live|work: You Are Welcome To Your SUV


Transforming transport services to improve the access to health and care for the elderly in isolated rural communities in the North of England proves to be an unexpected source of inspiration for those with an alternative vision of mobility. Last week in this space my colleague Tamara described a vision of transport, asking, "what if you replace 'car' with 'mobility''? This thought serves as a classic example of 'service thinking' as a way to address some of the seemingly intractable issues that we face. I would like to return to this issue and to the debate that surrounds it and to use a very practical case study from my work to illustrate how the vision relates to important work in local communities.

Tamara and I feel that the dominant economic paradigm is product focused; and that in terms of transport people think about what car they could own for all the incredible functional, emotional and self-expressive value that the car carries (one Treehugger states that the car is the ultimate seamless experience). Our challenge is this; can that paradigm be changed to create a more connected, more effective and less environmentally hostile alternative. A tall order!

I was intrigued to read the responses to Tamara's post which broke down into those who thought like us (even taking the idea a step further and described the need for radical change to the way we design our cities and towns) and those who were sympathetic but sceptical (along the lines of "best of luck but you may have to pry their SUVs out of their cold dead hands"). However, one comment drew our attention away from the vision vs. doom discussion to the obvious but important fact that "most rural societies are too poor to allow everyone to have a car".

Although apparently straightforward, this last comment shifted the focus of the discussion away from the intractable debate about individuals and their vehicles towards an awareness that other people live differently and that perhaps the ways that they live offer a better idea about how to address the conflict between environmental sustainability and living standard. The author of the comment went on to say "I am not recommending poverty as a solution" but acknowledged that we need to look to other societies for inspiration; to find a solution that is not the car/product but a different, more community based, idea about what is valuable.

I hope that a community that works together to resolve its needs — such as the Amish, as KPod suggests, or a more technically networked twenty first century version as illustrated by Tamara - has the opportunity to replace the tangible wealth represented by individual ownership of the automobile with a service of social value. Our friends at Streetcar have seen this value in the experiences of their members. They have noticed that people naturally fill the tank or clean the seats for the next user and describe this as "reciprocal altruism".

If we focus on this kind of value we begin to see that the poverty argument reduces — using a car club could save an average individual £2,000 p/a ($3,750) whist increasing the individual's share of the common good through reduced congestion, emissions and waste. They may even feel a sense of community through the club (a service version of the VW owners mutual recognition). If the individual can have a stake in this social value they are unlikely to feel poor and more likely to feel smart.

I am currently working with a rural community in the North of England to address issues of social isolation and lack of access to resources and services such as education and health. The cost of mobility is higher there than any other county in England and people genuinely suffer ill health as a consequence. We met a woman who pays £40 ($75) taxi fair for an essential fortnightly trip to the chiropodist (a missed trip could lead to more serious and expensive health issues). The goal of the work is to achieve more with less, to make the case for transport providers and private drivers to open their vehicle to wider use. It may be a school bus open to shoppers or neighbours sharing a ride. We are focusing on the infrastructure that will make this possible and it is already happening on a local scale.

The reason I have included this case study is not that it is a unique innovation but because it brings me back to the comment about poverty. I think we should worry less about people and their SUVs and more about creating solutions for the existing needs of existing communities (there are more people out there than we think). The opportunity I see is for the less well off to lead the innovation and to be in a position to capitalise on that knowledge by building connections that enable more to be done with less and to leapfrog the sunk costs in redundant capital investments (like my depreciating car).