Interview Anna Nikolaeva

Why we so desperately need a new narrative on mobility 

In her paper Commoning mobility: towards a new politics of mobility transitions, scientist Anna Nikolaeva argues that the current narrative on mobility is untenable. It will only lead to more environmental and urban planning problems, health and safety issues and social inequality. We desperately need a new narrative that focuses on mobility as a common good. “We need to recognize that we shape each other’s lives through mobility and that the effects are enormous. We need to talk about this and manage mobility differently.” 

a scooter standing still with people walking around it

Since 2016 you have been working on applying commons thinking to mobility and you presented a new concept called “commoning mobility”. Can you explain what this means and why this stands out from other concepts?

“I developed this as a counterpart to the dominant way of thinking about mobility, the individualistic narrative on mobility where mobility is seen as an individual right. I believe that narrative is at the root of many problems that we face today like environmental problems, health issues, safety issues, urban planning issues and pollution. The idea of mobility as a commons encourages you to see the social value of mobility. Instead of only focusing on how and what I can move and how I as a consumer get more efficiency out of mobility, we put the emphasis on the social side of mobility. Seeing mobility as a commons, or commoning mobility, means focusing on mobility as something we do to each other and with each other. It is not merely an individual right or a precondition for economic growth. An example I always like to give is that the choice to either use a bicycle or a car has a profound impact on the society around you. We shape each other's lives through mobility and the effects are enormous, on our health, well-being, social cohesion and of course the environment. We need to recognise that, talk together about this and manage mobility differently.”

Which will be hard in an individualistic society.

“Absolutely. But I am glad that we can see people already longing for different initiatives. I think you can see that when opportunities are created like car free Sundays or the concept of the Leefstraat in both Belgium and the Netherlands for example. When people get acquainted with this concept, they appreciate it. When you can show people what kind of life people are able to have they might be open for change. Challenging the status quo won’t be easy though, because the default way of doing things is a lot easier.”

What do you think is the default way of doing things? What is the core narrative that is dominant in the mobility field?

“In my opinion this rests on two pillars: mobility as an individual right and mobility as an absolute necessity in the context of economic growth. If we look at the first pillar it means in the modern world we should be able to get anywhere we want, provided we have enough money. From there you also have a notion that mobility should be comfortable and efficient and it is linked to optimizing mobility and it is linked to the fact that mobility should not be limited. The second pillar revolves around the notion that mobility is linked to economic growth and this cannot be reduced. As a society we need to move things and people and that leads to an emphasis on efficiency. Getting people and goods fast from A to B, which leads to higher consumption, is the dominant narrative.”

If we would stick to this dominant narrative, what would that mean for communities and mobility in the short and long run?

“I think this narrative globally won’t be compatible with planetary boundaries. Also, it prioritizes consumption over human connection and efficiency over safety. It implies that high carbon mobility is unlimited and we can get away with that. We all know that this is not possible. What about the safety aspect and pollution? These are also problems we cannot deny. And what kind of place does this narrative lead to? If we zoom in the Netherlands for example, it might lead to enclaves of nice and liveable social spaces, but in many places where driving is more dominant, huge surfaces are taken up by parking, highways and shopping malls. This is infrastructure that separates people instead of connecting them. People are being sent down the path of car dependency, isolation and alienation. The consequences really are enormous.”

So, a mobility narrative needs to have a big social component as well?

“Yes, absolutely. I am aware that mobility as a commons sounds like it is something that is really hard to put in practice, but you can start using it on a local level. The Leefstraat is an example of how people together decide what for them is the value of mobility. It asks fundamental questions like what do we want to do with our space? What are the sacrifices we are willing to make and what are the sacrifices we are not willing to make? How do we want to live together and what agreements can we make? How do we want to distribute the budget of transportation projects in a city? Do we want this money allocated to building more roads or do we want this allocated to something else? We may not achieve agreements globally as we achieve agreements in our streets, but thinking about how my choices have an impact on others is still possible in my opinion.”  

Is this narrative a dead end street or does it also lead to good things?

“There are some things that do make sense, because there is nothing wrong with efficiency per se. If you want it everywhere though and if it is unquestionable and it permeates all spheres and policies around mobility, then it definitely is a problem. You may want the street you live in to be more for socializing, but you still want the emergency services to cross the city efficiently. And while there is nothing wrong with efficiency, we don’t want this to be the only key motivation. And yes, the economy matters, but is unlimited consumption really wise? I am not so sure. We need to unravel this and ask ourselves what we can keep and what we can get rid of.”

