‘The transition unfolds: mobility is going back from efficiency to value for people’

After decades of focus on efficiency within mobility, Floor Milikowski notices that the pendulum is now swinging back to social value. According to her, these kinds of transitions require years and years of effort. But also a different way of working. In order to maintain the level of accessibility of regions, or perhaps better: to improve them, an integrated plan must be drawn up for each region. A plan in which all those involved contribute ideas – and if necessary contribute to the payment.

From basic needs to efficiency thinking

“We used to see mobility as a basic need in the Netherlands,” says journalist and social geographer Floor Milikowski. “As a society, we thought it was important that people had access to, for example, work, education and facilities within an acceptable travel distance. For decades, we as a society have very consciously invested in this, based on the idea that mobility is crucial for a healthy, developed society with equal opportunities.”

From the 1980s, neoliberal thinking emerged and the focus on efficiency made its appearance, also in mobility. Milikowski: “As a result, buses and trains increasingly only run on routes where it is profitable from a commercial point of view. Public transport is often less profitable in less populated areas, so connections were canceled there. While the people there need it precisely because there are fewer facilities.”

Fundamental part of a healthy society

In order to achieve a basic level of accessibility in regions such as the Northern Netherlands, we need to make a fundamental change, according to Milikowski. “We should no longer see public transport as a source of income, but – just like education, healthcare and defense – as a fundamental part of a healthy society. And that requires significant investments.”

A cost-benefit assessment is no longer decisive in this respect. Instead, collectively the question is asked: how much money do we want to invest to guarantee the accessibility of the region and to ensure that the region can flourish?

“The market” sometimes gets it right – and very often blunders

This change is starting to take root in the Netherlands, says Milikowski. “Look at healthcare and education, where there is a growing awareness that ‘the market’ is doing good things – but also failing in many aspects. There is an increasing opinion that we should focus on the social value of things, instead of just on the financial-economic value. And that the government has a major role to play in this.”

Whether it concerns care, education, mobility, climate or housing: according to the social geographer, the Dutch now see en masse that we have to solve these kinds of matters by bearing the costs together, because it has a lot of value for society.

“The transition is starting to brew”

Milikowski has been publishing on this theme for about fifteen years now. “If you had conversations about this ten years ago, the answer everywhere was definitely: ‘Yes, but the market. And the yield. And the targets.’ Now you notice doubts in everyone. Also with large parties such as housing corporations, investors and developers. They want to provide social value and fear for a society in which people no longer have good education, proper care and good accessibility. The problem: they are trapped in a system where they lack the freedom to do things differently.”

Milikowski is hopeful that there is currently so much brewing that the pendulum is swinging the other way again. “The major system change that is needed starts with changes in people’s minds. Fortunately, I already see some movement in it. But before such an early transition leads to a fundamentally different practice, it will be five to ten years later. If people have started to think differently, the systems still have to change. Only after politicians come to different decision-making, the policy can be changed. But I absolutely believe that we are now at the beginning of a change that we have all been waiting for, for years.”

An integrated plan for each region

How can we accelerate the fact that efficiency thinking fades into the background and the value of mobility becomes central again? According to Milikowski, there is no single all-encompassing measure or magic solution. “It is important that you have a good plan for each region: what is the vision of the future you want to achieve? The government – both at local and national level – must have a sort of directive role in this. It is also and above all important that you involve all other parties involved, such as transporters, companies that contribute and sometimes also volunteers.”

A partnership that is moving towards this ideal, she says, is Hive.Mobility. This brings together governments, knowledge institutions and the business community in the Northern Netherlands from the task of making passenger and freight transport smarter and more sustainable. “They are really looking for innovative methods to solve mobility problems. That is a very interesting and valuable quest. The way we have approached it over the past fifty to seventy years is in urgent need of renewal.”

Vulnerable constellation

At the same time, such a constellation is also vulnerable, the journalist believes. “If you set up a complex network with all different partners and means of transport, the entire model can collapse when one or two parties drop out or go bankrupt. On the other hand, this model really is the future. Partly because mobility is becoming more and more personal. But also because large infrastructural projects such as the Lelylijn require intricate plans that relate to numerous aspects, such as the geographical consequences and the connection of different modes of transport.”

Of paramount importance, according to Milikowski, is the regional focus. After all, every region has its own characteristics, challenges and stakeholders. “You need a well-thought-out integrated plan for each region that is accurate down to the last detail.”

New Energy Forum

On June 22, 2023, Floor Milikowski gave a keynote during the third edition of the New Energy Forum in Groningen. The event for the (prospective) mobility and energy professional and focused on the energy and mobility transition. New Energy Forum is an initiative of New Energy Coalition, EnTranCe and Hive.Mobility.