Mobility and the Future of Travel
Deem’s resident mobility expert, Nikolaj Koster, joined the team earlier this year and is fascinated with the way people move within and between cities. In fact, he’s spent the past decade thinking about how to make the experience of getting from point A to point B more efficient, cost-effective, and sustainable, all while improving the quality of life for communities and wellbeing of the earth as a whole.
Before joining Deem, those ambitions led him to launch two mobility businesses in Europe: Drivr, a company that sought to modernize the way the taxi industry interacted with consumers looking for a ride; and then Spiri, which created a carpool-on-demand concept that was both more affordable for riders and better for the environment.
Koster's driven, forward-thinking approach is a perfect fit for Deem and his enthusiasm for all things mobility is contagious, which is why we’re excited to share his perspective on the future of mobility and how that future will affect not only corporate travel but spread far beyond, into every corner of society.
When we speak about mobility in travel and transportation circles, we’re really talking about how anyone can move from one place to another.
“At the heart of it,” explains Koster, “mobility asks, ‘How do we make sure people can move in the communities in which they live? How can we have freedom of movement between our homes, our children’s kindergarten, our commute to work,’ and so on?”
These questions involve more than just individuals and businesses. “Governments need to be involved, too, because they need to make sure that across socio-economic layers, everyone has equal opportunity to have mobility in their lives,” he says.
Today’s mobility landscape
When we think about modern mobility, we typically think about companies such as Uber and Lyft. According to Koster, those are the two big players that brought us into the current era; their digital ride-share models eventually inspired municipal bike share programs in cities large and small, as well as the rise in startup e-scooter companies like Bird and Lime.
These “new mobility” examples layer upon our existing transportation infrastructure that includes our personal vehicles and public transit options such as buses, trains, and subway systems. It even includes our physical capabilities, enabling choices as simple as walking from point to point. In the context of transportation, mobility typically refers to our options for ground transportation, since that’s what makes up the vast majority of our day-to-day movement (even among frequent fliers.)
Although we have more mobility options than we’ve ever had before, our society remains heavily reliant on car ownership, a fact that comes with a list of serious challenges to address.
“The biggest share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — 29% — comes from transportation, and a huge share of that is from cars,” says Koster. “On top of that, more than 35,000 Americans die on the road every year. Three times the number of people die in America each year from car crashes as compared to an average Western country.”
That’s not to say anything about growing traffic congestion, the opportunity costs of time spent in long commutes, or the individual and governmental costs associated with a reliance on a traditional car culture. But Koster is optimistic and can clearly see a better route.
“What if we could build mobility systems so great that people stopped buying cars? What would happen then? Because owning a car is also a very inefficient mode of mobility,” he says. “The usage rate for a car is just 5%, which means that 95% of the time it sits empty in a parking lot. As an asset, that’s a huge waste of time. And for Mother Nature, that is tremendously unwise.”
Imagining the future of mobility
Experts in the mobility space have been imagining the future of transportation in America for years now. Even the average person is beginning to appreciate the seismic changes likely just around the corner.
Think about it: Just a decade ago, most of the country hadn’t yet clued into the burgeoning sharing economy. But today, we could hardly imagine our lives without the convenience of hailing a car from our mobile phones. For that matter, when was the last time you used a paper map versus pulling up an instant comparison of your travel options — including driving, biking, and public transit — on Google Maps?
In addition to becoming more comfortable with various ways of moving around our environments, we’re also beginning to see some practical effects of shifting our mindset on the real value of streets.
“Most progressive thinkers see cities as having been built very much for cars, primarily, and pedestrians only secondarily. But what if you flip that dynamic?” asks Koster.
He points to the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and New York City’s Open Streets initiative, which took 83 miles of the city’s roads and closed them off to car traffic in favor of creating sprawling public spaces for pedestrians and cyclists. The initiative proved enormously popular, with residents embracing the opportunity to leave their apartments and enjoy ample space for outdoor dining, impromptu concerts, and a much-needed sense of community with their neighbors.
According to The New York Times, “People reclaimed the pavement and are, by and large, unwilling to give it back.” Officials have promised that some form of the Open Streets initiative will continue beyond the pandemic, though how those promises hold up remains to be seen.
