Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Students at the Parsons School of Design offer fantastical solutions to urban travel problems with “Mobility Speculations.”
Think tanks, auto makers, and entrepreneurs have long been speculating on how people will move around cities in the future. Self-driving taxis and buses are nearing reality, streets are becoming more bike friendly, and initiatives are already in place to try to curb distracted walking.
Earlier this year, Ford Motor Company injected a dose of fantastical creativity into this endeavor with the “Mobility Speculations” challenge. Students at the Parsons School of Design’s Transdisciplinary Design program were charged with coming up with speculative solutions to some of the most pressing problems surrounding urban mobility. But Ford didn’t want just another idea for, say, a self-driving car. Instead, the company challenged students to tackle issues like increasing urban populations, traffic congestion, and even commuters’ mental health.
“They were very interested in pushing the challenge away from the standard conversations around mobility,” says Elliott Montgomery, the assistant professor of strategic design at Parsons who oversaw the students in the challenge. “They said, ‘Let's look at other spaces that we can innovate in, beyond automotive vehicles.’”
For nearly two months, students explored New York City with this new perspective in mind. They observed the city’s notorious gridlock during rush hour. They took different forms of transportation, from subways to buses to underground shuttles, and brought their notes back to class.
“We had one group of students that took the underground buses that leave from Chinatown and go out to Flushing, Queens,” says Montgomery. “They found it interesting that this bus was not only for people to move from point A to point B, but it was also an opportunity for them to interact socially and connect with others who spoke the same languages and who might be dealing with the same challenges of living in a large city.”
The ideas that came out of these observations are certainly novel. One idea, called the “Imagined Bus,” rethinks the bus experience: The buses get their passengers where they’re going while also addressing social issues like stress and sexual harassment. The “Stillness Bus,” for example, fits each passenger’s head with a “sensory-deprivation dome”—shaped like a fluffy cloud—to help them relax. A second bus aims to reduce sexual harassment by issuing passengers bubble-wrap vests “that pop loudly if someone is sexually violated.” A third version transforms the bus into a marketplace, connecting sellers and buyers via an in-bus app.
Another group tackled easing rush-hour traffic by splitting the city into three time zones, or “Interzones,” staggered an hour apart from one another. Professionals in Interzone 1 would start their day an hour earlier than those in Interzone 2. The idea is to have people commuting to and from work at different times, dividing traffic into three groups and eliminating peak rush hour altogether.
A third proposal rethinks the role of the automobile industry entirely. As cities transition from a car-reliance system to a multi-modal-transport one, car ownership is no longer attractive or practical for everyone (especially among Millennials). Plus, a slew of ride-hailing and car-sharing apps and delivery services have changed some attitudes about driving.
This last group of students proposed that car companies sell “access plans” rather than actual cars. Consultants would work with customers to help them organize the type of transportation they need: Senior citizens might buy a plan mainly for doctor’s appointments, while teenagers could buy an “Adventure Trip” package that allows for group travel that “tests their readiness for adulthood.”
Still other ideas would turn the commuting process into a game, change the way waste is collected, and make carpooling more common. Of course, many of these ideas would be challenging to implement. The Interzones idea, for example, could be a scheduling nightmare for family dinners and business meetings. And getting auto companies to abandon cars altogether won’t be an easy task.
But that’s the point, Montgomery says. These ideas are meant to be provocations for thought, not implementable solutions. “They’re really proposed as ways to loosen our understanding of what is and is not possible,” he tells CityLab. “What [the students] hope to do is to start a discussion around how we can reframe some of our social and interpersonal interactions to change the mobility challenges that we face, instead of focusing on the technological components.”
And perhaps students are the perfect group of people to pivot this conversation. “It’s an opportunity to introduce an element of surprise into the work that’s being done,” he says. “It’s a license to look at new and unexpected territories, and to be a bit more playful.”