Hi, Sofia. Thank you for accepting my invitation and that you want to talk about mobility – a very important topic in urbanism.
Thank you so much for having me, Marcin.
Before we start, I would like to just ask you about a brief introduction. If you can just say something more about your background and yourself?
I guess the basics would be that I’m from Sweden, where I was trained as an architect. I have worked on urban-scale projects for most of my career. And I’m now at Henning Larsen. But before I joined here, I worked first for a few years in Sweden, and then for a few years in the US, before ending up here, here in Copenhagen, where I’ve been for the last three years.
When we talked once, I remember that you’ve said that you enjoyed living in New York a lot. Can you tell us something more about it? Did it influence your interest in urbanism, urban design and architecture?
I’m sure it did. I mean, living in a city that large. It proves the complexity and the dynamics of cities, and especially concerning mobility because mobility can be a bit of a struggle in New York City. The importance of it and what it does to the quality of life, but I love the intensity of the city for sure. I do miss that sometimes being here in Copenhagen, which is certainly quieter.
Did you need to commute within New York City? If yes, was experiencing this daily commute, daily transportation, something, that influenced you somehow? Or in general, how was your life in New York?
I lived in two different places, one where I had to commute by the subway, and then for a while, which was okay. It was a good spot, so it wasn’t that long. But then for a while, I also lived within walking distance, which was luxurious – walking distance to work. So it would take me like 20-25 minutes to walk, which was fantastic. I love that.
Did you bike a lot as well?
I didn’t bike actually, I lived in Philadelphia as well, where I would bike but I’ve never biked in New York for some reason.
Before we talk about the mobility project that you are working on right now, I wanted to ask you about your interest in mobility? When did it start?
Well, I think that I can’t pinpoint a specific time or something that sort of opened my eyes to mobility, I think it’s something that has gradually grown along with my interest in cities overall and also the way I like to think of cities as sort of ecosystems, which means that they are never really static.
So I think the movement is just an integral part of what cities are. To be interested in cities is automatically to be interested in mobility, at least from my perspective.
Could you describe the project that you are working on right now?
What we’re trying to do is to understand all the changes and trends that are going on in mobility right now, because it’s a lot, and it’s happening quickly. To understand what they mean, to the way we design cities, and to find the potential in those changes. We’re trying to see, what if we fast-forward 30 years, and we see a new type of mobility patterns in cities, and we design for those mobility patterns? Does that mean that we could design cities that are more responsive to the human experience? So can we use this chance to make our cities more dynamic, more accessible, greener, more human scale, more beautiful, more sustainable? What’s the potential in this? It is really important for us as urban designers and planners, to always think 30 years ahead because that’s when our projects will be realized. So we need to live in 2050, in our minds right now, to design and have an impact on the mobility patterns that we would like to see 30 years from now.
I think this is this challenging part of being an urban designer as well, that you need to think on a very large scale, also timewise. I mean, probably some of the projects that we are designing right now, we will not see them being realized and this is also like this kind of sad thing. Because once you design and then build the building, it’s kind of easier to see the effect of your work. Right?
Yeah. Patience is important in our profession, for sure. But also that just further sort of emphasizes the fact that we need to live in the future while designing to do a good job. We need to understand the trends and tendencies that we see in our societies right now and make the best guess, on how they will develop until the timer projects have finished.
You said about understanding and I think that’s the key part here. So I would also like you to tell us something more about mobility in general. I think it’s fair that we will now introduce to the listeners the concept of mobility in general and talk about different aspects of it, different new modes of transportation, and also about the findings in your project. To start with; why does mobility even matter nowadays?