The concept of freeing up roadways for public spaces that prioritize people over cars isn’t new — it’s something that mobility thought leaders have been discussing for years. Of course the key to public space utopias doesn’t lie in the complete abandonment of cars. Rather, it hinges on rethinking what type of car we put on the road, and likely, in our full embrace of autonomous vehicles.
How self-driving cars will reshape society
“It’s crazy interesting to imagine these better mobility systems, but the inflection point is when they’re autonomous,” says Koster. “That’s when we can do something truly magical.”
As an example, he points to a robust 2015 report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The OECD studied what might happen if an average, mid-size European city underwent a large-scale adoption of self-driving cars, with that fleet of automated vehicles serving as a replacement for all cars as they currently exist as well as all bus traffic. (This was in favor of high-capacity public transport, such as subway and rail systems.)
“These autonomous vehicles would basically be efficient Ubers that don’t need to park, don’t need to rest, and never crash. And they would also move packages and make deliveries, in addition to moving people,” explains Koster. “What the study found is that they could remove 90% of all vehicles in the city and still maintain the same level of mobility.”
“What also would happen is that there would be no cars parked in the city anymore, which is just crazy to imagine. That would equate to 210 football fields of freed-up parking space in a city that’s, say, the size of Seattle, and could be made into parks or schools. And that’s because, at the end of the night or when there is less demand to move people and things around, these autonomous vehicles would simply leave the city. They’d go somewhere else to get charged and cleaned, and then they’d return like little bees and get back to work.”
Additionally, local tailpipe emissions would end practically overnight, since the entire fleet would be electric. “It’s mind blowing that this isn’t actually too far away,” says Koster.
Realistically, that sort of large-scale adoption in even a single city is at least a decade away, but we can see the seeds of this future in American cities like Phoenix, Arizona, where Waymo (Google’s self-driving car project) is now operating its self-driving ride-hailing service within a 50-square-mile area.
In San Francisco, where Koster lives, several autonomous car companies have also applied for licenses; he can see the evolution play out in front of him.
“When I walk outside my door, I can see them driving out there with their radars and cameras on top of the vehicle. I obviously live and breathe this stuff, but I still stop and look and am like, ‘Oh, my god, you’re electric, you’re safe, you’re gentle, you stop for pedestrians, you don’t honk your horn. This is so amazing!’”
The “gentle” factor matters, going back to the shocking statistics about how many road deaths happen per year — 94% of which are caused by human error. Self-driving cars can eliminate those human errors, and the data show that roads will be far safer with autonomous vehicles. Still, Koster is realistic and acknowledges that it’ll take some time for the public to feel safe in embracing this technology.
Corporate travel and the future of mobility
We’ve been talking about mobility in terms of ground transportation, an area of focus that pertains to the world of corporate travel, too. By and large, that conversation centers on ride-hail and black car services that take travelers from door to door with the least amount of anxiety and mental gymnastics. There's a massive opportunity for evolution in this landscape.
Right now, these types of car services are the most convenient for travelers not because the modes of transit are themselves inherently better, but because using them is easier. Most of us know how to book a car on our mobile phones, we simply share our destination address and the driver handles the rest. There are no routes for us to consider, no ticket fares to manually calculate, no unfamiliar systems to grasp.
The problems here are similar to the ones previously mentioned. Traffic congestion, road hazards and safety concerns, plus our carbon footprints, still come into play. And, for corporate travel programs, you’re faced with runaway spending caused by some 80% of travelers going off platform to self-book their cars and expense them later.
“People go rogue because very few options exist for new mobility in corporate travel,” says Koster. “But that’s our opportunity, which we at Deem think is extremely exciting. How can we be part of this transition to make mobility accessible for everyone, including corporate travelers? If we can help travelers identify the right mode — whether that’s an electric bike or a subway or an Uber — for their ground transportation, and if we can take into account their security level with a particular mode, or the urgency of their timing, that’s a very convenient thing.”
“I also, then, happen to believe that it’s good for the world. Because I do believe that multimodal mobility, where we bring in more efficient modes that work within a system accessible to everybody, will bring us faster to electrification and to a healthier planet.”
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