You may have noticed a shift in the language used to describe the movement of people. Depending on your age, where you live, and in what industry you work, mobility may draw to mind something your grandfather rides around on, a socio-economic opportunity, or a ride to be accessed through your smartphone.

In the US, people are likely to use the word transportation to describe people and goods moving around and mobility to describe electric scooters for the elderly or with regard to social aspiration.  Recently, however, the word transportation is being replaced with mobility. Why is this happening? What’s the difference between them? And why should we give a hoot about this change?

Transportation is the act of moving goods or people.  Mobility is the ability to freely move or be moved. The important difference here is the word ability.  Transportation (“across-carry” in Latin) describes the act of moving something or someone, whereas mobility (“capable of movement”) describes the ability of a person to move or be moved. In other words: transportation is something you do and mobility is something you have. 

To understand the whys and wherefores of this shift in language we have to understand our changing economy. Economists and business analysts will tell you that value creation is, and already has, shifted from vertically-integrated value chains to laterally-scaled digital platform models where subscription and access models rule the roost. In 2019, many of the world’s most profitable companies don't sell things, they provide access to them.

Enter mobility-as-a-service or MaaS; the shift from personal ownership of vehicles to the use of “mobility solutions” as services. Did you catch it? There it was, the reason why people are saying mobility. Now, MaaS and mobility are by no means new ideas or terms, but, as the digital revolution matures and more people use the technology, the public are beginning to use the word because it reflects how they are moving around. The term mobility eases itself into sentences (and minds), that denotes “access to” rather than “ownership of.”

Alphabet, the owner of the world’s largest internet searching service (Google), video and audio streaming service (YouTube), and popular navigation service (Waze), also has a 5.2% stake in Uber, UberEats, and Jump. Uber, UberEats, and Jump provide more than 14 million car rides daily, more than $10 billion in food deliveries in 2019, and operate bike shares in 32 cities respectively. Customers access Uber cars and Jump bikes and scooters using - you guessed it -  Google’s maps and navigation services.

Of course, just as Amazon doesn’t make (many) products, YouTube doesn’t own videos or music, Google Search doesn’t own websites, and Uber and Jump don’t own cars, bikes, and scooters.  Instead, Amazon and Alphabet operate platforms which provide access to things.

The digital revolution is allowing us to share cars, bikes, and scooters and use them only when we need them. This has the potential to drastically decrease environmental impact and transportation costs while providing much-needed access for those unable to drive or walk. It is, however, worth considering who is gaining access to mobility and at what cost.  What is required to ensure equitable participation in this mass shift to MaaS? Could mobility become affordable enough to dissolve, not reinforce, income disparity? And, at some point, will mobility become a basic human right? 

To answer these questions and others, perhaps it’s time to stop, look both ways, and consider this new term for how we get around before the societal change it reflects overruns us.

As we transform the way we move, collaboration between governments and businesses will be key to creating the future we want.  That’s why TransitCenter and Forum for the Future have partnered to create MOVING US - an ambitious new initiative  to explore how partnerships across the transport and travel sector can deliver the sustainable mobility that US cities need.  By bringing together actors in the mobility system - from innovators and transport providers to regulators and advisors - it will help them find and play the role that works best for them, citizens and the environment. Ultimately we will create a Collaboration Playbook distilling insights gathered from diverse stakeholders across the sector, with guiding principles for future-ready urban mobility.

Forum for the Future and TransitCenter are attending CoMotion LA with the Moving Us project. To find out more or to explore how we can shape the future of mobility together, please get in touch.