Mobility matters to us as designers. Of course, that if you look at the shape of cities and the shape of the public realm and cities, for example, it is pretty much completely informed by the way that people use that space, of course, and the way people use that space in cities is by moving most of the time. So we need to understand how people move in that space because that’s going to inform us about the shape, look and proportion of that space. So if you look back, historically, for example, you can sort of trace different areas in mobility, and see directly how it has impacted the shape and the design of cities. Something that I think is interesting is that you could even find examples of cities there, these Neolithic cities before the invention of the wheel, that don’t have an alley network, or streets or paths of any kind, that are just the sort of clusters of buildings that are stacked together. Then you just climb onto the roof, and you move down through space through a ladder and the roof, and you don’t have a street network, because you wouldn’t need it. So it looks that way because of the way they’re used. Then if you work generally in cities, almost up into the Industrial Revolution. They were primarily designed for pedestrians, and that of course shows in the urban tissue and the network of that city. I mean, we all know what those cities look like, like these medieval cities, where you have really small block sizes, we can have these meandering alley networks. That is, of course, all based on the way you move as a pedestrian. You’d also need to place functions within walking distance. So you get this mixed-use urban tissue. And then, of course, the Industrial Revolution came around, which meant that cities needed to grow. They grew by a lot. To transport people more easily, we sort of invented public transit, and trams were the big thing. We started designing cities for trams. Then cities looked completely different from the cities before the tram.
Barcelona, for example, is the perfect example of that type of city where you started having a more regular grid structure and longer stretches for the tram. Also in Barcelona, you would chamfer the corners of the blocks to accommodate the turning radius of a tram.
So it was not designed by default. It was because of the need for transportation.
Exactly. It completely changed the look and feel of the city. And of course, then the same thing happened when the car arrived. I think that most people know what that did to our cities. And it completely again, changed the shape, the scale, the network, the spatial distribution, and all of that. So why does mobility matter? I think, to us, it’s clear because it has an immense impact on the design of cities and the experience of cities overall.
I think it’s very important that we emphasize that mobility is not something new. It was there for 2000 years and more. So even if we look at ancient Rome, for example, people were moving around, people were moving inside the city, outside the city, and they were creating and using this mobility. So it was just developing over the years. And mobility is completely not a new thing. However, maybe we started talking about mobility quite recently.
Yeah, and started calling it mobility, using that word. It also has an impact in getting our eyes open to it and not talking about traffic, for example, which sort of points that add cars. We talked about mobility, which covers a wider range. But mobility can be a lot of things.
I think that it is also very interesting if we look at some small medieval towns like Lund, in Southern Sweden. We both managed to be there and to get to know the town a bit and it has this very picturesque, medieval structure; small houses and a network of tight streets and it’s just very cosy to move around. So this also is because of how the mobility was kind of influencing the development of the city?
Yes. I know that even in some of the old parts of Copenhagen with the medieval structure, they even tried to widen the streets at some point when the car came around and tried to… move houses. Of course, they demolished half of them and moved some of them, but in general, they wanted to change the whole tissue, because it wasn’t working for the new mobility that was coming in, which I think is quite interesting.
Do you think people miss those old medical towns with this medieval street network where it is extremely close to going everywhere? Once we were growing in our cities it became harder and harder to move around, and we had all those new means of transportation but at the same time, those old structures feel so cozy. This is the place people love to go and move around.
Yeah, it’s the place people love to move around on foot.
Is this price that we pay? When the cities are growing and we are moving out further and further out (to the suburban areas like in the US, but not only). I think people still miss this human scale inner part where they can feel safe while walking.
Yeah, I don’t think anyone likes to hang out on a highway. So for sure, I think if people want to walk and use streets as public spaces, it needs to be designed differently. Maybe something more similar to the medieval cities than some of the networks that were designed over the last years.
After talking very briefly, of course, about this development, and the history of mobility. (I know, it’s a topic that we could have discussed for hours and many, many episodes of this podcast) let’s move forward to the present. Could you describe the most interesting trends in mobility right nowadays?
