Academic Reflection

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.

 a person riding a bicycle

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.


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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.