Pedestrianism, the future of urban mobility

As one of the 8 pillars at the basis of the development of age friendly communities’ mobility and transport are key in helping people to remain healthy, active and connected in later life. But what is meant today by mobility in older adults? And what mobility should we imagine for the future? NICA and Piaggio Fast Forward are exploring a new way called ‘pedestrianism’.

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In recent years, the narrative about innovation in mobility has often focused on the betting of the automotive industry and in particular on self-driven vehicles, apparently a panacea for older people if, as stated by a report from UK Gov, “bringing driverless cars to market can help to increase the mobility of older people who tend to travel less frequently”.

Following these considerations numerous commentators are predicting rapid progress with driverless cars (and intelligent driver systems) over the next 10 years, with several arguing that this cutting edge technology may be the first where older people will be the ‘lifestyle’ leaders: “younger people may have been the first to embrace smart phones, but it’s the 50+ consumers who will be first with smart cars.”

And if they weren’t the drivers, the promise of the ‘sharing economy’ hinted that driverless taxis and shuttle buses are possibly a better option for many older people than car ownership. Driverless public transport would also benefit the older adult. Older people tend to use the public bus system relatively more frequently than younger. There may be options for specialised driverless busses for those who would find it valuable.

However, the recent events caused by COVID-19 have violently called into question an automobile-centric economy (and transport logic) by suggesting more accessible solutions with less environmental and personal impact: the boom of bicycles and electric scooters has been sanctioned by the initiatives of many cities. Milan above all, immediately proposed a radical redesign of the city’s routes by proposing new and extended cycle paths, and by governments with massive incentives to purchase these low-impact vehicles.

A recent report by the Centre for Ageing Better carried out in collaboration with the Greater Manchester and the City of Leeds concluded: “We need to promote solutions that support active and healthy behaviours, such as walkable communities and active travel options. All of this will require a concerted effort and collaboration to address the hard issues of system fragmentation and complexity, which also act as barriers to innovation”.

Our vision

We followed some of the above observations literally and focused our energies on exploring innovations around a concept of mobility that is more contemporary, sustainable, empathic, human and close to the habits and desires of older adults. On the other hand – in our way of seeing the present and the future of mobility – the concept of transport linked to the older adult can only be imagined in conjunction with social participation, a new logical project about the outdoor spaces, the respect of the individual, as well as social inclusion, the support to the communities. In other words, the key other pillars of the WHO’s age friendly community framework.

So, we explored who, in the space of innovation on mobility, is driving disruptive conversation, asking where extreme innovation based on data, sustainability, technology, meets empathy, human needs and return on society? After all, plenty of devices are already available to this audience. And we know well that acceptance isn’t automatic – it must be earned by truly addressing core human needs. Not just coming up with the next big thing. For these reasons, we have focused on the most efficient, enjoyable and less polluting means of propulsion: walking.

The project

Piaggio Fast Forward (PFF) a company of the Piaggio group – the inventor of the Vespa, one of the world’s most iconic mass transit vehicles – dedicated to support a sustainable mobility ecology with healthy lifestyles and social connectivity available to all, regardless of age or abilities. PFF has recently launched on the market Gita – a knee-high robot that holds her owner’s things and follows them while they walk through their day.

Pedestrianism is the base of the mobility pyramid and it needs the most imaginative and innovative support. Not turning citizens into passengers but walkers, supported by vehicles which make walking the most sustainable and pleasurable choice

says Jeffrey Schnapps PFF Chief Visionary Office.

Gita is PFF’s first product born from more than four years of research, not only addressing a brand-new concept of mobility but capturing something we at NICA fully endorset “not turning citizens in to passengers but walkers”. It also addresses a series of key questions like “How will self-driving machines integrate with social norms?” or In what ways should they move to be legible to untrained bystanders?” .  As Piaggio Fast Forward’s CEO Greg Lynn says,

our approach is to understand pedestrian etiquette and design machines that share this understanding.

NICA is the first non-US based organization to own Gita and Newcastle is one of the first City Council in the world where this device will be applied in real-case scenarios involving older adults.

With PFF we are testing if lightweight machines like Gita will be part of the future our urban landscape and if and how they will be accepted by older adults. In particular with the City of Newcastle, we will study how:

  • Gita can help mitigate loneliness and isolation both actively (e.g. by taking people shopping) and passively, representing a social attractor to other citizens simply through its amazing form and function.
  • Moreover, we believe that Gita, despite not having any interaction function typical of robots in this era – Gita doesn’t talk, but emits cute feedback sounds – can generate a sense of empathy, companionship and mutual care by encouraging people to “take her for a ride” and thus stimulate healthy behaviour.
  • COVID19 also suggested some scenarios dictated by social distancing, such as allowing a shopping trip in a supermarket led by an attendant to be returned to its rightful owner at the exit.

The experimentation of Gita will start in April 2021.

For more information contact: Jessica.Dawes@newcastle.ac.uk