I think for me, from some of the ones that are most interesting or, I believe, will be most impactful – I could probably pick three. Micro mobility, for example, I’m sure most people know what that is. Micro mobility for most people means E-scooters and that type of stuff. But what’s interesting is that it also covers micro logistics and microservices. For example, logistics and service equal in cities usually are these huge trucks that cut through our cities blocking the ways. But also just as an urban designer, I think everyone who’s done this type of work, knows sort of the struggle of trying to fit the turning radius of a truck or a garbage truck, into your human scale, urban tissue that you’re trying to design. And once you fit the turning radius of that garbage truck, the garbage truck comes once a week. But that patch of asphalt that you’ve left for that garbage truck to turn, stays there every day of the week. So, which is why when you see the trend of micro logistics and microservices, I get optimistic. So basically, for deliveries, it means that you would redistribute the goods when they enter the city onto these sort of smaller, lightweight electric vehicles, and bring them to whatever their final destination is. So you don’t have to bring the huge truck into the city. That micro trend also covers sort of snow clearing and garbage trucks, as I mentioned, and which I think is super exciting, even fire trucks. So the latest news in the fire truck industry is this electric fire truck that has a significantly smaller turning radius than an additional fire truck, which I think is huge for cities.
The turning radius is something kind of non-romantic, yet very important in designing cities, right?
Yeah. So I’m excited about that. Another one would be mobility as a service, shared mobility, which is if you have an interest in these things, something that you might be familiar with. But if you don’t, mobility as a service refers to this idea of moving from owning your vehicle or owning your bike or your mode to instead of subscribing to a service. Then that service could be a monthly subscription that could give you access to a wide variety of modes. So it could be public transit, bikes, E-scooters, shared cars, anything you like. If it’s like full-blown mobility as a service system, then you would also have a trip planner integrated into that system to make it easy, to be multimodal and switch between modes, and plan your trip in the city. I think this is interesting because I think it could be helpful to push the shift away from car ownership, to something that is more shared, basically, and also make it easier to use multiple modes and increase accessibility for sustainable modes by pairing them with other modes.
So just to describe in a very way, you will treat the transportation as a service as if you have, for example, Netflix for the movies or Spotify for music. So you try to satisfy the customer and the customers’ need for moving?
Yeah. And it becomes completely adaptable to whatever it is that you need that specific day.
Wasn’t it Volvo, one of the first companies or maybe even the first one that started this subscription for their cars? So, that you don’t need to buy the car anymore, you can just have this monthly subscription for it.
Yeah, I know they have like a lease model that they’re using a lot, for sure.
That was very interesting to me because somehow, I guess sometimes we have those periods in our lives that we might need the car a bit more. So why don’t just rent it or just subscribe to some time-limited period instead of buying a car? We also remove this cost of maintenance.
Yes, and it’s just for having it sitting around. Because I mean, on average, a car is used 1 out of 24 hours. And when it’s used, it’s carrying 1.2 people at a time. So you would just carry around all this extra capacity that you don’t need, and then once in a while, you do need it.
I think we will come back to those numbers as well. And now I would like to also ask you about this third trend of mobility.
I have one more, right. So then I would want to mention that geofencing actually, which is pretty simple. It’s a virtual fence. And what the virtual fence does is that it can restrict or allow access to vehicles into that area. But it could also impact the speed of that vehicle. And right now it’s being used a lot in E-scooters. So it could, for example, you could be on a scooter and then you enter a slow speed area, and it will automatically slow down your speed. And there are also E-scooters that if you drive up onto the sidewalk, it will automatically shut down because you just can’t drive there.
But will it read the difference between the level of the terrain or…?
It is a GPS that it’s connected to. Cars are generally also connected and can communicate through that GPS. You could also use it and use it for cars and all vehicles. So I think the potential is that it can help us manage a more dynamic approach to the use of space in cities. I think it’s going to make it easier to create multifunctional spaces. I mean, one is that it’s going to make it easier to, of course, restrict access and speed. But you could also imagine having spaces that are allowing vehicles or cars in rush hour. Then that space would be used as a park or something completely different for the rest of the time. We can of course do that today with signs or putting up a temporary fence, but it’s just going to be easier to manage a more dynamic approach.
