Why the suburbs can be a hotbed for mobility innovation

At first sight, it looks like the car is still reigning supreme on the suburbs of Europe and Northern America, with no intention to stop. In the United States, where the suburbs developed in parallel with car ownership, each household owns 1.93 vehicle (the highest rate in the world). In Germany, 70 percent of the people who live in rural and periurban areas drive to work, says Siemens, even though half of these commutes are less than 10 km long and could be covered by bike. In France, the current yellow vest movement has highlighted just how many people rely on their car to go about their day: 80 percent of the population uses one every day. It is even the preferred mode of transportation to go take the train, according to studies conducted by SNCF Gares et connexions: half of train riders arrive at the station driving their own car.

The case for transit-oriented development

The main reason for this preference is how fragmented other options are: even though there are trains, buses, shuttles and car- or ride-sharing options in the suburbs, people tend to still use their car for the totality of the trip if the first or last mile problem isn’t solved. This is in fact the strongest case for multimodality and Mobility as a service (MaaS) that one could make: our best efforts don’t mean much if we don’t help people go exactly from point A to point B.The good news is that the suburbs have what it takes to invent mobility solutions that work for periurban areas and cities alike. As write researchers Pierre Filion and Roger Keil in The Conversation, “an important, underrated aspect of suburban infrastructures is their tremendous importance for how the entire urban region functions. Suburban infrastructure (…) also supports metropolitan and higher-scale purposes.” In China, the satellite city of Tianfu District Great City, outside of Chengdu, is designed “to be self-sustaining and environmentally conscious”; part of that is that “everything is supposed to be so close that you can walk anywhere within 15 minutes,” explains a Popular Science article. Tianfu is an example of transit-oriented development (TOD) which “could serve as a model for the modern suburb.” But even in “older” suburbs, there’s plenty of room for experimentation. Suburban train stations, in particular, are the one place where mobility hubs can truly happen. There, we can test how it truly works to transfer from the metro to the train to your own bike or a free-floating electric scooter or an electric shuttle or a ride-share, depending on the options at hand at the very moment you need them.

Mobility as a Service also belongs in the suburbs

Of course, making that process seamless requires dialogue and cooperation between all the actors involved in local mobility. In the city of Toronto, the Transit Commission is working with smaller surrounding authorities in order to allow users to use a single travel card across the whole network. That move towards MaaS is being embraced by a growing number of cities, such as Helsinki, where an eponymous start-up first started operating before expanding to Belgium and the Netherlands — MaaS Global was among the winners of the European Startup Prize for Mobility’s first edition in 2018. In France, the upcoming loi d’orientation des mobilités (LOM) will require regions and associations of municipalities to “ensure that citizens have access to territorial continuity in their commutes.” That will most likely imply a tight private-public collaboration. As MaaS Global’s co-founder Sampo Hietanen tells The Guardian, “No transport provider has enough supply density to provide the same service as owning a car. If you want to tap into the 85 percent of the market owned by the car, the only way is to have everything combined.” And the suburbs and periurban areas are where the bulk of this combination will have to happen if we are to set free from the monopoly of the individual car. “Having to deal with severe infrastructure inadequacies, suburbs offer fertile ground for infrastructure experimentation and innovation. (…) We thus expect the future of urban infrastructures to emerge from the suburbs,” write Pierre Filion and Roger Keil. We will also be watching closely.

Read more:

Solving the Cooperation Paradox in Urban Mobility”, BCG, 2018.