Reshaping the mobility system as we know it
Updated: Apr 20, 2021
The following essay was my final assignment in the course "Alternative Mobility Narratives" by professor Marco te Brömmelstroet of Amsterdam University's Urban Cycling Institute. I completed the course in February 2021 with this case study of a mobility innovation that I personally find to be a game-changer in logistics.
The essay is meant to fundamentally rethink the chosen mobility innovation in the light of the alternative mobility narratives we were able to get to know through the course. That's why you will find many quotations and references to academic research.
I believe that innovations like the eTrailer, that use technology in a way to strengthen existing systems without jeopardizing them through overcomplexification (the trailer can be used even if electricity is out) are the progress factors we as a society should root for. To much digitization and automation endanger a development towards resilience and threaten mental health through further loss of human interaction. We should be thinking about reshaping the mobility system as we know it. There are ways, there is a necessity and there is a growing will within society. Let us all be part of the change towards a more livable future.
Disclaimer: This essay was in no way supported nor paid for by NÜWIEL.
Case study: the NÜWIEL eTrailer
Even after many years of working in the mobility sector, the course Alternative Mobility Narratives opened many new and unknown doors to me and stimulated new thought processes in approaching mobility problems in my current mission as an independent consultant.
We were asked to choose a mobility innovation that we would “rethink” at the end of the seven-week course and I chose the eTrailer NÜWIEL from the Hamburg start-up by the same name because I believe that many “innovations” one hears about don’t take into account the big picture of the common good as does NÜWIEL. The reason I wanted to analyse NÜWIEL and their approach of bettering an existing system, the trailer, by adding a reactive electrical motor to it, was that I see their innovation as a direct challenger to the automated delivery drone.
Mobility innovations often aim at integrating some new technology to up efficiency of an existing system and complexify the initially resilient and manageable set of procedures, thus creating what D.H. Meadows calls a reinforcing feedback loop - the more it works, the more it gains power to work some more, driving system behaviour in one direction. ( D.H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems, 2008, p.155) A huge number of innovations nowadays aim to repair some feedback loop created by another innovation, launched without foresight, years ago.
Since the innovation I chose refers to mobility in its logistics aspect, neo-liberal thought patterns almost automatically apply. If we concede that in people mobility traditional transport planning, following the rationale of micro-economic consumer utility maximization theory (i.e. “homo-economicus’ perspective; Urbina & Villaverde, 2019) sees travel time as a negative utility or as a disutility (Metz, 2008; Schiefelbusch, 2010; Banister et al., 2013), this logic most assuredly applies to goods.
The human factor
What often is forgotten in this equation is the human factor, the social aspect of goods transportation and the interaction that thereof follows. If one could argue that truck-platooning with self driving trucks across Europe might “ensure cleaner and more efficient transport” and that “self-driving vehicles also contribute to road safety because most accidents are caused by human failure” (Melanie Schultz van Haegen, Dutch infrastructure and environment minister, The Guardian 7.04.2016), I doubt that the same arguments will apply to inner-city deliveries by automated drones. These will most assuredly cause a further disconnection from human interaction in our daily lives. I’m not saying that the life of our modern proletariat that have become delivery drivers is acceptable or would be a desirable way of life for myself. But replacing deliverypersons with drones would not help the situation. More effort should be invested in bettering the situation of the people delivering instead of rationalising their jobs away. Of course, introducing an electric trailer into the system does not mean that the system will adapt in a way as to better the daily life of the people working for delivery companies. But the interaction that the clients have with the people delivering as well as for human interaction in the streets, in the buildings, in the elevators, is not replaceable by an automated drone.
The tyrant consumer
If the public spaces of the city and the private places of the home appear to have been ‘drowned-out in the modern urban built environment centered on traffic flow’ (Adey 2010, p.89), this flow is now heavily challenged by delivery trucks and vans. This is the pervert side-effect of what Phillippe Bihouix calls the tyrant consumer: We have become tyrant consumers, we want quality, efficiency, reactivity, disponibility, speed, serviability, everywhere and all the time, and we want it all at the lowest price possible” ( P. Bihouix, L’âge des low-Tech - vers une civilisation techniquement soutenable, n.p.). We reached an even more challenging moment in time than the one Illich described in the early 80s: The road has been degraded from a commons to a simple ressource for the circulation of vehicles. People can circulate no more on their own. (Illich, 1983, n.p.) Now this resource itself seems to slowly dry up if there is no political action taken.