So just to very briefly summarize those three trends:
1) we try to change the way we deliver our goods into more like the lightweight way
2) the mobility as a service when we treat moving around as need – service that we want to be fulfilled and then we pay for it.
3) geofencing, which is nudging the behaviour of people using technology.
And once we have it, I just want to talk about one more thing, which is who wears the trousers, so to say: who decides about the mobility trends? And so who do you think is the most responsible for the changes we have in mobility?
Well, I think, to understand mobility and why mobility changes, I think it’s just about understanding human behaviour, essentially. I think humans are ultimately quite lazy, unfortunately. So I think it’s pretty simple. I think mobility is about convenience. If we want people to make a certain choice, we need to make that the easiest choice. So if we want sustainable mobility, that needs to be better mobility than the other option, which would be unsustainable mobility?
Can it also be cheaper?
Yeah. It could be cheaper, it could save you time, it could be a better experience. I think the best example is Copenhagen, everyone knows people bike in Copenhagen. But people don’t bike in Copenhagen, because they’re conscious about sustainable living or that they’re more healthy than other people, it doesn’t have anything to do with that. It’s just this the most convenient way to get around, it’s the quickest way to get around. It’s also the best experience. But the experience, you don’t know about the experience until you try it. You will try it the first time because it’s quicker and it saves you time. It saves you money and it gives you a better experience as a bonus. So I think if we want to see, for example, less car ownership, we need to provide better mobility, meaning more choices than what you get with owning a car and more adaptable mobility. And if we want to see less heavy infrastructure, we need to get something in return, we can give green infrastructure and social infrastructure in return. If we want people to move with slower speed in cities, we need to offer more connectivity and more proximity and get a new sort of closer to where you want to go in return. I think, of course, the design of infrastructure plays a huge part in that too.
But who do you think is now more aware? Do you think that these are people who vote and influence the decision-makers in our cities, to start introducing some kind of mobility, or this is the other way around that this is the city makers that try to implement the new mobility, so they somehow enforce the way people move around? Is more the demand or this is more about the policy-driven?
I think that could differ a lot from city to city and country to country if it’s more policy-based or more market-driven. I mean, I think it can be both. But I think the biggest and most important tool that we’ve got, is just on how the infrastructure functions. And how easy or hard it is to use certain types of mobility, which of course, can be driven by the policy, are driven by a sign.
I was wondering, what is more, effective or maybe more common, because from one hand side, you have these decision-makers like city councils, and they say: Okay, if you buy an electric car, we will give you some money for that, or we will just add some percent of the amount of the new vehicle and we give an incentive for people to buy those cars. On the other hand side, we have people who might say team-up and manifest their needs or protest against not fulfilling them. The citizens can demand to have more bike infrastructure because we know it’s better for us and not cars. So can it somehow meet in the middle of its either-or?
I’m sure it can but I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a protest, demanding more bike infrastructure even though that would be fantastic if people did that. So I think of course it could come from the bottom up and that would be fantastic. If you had people in power who would listen to that. But I don’t think I have a straight answer to how to merge that or exactly how that would work. I think where we’re living in Copenhagen, it becomes quite easy. Because the city in the municipality has a big influence in the public realm and in infrastructure and how it develops. And from what it seems, as of right now, they seem to have, hopefully, sort of people’s interest in the city’s interest in mind. But yeah, I don’t think I have a straight answer to that.
Sure. I mean, it’s very complex, I think. I’m just wondering how to plan for Smart Mobility because we can remember a couple of years ago when the E-scooters appeared in many cities around the world. I know the example from Warsaw that the regulations and the law didn’t catch up at the beginning. And first, for some years, there have been E-scooters everywhere, the cities were trashed with it. It was not regulated, so people didn’t know where to park them. So, who takes care of them?
Yeah, I think that the cities, municipalities need to catch up on regulation there, it needs to be regulated, and it needs to be quite strictly regulated, for it to work.
So I think they hold ultimately, the most power in impacting mobility and mobility choices that people make, or at least I think they should have the most power.
