New computing technology and real time digital representations of our built environment allow us to redefine the automobile. Will this new technology lift the barriers of mobility and give equal opportunities for living, working and leisure to all?
Google is building a fleet of 100 self-driving cars and has attained permits to put them on the road within the state of Nevada. When a company that has revolutionized the way we use the digital medium puts its name behind a transport vehicle the odds are that it is hoping to change our understanding of mobility. And the reaction from the social and mainstream media is significant. Google has stated that this will be an opportunity to extend mobility choices for those who are at a disadvantage; one of the first ‘drivers’ was someone who had lost 95% of his vision.
With this introduction I would have liked to give you a snapshot of where the EU stands in terms of mobility access for disadvantaged groups, with a particular focus on disabled persons. However as a team of researchers from Leeds University have pointed out:
“There is hardly any EU comparative statistical data (concerning disability and disabled persons) readily available in the fields of mobility, information and communication, political participation and cultural participation.” (ANED 2009)
This is quite unfortunate as mobility is a key element in attaining a good education, a strong career and a healthy lifestyle. Furthermore we are moving towards a more mobile world. Those who can participate in the growing frenzy of movement will gain access to the growing opportunities that our cities and regions are providing.
However equal mobility for all is a challenge. Access is not only limited by disabilities but also by socio-economic factors. In my research looking at the changes in settlement structure between 1981 and 2001 for England and Wales I have found that men tended to commute longer distances from home, almost double the distance of women. Furthermore employers sought male workers at farther distances than female workers. (Demires Ozkul 2011) Although similar results have appeared in academic studies mobility access has not been able to garner the attention that it deserves. (Jensen and Richardson 2004)
Our lack of focus and understanding of the plight of those with less accessibility may well be related to the fact that we as professionals are at the forefront in breaking the barriers of mobility. We have a keen awareness of our mobility options. Our financial resources have been increasing and we have access to advanced technologies that allow us to take care of professional and personal tasks while on the move. And as our numbers multiply, we will have longstanding impacts on how cities and regions are structured:
“The changes brought by the knowledge economy have shifted the commuting preferences for some occupations over a wider spread of distances with longer distance commutes becoming more prevalent. The results indicate that ‘fuzzy’ boundaries of occupations have created a more interconnected and flexible functional region.” (Demires Ozkul 2014)
As planners we have been slow at catching up with issues related to mobility access but technologies such as the self-driving car may offer a glimpse of potential solutions that are in the horizon. We better not get caught unawares.
Dr. Basak Demires Ozkul has completed her studies at the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL; looking at the long-term development of settlement structure of England and Wales. She has also studied and worked in Boston, MA USA; focusing on low income communities in developed and developing countries. She has recently been appointed Assistant Professor at Istanbul Technical University, Department of Urban Studies and Planning.