Are you a rational, selfish and isolated individual?
In mobility policy making the model of the rational economic man still reigns. The model of commons however helps us to see humans as cooperative and connected helping us to develop new frameworks to understand mobility.
You are a homo economicus! At least, that is one of the key narratives of our mobility thinking. When traffic engineering was looking for ways to model individuals who travel from A to B in the 1960s, they looked at the mainstream economic theories of the time. These used a severe simplification of the human, a caricature if you will. Under certain very strict restrictions, the behaviour of humans could be captured by the ‘homo economicus’ or rational economic man. This pictures us as cold, rational, isolated, calculating individual who optimizes his own utility, or wealth. Since then, decades of research by economy scholars shows (1) the lack of the pure market conditions that are necessary for this; (2) the biases and heuristics that show our inability to behave as homo economicus and; (3) the destructive results of arranging the world along these principles.
But in mobility policy making, in our transportation models and in the public debate on traffic, this model of humans still reigns. We say ‘travel is a derived demand’, we say that ‘everybody aims for travel time savings’ and we talk about congestion every half an hour on every radio station. All the time! And when we see people as egoistic utility maximizers, we see every interaction as a conflict. And we design our public spaces as places where isolated individuals can optimize their utility by having minimal ‘conflicts’.
A new (or actually very old) and promising narrative from economics that is helping us to shift our understanding of human behaviour and avoid the destructive consequences is the commons or commoning. Essentially a way to re-understand how we can govern collective resources, this approach also helps us to see humans not as selfish and isolated, but as cooperative and connected. This can help us to develop new concepts and frameworks to understand mobility, new guidelines and models to design mobility systems, and new innovations that will shape radically different mobility futures. Read the whole paper here.
More to explore
The lab of thought recommends
- Follow and engage with social media accounts that question the language we use to talk about streets, such as those of Tom Flood (who is also flipping the script on road violence), Strong Towns, Jan Kamensky. Follow Marco te Brömmelstroet as Cycling Professor on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Tiktok, Reddit.
- Share information on the website roaddanger.org by adding news items on crashes and other traffic accidents that you come across in the media. By doing so, you can help raise awareness of how people write and talk about such events — often in a dehumanised way, despite the long-term, deep, and wide-ranging impact they have.
- More inspiring accounts: Playing Out, Modacity, Monkey Wrench Gang and The War on Cars.
- Read Marco te Brömmelstroet's free e-book, which forms the academic basis for The Movement.
- Take a look at the Groningen Guideline for Public Space, which refers to nine other dimensions in addition to that of mobility: accessibility, safety, human perception, health, social interaction, ecology, climate adaptation, economy, and cultural history. Learn to identify these various dimensions and to look at them as a whole.
- Read Metaphors We Live By (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson), Thinking in Systems (Donella H. Meadows), Fighting Traffic: the dawn of the motor age in the American city and Autonorama: the illusory promise of high-tech driving (Peter Norton), and New Power: how power works in our hyper-connected world (Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms).
- Watch the Ted Talk How language shapes the way we think (Lera Boroditsky).
- Follow one or more of the MOOCs offered by the University of Amsterdam: Unravelling the Cycling City, Alternative Mobility Narratives, and Reclaiming the Street for Liveable Urban Spaces or Getting Smart about Cycling Futures.
BECOME A THINKER OF TOMORROW
There is an urgent need to rethink our thinking about mobility. The current expectations on mobility innovations are often rooted in the advances in digital technology and are generally greeted with eager optimism. Unfortunately what is often overlooked are the unmet needs of humans and our planet. The Lab of Thought attempts to explain mobility from this standpoint, so we as individuals and as societies lessen our impact on the planet, now and in the future.