We talked about this Smart Mobility. And there is one more thing I would like to talk about or maybe two. One of them will be autonomous cars. I’ve seen a presentation you made about mobility. And there was this one slide that, there were like a lot of cars on a highway. On the one side, it was the street before autonomous cars. The second slide was the street after autonomous cars. And it was just the same image with the same cars, but they had just some kind of electric sensor on their roofs to indicate that it’s an autonomous car. What’s the matter with this?
Well, I think, when it comes to autonomous cars or self-driving cars, again, it comes down to behavior. So if we get self-driving cars and we use them as a private car, the same way we do today, of course, nothing’s going to change, they’ll still take up the same amount of space, still think the same trips, doesn’t mean anything changes. So the impact is completely dependent on how we use them. For example, if we imagine that, okay, we’re going to have autonomous cars, and they’re all going to be an on-demand system, like a ride-hailing system, you would have altogether fewer cars, but you might still have more congestion. You could have less, but it depends on sort of how you integrate them and how you design that system. But it could still mean more congestion. Because it’s about how many miles that specific car is driving in which space. So the only scenario where the autonomous cars could have a really big positive impact is if it’s shared. And you would be able to expect fewer cars and less congestion altogether, of course. So the big potential would be if autonomous cars would mean an improvement in the public transit system, making it more accessible and more adaptable and give it a further reach than it does today. So that’s where it could have a positive impact.
If I remember correctly, you have been showing one diagram with the information that in 2075 in Sweden, there will be like 95% of electric cars, out of all cars. What will we do with all those cars that are there already in Sweden? If we are about to replace in 50 years?
Yeah, I don’t remember exactly which data you’re referring to, but better, it might have been statistics about the proportion of cars sold and I don’t remember if that one also had, like phasing out the old cars as they grow old. And then you could see sort of how a big part of the fleet is electric, at one point. Of course, with a prognosis like that, it’s really hard to know if it’s accurate or not. But, we’re moving in that direction.
I’ve also read that producing an electric car takes way more, like many times more resources than it takes for, let’s say, a normal car. And I was wondering; if it’s not against this whole movement towards more sustainable transportation?
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s great that we’re getting more and more electric cars that are great. But overall, we still need to aim for less car ownership. That is the key and using other modes of transportation and using public transportation. I mean, that is, of course, the truly sustainable development, that at least I would like to see.
You’ve also been saying that 74% of our all trips in cities are under 10 kilometres. And most trips in the cities are short trips, so as I understand we should design cities for short trips?
Yeah, I think that the statistics you mentioned, comes from different Scandinavian cities. The first thing to point out, I think it’s 74% of all trips under 10 kilometres and 63% under five kilometres. So really, the vast majority of trips that people take are short trips. That is interesting, because a short trip, I mean, a five-kilometre trip, can very comfortably and easily be taken by bike, by an e-bike, or by foot, if it’s even shorter.
So the majority of trips that people are taking could comfortably be taken with smart mobility. However, we design almost all the streets in cities to accommodate heavier modes by cars, for example. We don’t need them for the majority of the trips that we’re taking, however, we design our entire city around them.
So we kind of waste our public space here on asphalt. So if we were to study the trip patterns of people, and make it easier for them to choose lighter modes for those short trips, which for example, mobility as a service could be helpful in that. Then design the city based on how they could look different. An example; I think about this a lot because when I’m working from home, I have my desk by a window on the fifth floor. What I see in front of my eyes, every single day working is one of the biggest roads in Copenhagen. It has like six lanes, I think it’s 35 meters wide. So I just look at this road every single day. I can monitor what happens there. It’s just fascinating to see that it’s being used for short, it’s quite full in rush hours; mornings and afternoons. But the rest of the day that space stays almost empty.
Even though it’s one of the biggest roads and widest roads in Copenhagen.
