Off the horse and on the phone: my short history of personal mobility and city form

Ever since we had means of moving around beyond “shanks pony“, our need for mobility has involved a personal device of some sort, and these devices have had quite a effect on the form and nature of our cities. Here is my brief take on this evolution:

My kingdom for a horse!

For centuries, the most common personal mobility device was actually one of our fellow animals, most often the horse. They extended our range of travel, allowed us to journey in relative comfort with less effort, but need a lot of care, food for fuel, and let’s face it, are darned messy!

Then we hooked the animals up to carts and later to the first street cars, to move people around in groups. Much more efficient at moving more people, but still messy.

Steel horses!

Next along was a device called the steam engine, so we started using them in trains to move lots of people lots of distance, and in many cities these formed the backbone of our transportation systems. These often resulted in long urban tentacles stretching out from traditional cities.

And with the advent of other devices like internal combustion and electric engines, we started augmenting those train systems with more efficient streetcar systems, that provided a pretty good system that allowed cities to expand and people to move around them using this device. These often resulted in grid forms of mixed use, in places that now make up the inner cities of many of our larger urban areas.

A simple machine

About the same time, the invention of the bicycle provided a simple machine that was cheap, required no fuel and little maintenance yet allowed people much more flexibility and range in their personal transport choices. It is not hard to find pictures of factories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with hundreds of bikes parked outside. Those interested in riding bikes were also instrumental in having road surfaces sealed in the early days.

My very own engine? Thanks Mr Ford!

Then the idea of putting engines into a machine suitable for small numbers of people took hold and the personal mobility device that shaped our cities for most of the twentieth century, the car, was born. Its mass production (famously by Henry Ford, but also many others) and the major industries it spawned to make the cars and to produce the oil needed to fuel them, became two of the largest and most resource intensive industries of modern times. Cities spread out like never before, at very low densities, separating where we live from where we work and access services by increasingly long distances.

Car use peaked in about 2004 in many western countries, including Australia and the USA, and has been reducing since. There is still debate about the cause of that and whether it is a long term trend, but a trend it is nonetheless. Here’s the US experience:


And accompanying this trend has been a strong shift back to city living, particularly among empty nesting baby boomers and Millenials, two of the biggest demographic groups in modern cities. Cities are cool again!

Smart travel

And so the latest personal mobility device? Well I reckon it’s the smart phone or one of the myriad of similar personal devices we carry with us that give us instant access to so much information. Want to know the best way to walk somewhere? Check your mapping app. Want to know the best transit option to get to your destination? Use your transit app. Want to book a taxi? Use the app, or if you are old fashioned or maybe a baby boomer, just call the taxi company. Or maybe you want to hire a car or find a car share vehicle? You know what to do… Whatever transport you need is at your fingertips.

And this device suits city living very well. It fits easily into a pocket or bag, and provides the best transport option with a few touches, particularly in cities where these options are most extensive. It also tells you where and when you can see the latest movies, the dining and entertainment options around you at any point, and just about anything else you’d like to know about what is going on in your city. It also lets you work from a coffee shop, or read, watch stuff or play games while you are travelling around the city (other than if you’re driving of course!).

So the trend to more vibrant, socially interactive and dense, mixed use cities with a great vibe in its public realms are well supported by this device I reckon.

And the future?

Are the smart phone and its derivatives (maybe even a google Glasses?) the ultimate personal mobility device? Who knows. Maybe once we can “beam me up Scottie” they’ll be old hat too. But until then, I think they’ll reign and continue to support the move back to city life.

Greg Vann
December 2013

PS I wrote this before I read a section on a similar theme in Leigh Gallagher’s excellent book called the The End of the Suburbs. Highly recommended for those interested in the future of cities!


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