Modes of transport operate as agents effectuating interaction between people, sites and the modes themselves. They are designed to outsmart, outperform, complement or cooperate with each other. But which relations are strong enough to withstand the test of time?

Mobility never exists in absolute isolation. It is always an interplay of user, mode and environment, jointly enduring in various possible relations. In this light, modes of transport operate as agents effectuating interaction between people, sites and the modes themselves. They are designed to outsmart, outperform, complement or cooperate with each other. But which relations are strong enough to withstand the test of time? How can we use them to design resilient mobility that leapfrogs shortcomings? To discover the underlying principles of these relations, we created this blog in which we put on our ecologist’s hat to investigate possible interactions between different actors involved in mobility. Each interaction can be an inspiration to reinterpret the existing system and to develop new design solutions fitting the ever-changing needs of mobility. Rather than focusing on a finished and closed design, the strength of this approach lies in its flexibility to adapt to situations based on inherent logic. It aims to create resilient answers by playing the system, not the object.




Image: the protective ram only wanted to safeguard his children. Little did he know that they'd suffer his good intentions themselves...

In competition, both species involved are harmed – like male deer fighting. Only the fittest will survive in a never-ending contest. Obviously, this type of interaction plays a powerful role in natural selection. Quite similarly, economical competition is a fundamental pillar in the creation of a free market in capitalistic ideology. Nevertheless, when it comes down to the physical level of the mobility mode itself, it can be tricky to find concrete examples of competition. Based on the example of two deer clashing their antlers into each other, we can easily imagine the parallel image of two vehicles crashing into each other. But that does not really count as competition, since it is rather unlikely that such incidents happen on purpose. So what does classify as mobile competition?

The common SUV might be an example of such interaction. Why? Because it surfs on the same principle as an arms race: each party competes to produce bigger, larger, greater and superior products with as main goal outperforming the competitor, who behaves in exactly the same manner. This one-upmanship of successively outdoing an adversary is also happening on our streets. Many families are buying a crossover to cruise the city with a better overview on the road and sturdy protection for their children in the back. However, the very presence of such vehicles creates exactly the situation they try to overcome: less overview in traffic and more potential harm towards other road users in accidents. It progressively develops drawbacks for smaller or less protected road users, including these very same families that decide to bring the kids to school by bicycle on a sunny morning. As a result, more people are tempted to buy an even bigger vehicle, thereby largely nullifying its original purpose.



Image: transformation of the Place de la Resistance / Verzetsplein in Brussels (Belgium), as seen on Google Streetview.

When one species is doing harm to another while remaining unaffected itself, it is called amensalism. Studies show that on average, a car is used for hardly 5% of the time. The remaining 95%, it takes up precious space without having a useful purpose. Meanwhile, its presence as a lifeless artefact at the side of the street influences the quality of a streetscape heavily. As public space is limited, any form of space consumption prevents other actors of entering the urban scene. Urban infrastructure is so heavily customised for cars, that it imposes massive pressure on the existence of a human scale. Compare it to an invasive weed that takes up so much space that smaller lifeforms are struggling to see the daylight. Just imagine how different our streets would look like without parked cars; how little place the actual traffic flow takes and all the opportunities to redevelop newly vacant ground! Cars are capable of sucking out the life of a city as much as they could enhance it in the postwar decades.

Suction seat


Image: Sebastian trying out a prototype of his parasitic seat.

When one species obtains a benefit by harming another, it is called exploitation. Nevertheless, let's call it parasitism, just for the sake of it. And because the term reminds me of nasty creatures sucking life out of others. Think of tapeworms, vampire bats or leeches and the like. Nevertheless, the concept of parasitism is a valuable mechanism to prevent overpopulation and enables the possibility to directly change a rigid system. It is exactly from that angle that we are approaching parasitic mobility: as an opportunity to provoke and change.

Due to rising costs for public transport in Europe and insufficient compensation for low incomes, some groups of people are increasingly facing the problem of limited access to mobility. Deprived of being amply mobile, they might lack connection to society, resulting in fundamental social issues. Without alternatives, it can even be seen as a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

In order to find a solution for this issue, creative design student Sebastian Lilge came up with the idea of a suction seat: a newly designed device as a tool of direct action, which allows activists to dupe the failing system. As a parasitic means of transport, it is profiting of its host while deliberately harming it. Attached to the outside of public transport vehicles, the user of the suction seat can take a ride without paying for a ticket. This provocative act shifts the focus from being solely a mode of transport to also being a tool of performance that creates awareness about the problem itself.


Commensalism - Phoresy

Image: translated from Franquin's comic Gaston n°13: "Lagaffe mérite des baffes", page 23. (Editions Dupuis, 1979)

Phoresy is perhaps the most straightforward form of interaction in this entire series, because it goes straight to the root of mobility. In biology, we can speak about phoresy when one animal is attached to another exclusively for transport. You can find tons of beautiful pictures on the web showing lice hitching a ride on the back of a larger insect. The larger animal experiences no downside or benefit from its passengers.
Unlike the suction seat that divests income from the bus company, the neat invention of Gaston is not having any influence on the cars. The vehicle is arguably light enough not to affect the performance of its "engines" in urban traffic. Its attachment, hitchhiking and detachment might stay unnoticed to the motorised driver.