There is no interaction when drones start to deliver
Using logistic hubs in the cities’ peripheries and delivering into the center by cargo-bikes and bikes with eTrailers could be be a viable option that as an aside would fill the city with more life and human interaction. As te Brömmelstroet notes “What remains under-addressed in this discussion (systemic effects of mobility) are potential effects of mobility on relational qualities: what do different mobility practices do for the quality of relations between people as well as between them and their surroundings.” (te Brömmelstroet et al., 2017) Having deliveries being carried out by people and not robots will increase social interaction as cargo-bikes and eTrailers driven and pulled by people will enter pedestrian zones to continue the delivery of goods. Interaction will automatically ensue between the deliveryperson and the shopkeeper whose shop is delivered to, also between the deliveryperson and the shopkeeper where the eTrailer is stationed in front of for a short time.
Redefining scarce street space
Innercity streets will be less encumbered due to less trucks and vans and space scarcity will be redefined. As Nikolaeva states, scarcity is often presented as a taken-for-granted “fact”, it is more often the case that the resource that is defined as “scarce” exists in relation to other resources that are ignored and marginalised. (Nikolaeva et al., 2018, n.p.) This would clearly be the case here. Recent experiments during the Cargobikathon in Groningen showed that cargobikes could not achieve the same effectiveness than van/truck delivery to the city. (To my knowledge though, the same experiment was not yet carried out with automated drones.) Also, for the sake of well-being, shouldn’t we primarily be thinking about a system that would be better in more ways than just effectiveness? I think we still have to read a peer reviewed study that proves humans thrive better the more their environment becomes automated, technicized and robotized. People need human interaction to feel better and to grow in relationships. All future transport and mobility innovation should have this holistic approach as their tape measure.
And innovators and marketers are aware of this underlying feeling many have. That’s why self-driving cars are partly promoted as a new space for social interaction.
If we ask the question “what’s in it for the deliveryperson?”, we can refer to the flow definition by Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi that defines flow as an experience that occurs when a person is fully immersed in doing something that provides, on the one hand, a minimum challenge to keep the person concentrated and, on the other hand, enough challenge as not to become bored or distracted. One could argue that, since the person using the eTrailer does not have to pull the weight that is compensated by the electric motor on the trailer, she can concentrate fully on what she is doing: riding he bike or pulling the trailer by foot from A to B. Since the weight does not add to the equation, the level of effort the person has to invest does not go up and flow during the travel could set in easier. Also not having to find a parking spot for the delivery van or the truck takes away stress in an urban environment. Less stress means more chance of getting into the flow state. The eTrailer can be parked everywhere, so the deliveryperson can place it centrally to the different places she has to deliver to. She does not have to worry about parking time limits nor parking fees and depending on the weight of the object to deliver can enter any accessible building with the eTrailer at hand, since it is no wider than a wheelchair and can fit into elevators. All these points help to lower the stress level and allow her to self-organise her often tedious, daunting task in a way as to find her personal optimum within the system she has to operate in and by this, find her way to the flow state.
From an ecological point of view, the NÜWIEL eTrailer is by definition a piece of high-tech equipment. One has to account for electricity, know-how for repairs, spare parts, batteries and so on. In this aspect, it falls into the same category of green technology P. Bihouix criticizes: (…) the technologies that we look for for salvation only add to the difficulties. […] Because “green technologies” are generally based on new technologies, use rare metals, contribute to the complexity of products and therefore heighten the difficulty of recycling. (L'âge des Low Tech- vers une civilisation techniquement soutenable, Philippe Bihouix p. 71) I would argue that this specific innovation is beneficial nonetheless, because it replaces trucks and vans and eventually electrical trucks, electrical vans and electrical cars. Compared to these heavy-weights, the eTrailer ’s ecological impact could be considered equal to that of an e-cargobike. One will need rare earth and other components, but to a much lesser extent. And the trailer is usable without the electric motor, which is not the case for the trucks and vans. I believe that in this equation, the NÜWIEL eTrailer gets pretty good results. Its generalisation also could help level social distortions. If a government or a municipality would decide to put eTrailers into the public domain as an eTrailer sharing system, there would be a certain democratization as everyone would have the possibility to transport bulky and heavy objects without having to pay for transport companies or having to rent a truck. Since the eTrailer compensates for the weight that is transported, the user would not even have to be physically strong to have an equal mobility freedom.
