I can no longer remember at exactly what event or in which interview our former CEO made the following statement, but it has deeply embedded itself in my long-term memory: The automobile is a kind of individual Declaration of Independence!
If you let this sentence really sink in, or perhaps look at it from different perspectives, you’ll realize how justified it was. Whatever means of public transportation we choose — whether it’s a train, bus, subway, or commuter train — from the moment we decide to buy a ticket, we’re no longer independent. And that’s even more the case if we live in a rural area (but I’ll return to that point later).
We have to go to a ticket machine (or to the driver), look at the timetable to see when the vehicle leaves, enter along with many other travelers in the hope of finding a seat, experience all of the intermediate stops, and finally arrive at a stop that we hope is as close as possible to our chosen destination.
Public transportation systems are above all the perfect definition of the “golden mean” and they have to move as many people as possible through our urban centers. This is the heart of the transportation industry, and if we look at the public debate of recent months, we’ll see that this debate has been predefined in terms of big cities.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. For almost the past 11 years I’ve been living in a city that has a population of seven million people in an area that’s one third the size of Berlin. In my city, Taipei, individual transportation is primarily via motor scooter. A total of 1.2 million motor scooters are registered here. But I do my traveling via train, bus, bicycle or the ultimate micromobility trend gadget: shoes!
Public transportation in Taipei is inexpensive, fast, clean, offers Wi-Fi free of charge, and runs from 6 a.m. to midnight. I simply love this infrastructure, and I would say (especially because I can compare it with other infrastructures worldwide) that this is the best public transportation system on the planet.
But would I presume to even think about forcing this form of mobility on other people? Never!
We have to take care that this discussion — which is mainly conducted in an urban, well-educated, and I could almost say elitist environment — is not regarded as a template for the mobility of the future. Because if we do that we’ll be losing a large proportion of the population.
I’m referring to the people who aren’t complaining via Twitter on their 400 MB broadband connection, but instead are wondering whether a bus will be regularly halting at their village’s only bus stop in the near future. These are the people who don’t do their banking via a state-of-the-art fintech app, but instead just hope that the local savings bank branch will still be there next year.
It’s easy to feel that you can ignore the individual needs of other people if you’re able to utilize a nearly perfect infrastructure. Using your cargo bike for a five-minute ride between a yoga lesson and a specialist tea shop — this is the kind of thing that’s only a vision of the future for most people.
Same-day delivery of food and other products for daily use is possible only in our well-developed urban centers. If you live out in the country, you might depend on a mobile food truck that comes by once a week.
An elitist discussion of the future of mobility mainly has the potential to alienate many people. And that’s why we have to look at tomorrow in a much more differentiated way. Mobility is defined not by how you travel but by where you live, work, and spend your time!
And in my opinion, at this point we’ve come full circle. I would write a big exclamation point after Dieter Zetsche’s statement: The automobile is a kind of Declaration of Independence!