Apart from crazy inventions, there are also more down to earth examples of phoresy in mobility. Think about a stroller that you can fold in the back of your car, a hoverboard or monowheel that you can take on the bus, or even a simple folding bicycle that allows you to commute partly by train.

Part of the pleasure of the cyclist is to redefine the term 'transport'. (...) Folding bikes are an excellent example. No means of transport is as suitable in combination with other modes of transport. A folding bike goes in the trunk of the car, on the bus, on the train, in the subway. (...) [The folding bike cyclist] does not expect my fanciful Utopian city with only monorail and cyclists, but combines the existing means of transport. He makes a quick metamorphosis into subway passenger. Or jumps on a bus.
Translated from: Hans Declercq, "Een filosofie van de fiets - Londense notities", De Bezige Bij, 2012, pp. 145-146

Cycling highway

Commensalism - Inquilinism

Image: Inquilinism on abandoned roads in the Netherlands, 1973. Image courtesy of Hollandse Hoogte.

Inquilinism is the use of a second organism for permanent housing, like certain birds that live in holes in trees. In mobility, we could argue the "house" to be the infrastructure of a certain transport mode, like a parking, a railway or even a pedestrian tunnel. When infrastructure is permanently abandoned or temporarily unused, neo-mobilis can claim it and introduce a completely new use to it.

During the last months of 1973, several governments of European countries declared a number of car-free days. In an attempt to safeguard oil reserves during the occurring oil crisis, motorists were not allowed to use their cars on specified Sundays. As a result, roads remained empty and were gracefully occupied by citizens in a variety of ways. Many cities still organise car-free Sundays on a regular basis, although mainly motivated by ecological awareness.

In urban renewal projects, this principle can contribute significant inspiration to questions about obsolete infrastructure. The High Line in New York City is perhaps the best known urban example of inquilinism. Created in the late 2000's, it is a linear park, built on an elevated section of a disused railroad track. Where trains used to ride until the early 1980's, now pedestrians stroll around above the regular traffic.

The concept of using infrastructure to your advantage can occur on a much smaller scale too. Almost a decade ago, Czech artist Tomás Moravec modified a standardised EUR-pallet to fit his city's tram tracks. His approach aimed to bring change into the spatial perspective of a passenger in motion. One could skate the pallet guided by a map of the city lines. See the video here.


Commensalism - Metabiosis

The almighty Wikipedia describes metabiosis as a more indirect dependency, in which one organism creates or prepares a suitable environment for a second. This actually frequently happens in our daily environment too. In many cases, cities make great efforts to increase accessibility for prams, wheelchairs, and elderly people. The smooth surfaces in combination with "aiding obstacles" like banisters or benches are ideal grounds for skaters to perform tricks or to comfort their ride.

Ride sharing

Mutualism - Ride sharing

Image: Brian always combined the hell out of existing ride sharing apps...

A classic case of mutual mobility is the paid variant of ride sharing. Take BlaBlaCar for example, currently world's biggest long-distance ride sharing community. The platform allows people travelling with seats to spare to offer their services to strangers, that in return pay a fee to cover a part of the driving expenses. Contrary to the classic form of hitchhiking in which generally no financial compensation is required and therefore classifies as commensalism, the BlaBlaCar system is beneficial to every party involved.

"Eighty percent of city-to-city travel in Europe is done by car. What we’re doing is tapping into empty seats in cars – and there are maybe ten times more empty seats in cars travelling between Paris and Brussels than seats in trains or buses. So you unlock by far the biggest world inventory of seats available." - BlaBlaCar COO Nicolas Brusson in Wired Magazine, May 2015

The Norwegian startup Nimber operates in the same spirit, although its service is not meant for people but for freight. Even though the platform is accessible worldwide, the service is currently only being promoted in Norway and the UK. The company's slogan suits the basic idea of ride sharing very well: "going your way, anyway"!


Mutualism - Vehicle relocation deals

Image: a modern Sisyphus redistributing shared bicycles to uphill stations in Brussels. Picture by TIMB.

Companies like TransfercariMoova or Jucy help rental car companies around the world to relocate vehicles between their branches, while offering a way for travellers to travel for free or nearly nothing. The locations for pick-up and drop-off are defined beforehand, together with a deadline before which you'll need to reach the destination. Trips are per definition always one-way. All that is required is a full driving license valid in the areas you'll cross on your trip. It goes without saying that travelling this way lacks any kind of flexibility, so you'll need to be quite flexible yourself to make good use of it.

