Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Frederic Stout: Introduction to The Automobile, The City, and the New Urban Mobilities Series

This is the first paper in a series “The Automobile, The City, and the New Urban Mobilities”, from the Automobile and The City course taught by Frederic Stout at Stanford University. This is the introductory paper written by Frederic Stout, contextualizing and outlining the rest of the series.

Thinking about the “new urban mobilities,” – especially the interplay between the emerging technologies of transportation and communication within the larger contexts of globalism, environmental sustainability, and socio-economic dislocations – demands a new level of understanding, both practical and theoretical, of how urban communities change over time and how those changes in turn contribute to on-going personal, political, and cultural transformations. Keeping those simple human concerns primary in discussions of mobility infrastructure and policy is what Lewis Mumford meant when he insisted to an audience of urban planners in 1937 that the principal responsibility of their profession must always be to nurture, not frustrate, what he called the “urban drama” – the day-to-day life of individuals, families, and communities as they go about the diurnal tasks of living, working, raising families, and governing themselves in cities.

From the earliest times and increasingly, mobility has been an important urban value, no more so than in the 20th century when the affordable personal automobile became common. With astonishing rapidity, the automobile replaced horses with horseless carriages, competed with trolleys and horse-drawn omnibuses for the provision of mass transportation, and made residential suburbs so accessible to urban centers that a fundamentally new kind of city – the inter-connected metropolitan region – came into existence as the dominant paradigm of modern human settlement. It seems fitting, therefore, that an examination of the history of the automobile’s impact on cities in the 20th century would be a convenient entryway into an understanding of the new forms of urban mobility that will characterize the 21st.

Today, most urban planners favor walking, cycling, and an intensified commitment to mass transit solutions to the problems of urban mobility. This movement is not sui generis but imbedded within a changing historical and developmental context that provides both the motivation and the direction of an emerging new paradigm of human social existence. A new global economy and a global urban network are taking over from earlier urban-rural and nation-state models of hegemony. Digital communications and “information-age” values have come to dominate global flows of money, people, and ideas. Millions of rural migrants are flowing into the burgeoning mega-cities of Asia and Latin America, and a new generation of educated middle-class young people stands ready to inherit a new urban planet with all its problems and all its promises. Who will not agree that we are at an important transition point leading to a new urban paradigm?

The conversation about emergent urban mobilities will inevitably be dominated by specialists in transportation technology, by urban transportation planners, and by public policy experts. What an urban studies generalist can contribute is an inter-disciplinary perspective on the larger contexts that surround and encompass the machines, the plans, and the policies. And if looking at the past impact of the private automobile on cities of the 20th century is a useful way of approaching the issue of what the future impacts of new forms of urban mobility might be, we will need to conduct our inquiry along three dimensions of analysis:

  • first, the effects of mobility technologies on the essential functions of urban life itself – the citadel functions of law and governance, the market functions of economic production and commerce, and the community functions of individuals, families, neighborhoods, and local cultures;
  • second, the influence of urban globalization on the mobility aspirations of two key constituencies who will be the consumers of the policies and technologies of the future – the emerging urban middle class in the formerly under-developed regions of the world and the new “Millennial Generation” – those born in the 1980s and 90s – in the developed world;
  • and third, the ways in which both the new digital communications technologies and the urbanization process itself can – and likely will, over time – respond to many of the challenges of sustainability, population growth, and social equity posed by the current shift to a new urban-historical paradigm.

This last point is especially important because the distinction between transportation and communication may be in the process of disappearing. In The City in History (1961), Mumford identified “the dialogue” as “one of the ultimate expressions” of the urban drama – “the delicate flower of its long vegetative growth.” But for dialogue of any kind to take place, participants in the social drama of the city need to move into or about shared urban space. In the Athens of Plato and Aristotle, that meant ascending the Acropolis for public rituals, gathering at Pnyx for the frequent assemblies, walking in small groups along the city walls, or merely loitering about the Agora. Mobility and communication were intimately connected, and the density of walkable urban space was the enabler of both. Kurt W. Marek – famous for his popular histories of archaeology under the pseudonym C, W. Ceram – once observed that it was not until the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century that communication and transportation were “for the first time . . . understood to be two different things.” Today, however, we need to question that insight and think about the changing meaning of the ultimate mobility word, the verb “to go.” We still want to go to the party, and we probably need to go to the gym, but we no longer need to go to the store or go to the library. Much to the dismay of brick-and-mortar retailers and librarians everywhere, we now have the new mobility option of shopping for products and accessing information online through our computers and cellphones. These developments tend toward re-integrating the disconnect between communication and transportation that Marek identified as a conceptual phenomenon of the 19th century. Perhaps even the way young people use the phrase “I go” when they mean “I say” is a sign of the times!

The deeper conversation about urban mobilities today, however, is driven not just by exciting new developments in technologies, nor even by cultural changes in the way we think about urban space, but by the astonishing rapidity with which the demographics of global urbanization have transformed, and continue to transform, human history. For the past 200 years, the percentage of the human population categorized as urban has skyrocketed: the United Kingdom reached the milestone of 50% urbanization sometime in the mid-19th century, the United States reached that point by 1920, and according to the United Nations the planet as a whole became majority-urban sometime in 2009-10. And in anticipation of what some have called humankind’s “next great migration,” current projections suggest that the world may become 70% or even 80% urban by the end of present century. Absent these facts, speculations about new urban mobilities would be of limited interest or relevance. And surprisingly, there is some reason to believe that the current urbanization trends themselves – the collective arc of humanity’s long urban narrative – will help to solve many of our current economic, social, and environmental challenges. It is in this larger context that reassessing the historical relationship between the automobile and the city in the 20th century will hopefully enlarge our understanding of the importance of all forms of urban mobility today and help us formulate the necessary policies and designs that the urban future demands.

To read the full piece, follow this link: http://issuu.com/urbanter/docs/stouteditfinal.docx?e=11935262/7814468


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