Forum Institutional

Why mobility matters when it comes to social inclusion

A new study indicates a high level of mobility results in greater prosperity and social inclusion.

A new study indicates that a high level of mobility results in greater prosperity and social inclusion. Image: Unsplash

Nikolaus Lang
Managing Director and Senior Partner; Global Leader, Global Advantage Practice, Boston Consulting Group
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Mobility means designing roads, trains, subways, bike paths and walkways so that the greatest numbers of people can comfortably and conveniently get where they want to go.
  • A study on the effect of global mobility on social inclusion was able to identify five key principles to follow for transportation systems to become more accessible for all.
  • Many places around the world are already applying these five imperatives or some version of them.

One of the greatest challenges facing cities today is keeping people moving. Research shows that when roadways provide a high level of mobility, then there is a general advance in prosperity and social inclusion. Mobility doesn’t just mean having more roads, trains, subways, bike paths and walkways. It means having them designed so the greatest numbers of people can comfortably and conveniently get where they want to go, in line with their personal preferences and taking account of any personal conditions that may limit them.

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In other words, the quality of life in any community has a lot to do with everyone’s ability –regardless of physical or cognitive disabilities, advanced age or socioeconomic status – to get to work, meet with people they care about, and find access to health care, education, shopping, and culture. Unfortunately, transportation systems in most places have not yet caught up with this demand. Only a few places, so far, have taken advantage of best practices in innovation and customer experience to design and deliver the mobility that communities need. This is particularly true for lower-income neighborhoods, whose residents are typically left out of the loop when it comes to the design of mobility options.

Mobility has an effect on social inclusion

Recently, BCG joined forces with the World Economic Forum and the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland to study global mobility and its effect on social inclusion. We picked three different cities that represent today’s three most common urban archetypes. Berlin is a compact polycentric city, where each district has its own characteristic ambiance. Chicago is a car-centric metropolitan area with a concentrated urban core. Beijing is a high-density megacity with 22 million people in its metropolitan area, more than twice the size of the other two. All three have struggled with mobility pain points, including isolated neighborhoods and extreme traffic congestion. All three have succeeded and failed in various efforts to solve these problems.

There’s a lot to learn from all three metropolitan areas, as we discovered when we looked closely at their transportation systems. We gathered and analyzed data, interviewed their urban design experts, and simulated what would happen if these cities applied various innovative solutions. The answers can all be boiled down to five key precepts. If these principles were followed, then urban mobility would open up to all levels of society.

1. Make social inclusion a top priority in transportation design

Adapt systems to support individuals with physical or intellectual disabilities, non-native speakers of the region’s language, people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and cultural outsiders. This does not necessarily require new capital projects; it can take place through more frequent schedules, personal support for the elderly and people with disabilities, and apps that make it easier to coordinate rides.

2. Pay attention to demand as much as to supply

A few years ago, the Chicago transit authority cut fares in half on some of its transit lines, and increased the frequency of late-night trains. Ridership did not increase, however, because people in low-income neighborhoods still did not go to the transit stations. More recently, a coalition of community groups called Elevated Chicago has taken an alternative approach. They explicitly focus on racial equity, social inclusion, and community engagement, starting with seven highly used transit stations. Neighborhood residents and transit designers meet in regular dialogues, attracting investment and grants along with neighborhood design and improvement efforts, to make the stations safer and more appealing. These types of efforts are essential for transportation improvement, because they address demand: the reasons why people will use their new options.


How is the World Economic Forum promoting sustainable and inclusive mobility systems?

3. Develop innovative multi-modal alternatives to private car commuting and public transport

Private cars lead to traffic congestion and many people would prefer to avoid the expense. Conventional mass transit often involves inconvenient schedules and multiple transfers. A growing number of cities are finding innovative alternatives. For example, Beijing set up a metro pass reservation system, where people could pre-book their train seats and bypass queues at the station. Other cities have set up on-call local shuttle systems, with rides summoned by smartphone, and bicycle kiosks. Innovations like these have a significant impact on mobility, because they allow people to get around easily without needing to own or manage their own vehicles.

Research shows that when roadways provide a high level of mobility, then there is a general advance in prosperity and social inclusion.
Research shows that when roadways provide a high level of mobility, then there is a general advance in prosperity and social inclusion. Image: StockSnap/Steven Lewis

4. Welcome community engagement to help ensure that policy decisions are human-centered

It also demonstrates the value of participation: system design is better when community leaders and local residents are involved. Consider what it’s like to use a poorly designed app or remote control device: tedious, confusing and frustrating. That’s what the transit experience feels like to many people when it’s imposed on them. Several practices can help designers gain awareness of local community needs. Conduct regular dialogues with community leaders. Invite residents to help polish and refine the plans. Take care to overcome their skepticism from previous forays. Augment these insights with data about existing usage patterns and community surveys. You may find, for example, that early-morning and night-shift schedules are critically important for economic growth – but only in some locations, depending on work and education patterns.

5. Run mobility pilots

Start small, collect data, and ensure that the impact is positive before scaling up. In the technology industry, this is known as a “minimal viable product:” a release that allows you to see how people use the offering in the real world. With minimum viable infrastructure, you can produce winning results without major investment. Chicago did this with its Divvy-branded bicycle-sharing platforms and other modest improvements like marked bike lanes. Between 2000 and 2020, the percentage of trips conducted by bicycle in the city rose by 53%.

Many places around the world are already applying these five imperatives or some version of them. In the end, this approach to transportation is not only relevant to city areas. Suburban commuters and the rural elderly also need help getting around. Community leaders are discovering now what a few far-sighted people have always known. If you watch out for the least mobile people – the aging, those with disabilities, and those with less discretionary income – you make life better for everyone.

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