Beyond the all-urban: mobility goes afield

What is to be done when some see our major cities as having become “barbaric”? Running counter to a metropolisation synonymous with dangerous concentrations, inevitable social inequalities and excessive environmental impacts, the non-urban rises from the ground as a playing field for experimentations of an all new kind. The mobility sector, tapped to help tighten bonds that have become all too loose between the magnet-like metropolises and other oft-neglected spaces, is in the frontline.

Alternatives to metropolisation can be seen taking shape everywhere, but with different outlooks. Here, Guillaume Faburel, Professor of Urban Studies at ENS Lyon and one of those who have long pleaded for a much-needed blueprint of a “post-urban” world, recently drew up an inventory – inviting interested parties to implement them – of “direct de-urbanisation practices” (minimalism, frugalism, on-shoring, prosumer activity, commons, etc.). The idea is to ensure the sustenance of medium-sized cities, an alternative to polarisation and an imperative need for territorial and social equity, recognised as such at the European level for years. There, others are etching out a new meshing of “territories in motion” and the idea, given new life with the widespread implementation the lockdown home office, of “working where we want to live”. Leaving Paris: an (long-standing) trend that has wind in its sails….

MaaS Attacks… in the countryside!  

… but cannot be implemented by decree! Is our spatial organisation ready for a trend of this kind? More broadly speaking, while the much-touted “demographic imperatives of tomorrow” are increasingly those of today (2% of the planet’s surface – cities – are home to more than half of the nearly 8 billion people on Earth…) and while the recent crises experienced by society are also crises of territory, land planning and organisation, in particular the spatial organisation of lifestyles, the mobility sector is being asked to help us grapple with these “post-urban” challenges.

Does this imply that rural should be “the” new building block for the infamous mobility of the future? In its earliest days, one of the figures of this mobility in transition, MaaS, for Mobility as a Service, a unified, intermodal, seamless and digitised service spanning an entire territory, was forestalled by extremely dense and concentrated hyper-urban territories (pdf). As it appears, such “all-in-one” travel services are of benefit when faced with complex journeys, especially those between two suburban zones or from suburbia to the city centre, in large metropolises. Medium-sized cities, however, from Saint-Étienne to the pioneering Mulhouse, are also showing its benefits in other contexts.

In Finland, “the” MaaS country, researchers have perfected an invaluable methodology for assessing its benefits in rural settings. Above all, it shows that many challenges remain, including the spectre of inefficiency (low individual flows, long distances and restricted occupancy rates, expensive and limited infrastructure, and few “travel chains” already in place). However, local expertise, digitisation, stable and predictable environments, trust in peer-to-peer at the scale of small communities, as well as, more globally, the Zeitgeist, all give reasons to believe in it. What the Finnish case studies teach us is above all the need to focus on the principle of one-stop digital services, encompassing all types of transport, including emerging uses, which should be encouraged: carpooling, transport on demand, multimodal transport along pre-designed integrated “travel chains”, autonomous mobility [for more on this subject, see our interview with Pierre Delaige, editor’s note [ADD URL]]… Above all, conclude the researchers, “it is vital that demand and service supply be transparent and synchronized” around platforms that provide the routes, timetables, and prices, but also information and data in real time. On the horizon, then, is a new flow-based logistics that remains largely to be invented (…and which will endeavour to make a home for itself in the tourism industry, from city-breaks to eco-tourism).

Zeroing in on the efforts of car-makers: Volkswagen, a case in point  

It can nonetheless be seen coming into place here and there, whether in the services to support emerging uses offered by motorside carpooling areas or concepts that interconnect chosen mobility (or chosen immobility!) central to our activities, like these “de-mobility hubs”. Beyond the innovations released by major operators, local bottom-up initiatives, in particular in shared mobility, are developing in rural territories, for instance in the Lot or the Tarn-et-Garonne, where infrastructures and signage are being experimented with to mainstream not car-pooling, but hitch-hiking for trips, for instance, from one outdoor food market to another. Less futuristic than the European Commission’s so-called “smart villages”, they are the bucolic counterpart to smart cities…  though they do include, alongside MaaS and digitisation, some “low tech” offerings: volunteering and physical mini-hubs featuring services.

It nonetheless remains that some car manufacturers, not least Volkswagen, are taking up the concept of rural mobility. What we have here are the beginnings of a “cultural” offensive, the aim of which is to draw attention to what is also a new market, far-removed from the “urban-whatever”. The German brand is in the midst of a move towards diversification and has notably taken position on the affordable city electric cars marketa Holy Grail for any manufacturer. However, by the time 2019 rolled around, it was also announcing via a LinkedIn post, that it was also taking a look at the “post-urban” – a term it espouses and shoulders.  Citing in a jumble Trump, Le Pen and the need to address the “non-connected”, one of the manufacturer’s executives asserted that “post-urban spaces deserve our full attention: we need to shape them and develop positive visions around a successful modern life, which finally unites the useful with the pleasant of the city and the countryside”. In the midst of a project on the rural mobility of the future rolled out in grand fashion at the Guggenheim in New York around architect Rem Koolhas’ think tank, “Countryside”, see video), Volkswagen has released a concept car for an electric tractor. It is a harbinger of tomorrow’s mobility, seen through the prism of electrical power (and in this case, since the focus here is primarily on the sub-Saharan African market, of solar power as well) but also a signal of increased interest in post-urban scenarios. The idea is to think in “system” terms: more than a vehicle prototype, the German manufacturer has worked to model an e-mobility ecosystem: the tractors, not purchased by individuals, but shared and linked to a network of “collectivised” solar charging stations, thus promise, in addition to a technical gain in business efficiency, new forms of sociability. Smart battery power for electric vehicles is establishing itself as central to ecosystems that go beyond the mere ability to run cars: storage and intermittent power generation systems will also be linked to it (see the work carried out by entities such as Omexom). Most importantly, all of this could help build social ties. The rural mobility of the future thus also help renew the social pact. At any rate, current discourse is moving in this direction. And, as Koolhas says, “putting the countryside back on the agenda” would already be a victory. To be continued, then!

The rural mobility of the future thus also helps renew the social pact. At any rate, current discourse is moving in this direction. And, as Koolhas says, “putting the countryside back on the agenda” would already be a victory. To be continued, then!

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The VINCI Group created Leonard to tackle the challenges posed by the transformation of regions and lifestyles. Our goal is to unite a community of key stakeholders in order to build the city of the future together.