Grab the good things, tinker with it and implement it in a new way?

“It is about awareness. We currently take it for granted. We need to focus on elements that do more harm than good and see what we can do with that. Some elements make sense, but they need to be unpacked.”  

You just started a theme called gendered mobility. Can you tell me what you mean by this?

“Different societal groups have very different experiences of mobility. On average women worldwide experience more inconvenient and more dangerous mobility than men. When you look at transport modeling, it is presumed this works for an average person when an average person in fact is not an average person. The transportation system worldwide is mostly arranged so that it works for men who travel by car doing direct trips from A to B, without depending on others. While on average worldwide women more often perform complex trips and they often travel with dependent others like children. They also more often use public transport. If you look at where the investments go, then you will see that most investments go towards men to put it simplistically. So, the way transportation systems are envisioned is not gender neutral. In fact, it is gender insensitive and we need to make them gender sensitive again.”  


“We need to take this dimension in consideration and have a better understanding of local needs and experiences from women. Next to that we also need to take people of minority genders in consideration. When you understand those experiences better, you can create policies together. We also need more diversity in transport planning. When you look at the demographics of transport planners it is mostly men and not men from a minority background. There is a whole world to win.”  

Often the focus on mobility transitions is of technological change. Why is it not sufficient enough to focus on technology?

“The roots of the problems as they exist today don’t lie in technology. If you don’t challenge the idea that anyone should have access to any material goods, provided they have the money, it is not compatible with planetary boundaries. Regardless of technology. Think about, for instance, the issue of utilization of batteries which are placed in electric cars. Also, if everyone has an electric car, you will still end up with parking problems and traffic jams. André Gorz, a French-Austrian philosopher, used compared having a car with having a villa on the beach. Do you think it is possible for everyone to have a villa on the seacoast? Of course not. Even if we change technology, we still hit our limits. We will just hit them in other places.”

Do we need social change to challenge the current mobility problems?

“I believe so. I also believe it is also possible to begin to achieve that change the other way around. If you give people access to slower, affordable and safe mobility it might unleash positive change that can inspire other types of social change. If you drive through your city every day compared to walking through your city, your relationship to the place is completely different. So it makes sense to make a start.”

The challenge here is to convince the broader public. Many people think they are entitled to drive a car for example and to keep consuming. How do you convince them this is not the way forward?

“That's a difficult question. There are different ways I think to do this, one is through the philosophy of experimentation. Make people live through an alternative future by showing people for a short time how you can live differently. Amsterdam has done this by giving people access to sharing schemes and giving them access to an e-bike instead of using their car for a month. They live and experience a different kind of life. That's more a positive alteration. A negative could be that people are more confronted with the consequences of their choices. A classic example is when you think about waste. You put your waste in the bin and take it out, but imagine it would stay in your house, for a week, or two weeks, or a month or even more than a month. You will start to think differently, because you will be confronted and realize we really need to turn things around. I think in western societies we are not confronted with the negative consequences of our own consumption. Waste is made invisible for us. Maybe there need to be more confrontational campaigns around this subject.”

How can we repoliticise the discussion around mobility and go beyond seeing it as merely a technological challenge?
“Mobility in people’s minds is often separated from other values. Everyone values safety, health and the environment if you ask them separately. To get people to understand there is something to strive for. Like being able to have children play on the street or live longer when you live in a less polluted city. If people are ready to support this and fight for those things, it would be a way to repoliticise mobility. We need to get people out of their car as a consumer and put them in the city as a citizen. That would be a big switch.”

This also ties in with changing the narrative around mobility. What do we need to do to change the current mobility narrative to get to a fairer and more inclusive mobility field?

Give people the experience of how things could be different and on the other hand confront people more directly with the negative effects. We also need more campaigns and make sure people who think similarly get elected locally and nationally. These elected officials then need to take policy measures that are not popular immediately, because if we wait for everyone to jump on board, we will lose a lot of time. And we need leaders in local and national politics who are willing to take unpopular decisions. That's maybe even more important and necessary. And we as scientists and the group that is already on board need to help them by giving them support, data, tools and other narratives. Furthermore we need to experiment with new ideas, share more, protest, envision better futures and educate ourselves. ”

Want to read more from Anna Nikolaeva, please check her book or read more about commoning mobility on her blog.


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