Cities are important because that's where the majority of the world's population lives (more than half, according to the UN) and an even bigger share of the global economy resides – just the top 40 mega-regions account for over two thirds of all economic activity and an even bigger chunk of all innovation. These are now well-understood.

Cities are complex and contain just about anything or concept ever invented by humans. How the city is built, its topography and how close you live to your work and a grocery store affects your mobility. As such, you can’t focus just on one aspect of the city without it spilling over into something else.

How people move around their city is also a big deal. It affects productivity, security, health and global warming, among other things.

Even that subject - urban mobility - is complex to communicate. Experts agree that urban mobility needs to be multi-modal. In other words, every city on this planet is too unique for another city's transport ecosystem to simply be replicated. Wallkability seems to be the only constant. But saying that transport must always be locally adapted doesn’t say much.

So we need to simplify the story to make some sense out of it. The stories about personal transport in cities these days tend to be put into one of two categories: public bikes and driverless cars. The narratives each go like this: how, in a sharing economy, public bikes are changing our commute and how the automobile is being disrupted by Silicon Valley companies (e.g. Tesla and Google’s driverless cars).

All the discussion about urban mobility comes back to the fact that the car-centric model has failed. It is impractical for the developing world to follow a similar model. Even if we accepted the health implications of pollution and the impact on global warming, from a simple space management perspective mobility will eventually collapse in cities that give priority to the automobile.

Bike sharing programmes are poised to be the big counter-cultural alternative. These programmes have shown some results, but it is not clear what uptake they will eventually have. Their success has mainly been achieved symbolically or via meeting various milestones.

Cyclists ride their bikes along Ringstrasse boulevard in front of the parliament in Vienna, Austria, April 19, 2016.
Image: REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

The car industry contributes too much to our economy just to implode – so it is looking for viable alternatives to its current model. Self-driving and electric is their response. However, these each come with their own set of challenges:

The electric cars as we know them today will not work within city centres. The top selling electric cars (Tesla S, BMW i3, Nissan Leaf) take up as much space as their combustion counterparts. Using ballpark figures, electric cars cost around 10000% more than a good bike, they are 40% slower during rush hour, they waste 2700% more energy and take up 600% more space. They will need to get much smaller from a space management perspective as right now they cannot compete with mass transit and bikes.

Space management is actually key to understanding what is happening right now. Cars are getting smaller as a way of not getting squeezed out of cities. We are seeing engines that get smaller and more fuel efficient. We’ve also witnessed a new car market emerge: “the small luxury car”. A market that is growing fast.

Small cars like the Mitsubishi i-MiEV gain in importance and we are also seeing the smallest car class – the kei-class - shrink with the Toyota I-Road and Renault Twizy to sizes that compare with cargo bikes and velomobiles. At the end of the day the only way to become truly small without changing into a motorcycle is to become a 3-wheeler like the I-Road. This shrinkage is creating a new epic turf war of three-wheelers. The difference between an electric micro car and an electric velomobile is dismal. It mainly boils down to a few specs, a difference of business culture and regulation. It is too early to say who will win this turf war, but price and regulation is against the car industry.

Wireless electric trams move on a road embedded with a power strip after their launch ceremony at Seoul Grand Park in Gwacheon, south of Seoul, July 19, 2011. The Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) manufactured the tram using a new technology called the On-Line Electric Vehicle (OLEV) system which is remotely charged via electromagnetic fields created by electric cables buried beneath the road. Seoul Grand Park started to run three new wireless electric trams which consume no fossil fuels and do not require any overhead wires or cables. They replaced old diesel-powered carts, local media reported on Tuesday.
Image: REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

The other big red herring is the self-driving car. The story goes that with self-driving cars you will not have the same capacity issues as you do with cars today. They can drive faster and closer to one another because their reaction time isn’t hampered by slow human reaction times. Because they can co-ordinate with each other, they can skip lights, essentially moving like a shoal of fish.

As I view it, there will be two important decisions when it comes to managing space capacity. First, will they be privately owned or shared? Second, will they be allowed to drive without (or with a few) passengers. If they are shared, then this makes it a lot easier to make up for their poor space management performance. If they can ride without passengers, with minors or others that can not drive, then this will worsen their space management performance.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Automotive and Personal Transport suggests that big self-driving cars should be used to shuttle around cities to pick up and drop people at their final destination, using some complex calculations that could make this mass transit system work. I do believe that such a system could happen, but note that “big cars” are busses and mass transit systems tend to mean public. This is also what we are seeing. Self-driving busses could be implemented faster. There’s actually a fully functioning system running in Switzerland. That system doesn’t pick you up at home, nor deliver you at your destination like a shuttlebus. It works like a traditional bus system, but wouldn’t it be easier for a player to seize that market from a car manufacturer?

My point is we need simple narratives to create change. The present narratives represent old interests and do not reflect the space management perspective that actually drives much of the locomotion in cities. The battle of the three-wheelers and the public vs. private self-driving busses is where we should redirect our storytelling efforts.