any other. The part of our introduction that does remain relevant is the aim for insight in the entire interactive system and how to use it to design resilient mobility solutions able to leapfrog shortcomings.
Let's find out how this theoretical approach translates into practice!

(Wouter Haspeslagh, Sebastian Lilge, Joost Bianchi, Vincenzo Seminara)