For a rental agency, relocating a car or RV for any reason is expensive. It involves hiring a transport vehicle, or paying someone to drive one way and cover their flight back. The mutually satisfying alternative is to sway customers with a low price. This ensures a prompt booking when a vehicle urgently needs to be moved, and best of all, creates a cheap road trip! (Fragment kindly stolen from Thrifty Nomads

The upside is that all sorts of vehicles need to be driven across the country. Fancy a short journey with a fully equipped camper, a sedan or even a commercial truck to finally move that fridge to a next-state relative? No problemo! Sometimes it is even possible to buy yourself some more time for a very low rate. Potentially a great start for a motoring holiday!

The same principle was added to the operation of Villo, the Brussels bike sharing system. The Belgian capital is quite hilly, which makes that more bicycles are borrowed from stations located on higher grounds, while later returned to stations in the city's lower areas. To go uphill, citizens tend to walk or take motorised public transport rather than cycling. This behaviour results in a system out of balance, in which the poor operators are busy all day relocating bikes back uphill. After assessing the Villo system in 2012, researchers found that 36 percent of its frequent users would be willing to return bikes to higher stations more often if some sorts of compensation would be granted to them. Not much later, the operators started to reward the fit users leaving their bikes at the highest stations with extra credits on their card. In the light of these series, we could say they improved the resilience of a limping system by including a mutualistic relation.

Joint venture

Mutualism - Joint venture for a better user experience

Image: thanks to a simple joint venture, all NS trains transform in a kick-ass riding news library.

Recently, the Dutch railway operator NS added targeted media add-ons to their monthly subscription model. Travellers can now choose to include the add-ons for a reduced fare, giving them access to services that increase their on-board experience. The first collaboration of such kind was with the digital media company Blendle, which offers an online platform with access to over 120 newspapers and magazines. By understanding the potential of the time spent travelling on trains, the NS was able to focus on experiences that benefit the user on a different emotional level. In this case, the need of self-actualisation by reading trumps the need of getting from A to B. Not only do these types of media add-ons create a new type of value for the NS, they also allow for young and innovative companies such as Blendle to promote their services to a large user-base.

Such deep understanding of user-journeys and the potential of downtime, is something the airline industry has traditionally been very good at. From offering tax-free products at airports, to integrating car-rentals in the online booking process - add-on media and services are an integral part of how companies create value. The extent to which these add-ons contribute to the user experience is of course up to debate, but what is clear is that they are resulting in more networked and shared value propositions.


Mutualism - Mobject

Image: Investigation from a pre-mobject era. The publipods as designed in 2012 had interactive screens, making them more versatile for urban dwellers. The ideas were later deepened into the mobject concept.

A mobject (short for mobile object) is a vehicle concept conceived by Granstudio – not to be confused with a concept vehicle. The key point of this concept is that a mobject should rather be approached as an object than a vehicle. The reason for doing so is quite simple: the essence of a vehicle lies in its ability to move. Therefore, it is only relevant for its direct users: the people it carries around. This means by consequence that the vast majority of people in the vehicle's environment are not addressed at all. The essence of an object, on the other hand, lies in its set of attributes that make it what it fundamentally is. Motion is not necessarily part of this set, which makes an object potentially useful and meaningful for everyone interacting with it.

Too philosophical? Some might say so. Nonetheless, this approach has a lot of relevance that reaches far beyond mere semantics. A mobject becomes very meaningful in places characterised by lots of direct interaction with people, such as urban cores and pedestrian cells. By blurring and fading the boundaries between urban infrastructure and vehicle, it makes a positive contribution to its complete environment of users as well as non-users.


After writing this blog, an interesting insight we gained is that there isn't really such a thing as a symbiotic hierarchy in which you have to endeavour reaching the top. Parasitising a mode to prevent monopolisation and challenge market convention might be as valuable to the entire mobility system as mutually sharing a ride. A single mode can have many concurrent relations: it's not a story of "or", but one of "and". The one is not necessarily excluding the other.

Nevertheless, some types of relations do seem to put a primary negative mark on the system. Think of the parked cars taking up public space as example of amensalism in our first post. Other types have a rather dubious position in the system. From a sheer ecological point of view, a mutualistic service like vehicle relocation might even be a poor idea, since transporting those vehicles all at once by trailer or train is arguably better for our environment. From an economical point of view, the practice makes sense though...

It is nonsense to strive for a mobility ecology that is entirely based on mutualistic systems. This shouldn't really surprise, since the very same applies for symbiosis in nature. The question we initiated this series with – which relations are strong enough to withstand the test of time? – is therefore poorly chosen. All relations persist in one big system of constant challenge in which one is potentially as valuable as any other. The part of our introduction that does remain relevant is the aim for insight in the entire interactive system and how to use it to design resilient mobility solutions able to leapfrog shortcomings.
Let's find out how this theoretical approach translates into practice!

(Wouter Haspeslagh, Vincenzo Seminara, Sebastian Lilge)

Article published in
January 2017