Democratise access to goods
If we think further and aim to tackle the problems caused by mass retail malls placed in the open countryside that are reachable only by car and are thus inherently anti-social and non-resilient, a citizen-governed local/central stock of goods that could be delivered by bike and by eTrailer to the inhabitants of rural municipalities would help democratise access to goods as well as diminish the individual high carbon mobility necessary to the provision of the individuals’ subsistence. It is all about changing the paradigm and political will and courage. One has to change the point of view on the problem. As Donella H. Meadows wrote, “The ancient Egyptians built pyramids because they believed in an afterlife. We build skyscrapers because we believe that space in downtown cities is enormously valuable. (…) people who intervene in systems at the level of paradigm have hit a leverage point that totally transforms systems.” (D.H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems, 2008, p.163) And this is where we have to get to. Putting the finger on those leverage points in the system. We have to keep pushing the agenda of resilience on every level of society, opening eyes and minds to the fragility of our system that is based on just-in-time procedures with little or no buffer at any level of any transaction. Our society is completely dependent on the frictionless flow of logistics and everything easily derails if some sand kernels start blocking the tiniest of gears.
We have to look for less complex systems
If we look for resilience, we have to look for less complex systems, less intertwined logistics and increased localism. What we are looking for is the famous “less is more” thinking that eventually could lead to a good life. A good life which can be broken down into the seven basic goods of health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship and leisure. (Skidelsky & Skidelsky, How much is enough?, 2012, p. xii) Many of these goods can be strengthened by turning to a more localist system approach and thus by stillness (Bissell 2011; Bissell and Fuller 2013; Cresswell 2012) and slowness (Alfonzo 2005, Bergmann and Sager 2008; Hubbard and Lilley 2004; Pink 2008). We define resilience as a characteristic that makes both practices and objects sustainable (environmentally, socially, and/or economically) and trustworthy as they have the capacity to resist, to adapt, or to transform themselves in an appropriate and timely fashion when and where needed. They are not prone to “collapse” (Tainter 1988), which we will define here as a fast and radical decline in their social and technological order. Following these ideas, Tainter’s work (1988) is very useful to explain why localism might be a highly promising idea when thinking about resilience. (Ferreira, A., Bertolini, L., & Naess, P. (2017). Immotility as resilience? A key consideration for transport policy and research. Applied Mobilities, 2(1), p.19)
In our case study, Nüwiel is an eTrailer developed as a last mile solution and is by that trait at ease in a localism narrative defining mobility as an unnecessity. If we consider but the innovation in itself, the eTrailer fits into the existing mobility system without causing friction. If we extrapolate the innovation onto different futures then it could fit into the resilience as adaptability narrative for the system as is would only have to perform small changes at the margins to incorporate Nüwiel as a complementary element to the plethora of mobility options available. Resilience as adaptability refers to the capacity to deal with a threat by performing just small changes at the margins. (Ferreira, A., Bertolini, L., & Naess, P. (2017). Immotility as resilience? A key consideration for transport policy and research. Applied Mobilities, 2(1), p.17)
NÜWIEL could help reshape the mobility system as we know it - a modern Pony Express
If we aim for a mostly localist future with stillness, slowness and a reduced high mobility, NÜWIEL would enter Walker and associates’ resilience as transformability definition, for it offers the possibility to rethink the last mile to up to the 60 last miles which can allow us to reshape the mobility system as we know it. They define this form of resilience as “the capacity to create a fundamentally new system when ecological, economic or social (including political) conditions make the existing system untenable” (Walker et al., 2004)
The eTrailer innovation in part tackles some resilience problems that lurk in the technicised future that is promoted and that will bring its’ fair share of complexification and fragility (f. ex. automated drones). NÜWIEL allows post and parcel delivery, transport of goods and intralogistics without getting rid of the human element, thus allowing for interaction, sociability and of course, jobs. Also its implementation would be by far not as complex as a functioning drone network would be. One could imagine a future with a modern pony express with people on bikes and on foot dragging the eTrailers between hubs.
A future we have to bring lovingly into being
The question remains, how the economic logic that only aims at reducing cost in its process can one day be tweaked in favour of a more holistic approach that takes into account all the human aspects we noted in this assignment - aspects that eventually turn into costs at other levels and could be avoided by clever, respectful system building. In my work for resilient systems and projects, I will aim at creating narratives that help this development. As D.H. Meadows noted: The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. ( D.H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems, 2008, p.169)
EVERARD Consulting & Communication