Yeah, and for the rest of the day, that space is this huge barrier, which is a really unpleasant space, and it’s unpleasant where the cars are driving and when they’re not. It just frustrates me that we are giving up all this space to cars. If we could change our mobility patterns to match, as I was saying, the type of trips that were taken and then design cities based on that, our cities could look very different.
To summarize it all, I wanted to ask about how to create the mobility networks and those urban topologies of the future of human-centric cities, because this is something that you’ve been investigating in your project, which is still ongoing. So I will not ask you about the final findings, but could you say what are the findings for now?
What we were trying to do is to demonstrate what a city looks like when it’s being designed for the mobility future that we would like to see, which would be more vital modes paired with public transit, sort of what I just described. Some preliminary results, based on some calculations that we’re doing, which I thought was quite interesting is looking at, okay, what if we were to design a new urban district and say it’s the size of Faelledparken and which is a big park here in Copenhagen. You could design it either based on the type of network and structure that we would typically do or we have the space for cars and every street that a certain width and maybe some street parking. You compare that to if you design the same space, but you design it, primarily for soft mobility or lighter modes of mobility, of course, without compromising accessibility and safety, and all of that. And you sort of decide based on a slight switch in modal split, pushing for more sustainable modes.
So our preliminary calculations tell us that in the size of a development, the size of Faelledparken, we could free up 12 soccer fields of space.
This is just road space. So this is just comparing the actual street network, and how much of the street network we give away for transportation space, and not including separate parking lots or parking houses or anything like that. So that wouldn’t be even more space. But just adjusting the actual street network. And the transportation space we put in that network would give us 12 soccer fields a space to do whatever we want with.
That’s an enormous amount of space.
Yeah, so that is what we’re trying to work with. And then we’re going to try to visualize this and show how we could design an urban district with the space in mind and what it means for the shape, scale, and distribution.
So the outcome will be kind of a tool that could be implementable while designing new urban districts?
Yes, we will try to translate the financing to design. And so it’s going to be some design recommendations, some new topologies that we’re going to try to demonstrate and then we’re going to test it all in a masterplan case study. So to show what it could look like.
One last thing I wanted to ask you about, and I will not require a very detailed answer here. But what is the future of mobility?
Yeah, good question. I can say that I believe that when my kids are grown, and if they choose to live in a city, I think the idea of anyone owning a 2000 kg metal machine that sits around unused 95% of the time, I think that idea will seem completely absurd. I mean, I think it sounds absurd already. So that, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t have access to a car when they need one. But I don’t think they’re going to be dependent on one single gadget or one invention, but a much greater diversity of service-based mobility options. So yeah, in larger cities, it might be more multi-modality with efficient public transit, of course, that you need pairing with small scales, low-speed modes, of course, including soft mobility, walking and biking and all that. So that is not the futuristic answer. It’s not a delivery drone or something simple like that, but it’s more about the mobility behavior that I think is the key to future mobility.
So it’s kind of how you wish it will look like one day.
Yeah, and I need to believe in it because this is what I’m trying to design.
That’s a satisfying answer. What book or article could you recommend to the listeners?
I think on this topic, if you’d like to learn more about some of the things we talked about, I could probably recommend two papers that Ramboll has put together. One is called Achieving sustainable micro-mobility, where they look at data from most of the e-scooters and try to analyze that. The second study is called Whimpac where they’ve evaluated the data from the world’s first mobility as a service system called Whim, in Helsinki, which I think has some interesting stuff in it. And then in general, I think the International Transport Forum is also something good to check out. They’ve done some studies and simulations on the spatial impact of an impact overall of shared mobility and autonomous cars.
Where can the listeners follow your professional work and the outcomes of this project?
You can follow our Henning Larsen website as we will share the outcome when it’s ready. There is also LinkedIn if anyone wants to contact me and we’ll make sure to share the results there as well.
I’m looking forward to hearing something more about it, especially the outcomes of the project. It sounds very exciting. I would like to thank you very much for the conversation that we just had.
Thank you so much.
If you want to listen to the podcast episode with Sofia, feel free to click below: