Sensory-Based Mobility Planning: How Getting Around Brings Us Together

This is a guest post by James Rojas, an urban planner, community activist, and artist. He is one of the few nationally recognized urban planners to examine U.S. Latino cultural influences on urban design and sustainability.

It recently occurred to me that mobility is a physical connection through motion. Here’s how. 

I facilitated a hands-on, virtual Place It mobility workshop for Richard Pelletier’s graduate class at Art Center’s Transportation Systems and Design program. These students were interested in the design of public mobility and to some extent community engagement. The Place It is a simple design process. 

“What he asked of us was simple but I believe that is what made it powerful. Sometimes we are so fixated on being ‘clever’ and sophisticated in our design work that we forget the simple signals that can inspire our work.” Geoff Wardle, Art Center, Executive Director, Graduate Transportation Systems and Design.

This workshop taught them a new approach to design mobility based on their lived and sensory experiences by using their hands and objects. 

More importantly, it highlighted how mobility moments connect the body with the environment and each other, which can restitch the harm from cars.   

Mobility is about movement, which is fundamental to human activity. Like any human activity, it is steeped in personal experiences, memories, emotions, needs, and aspirations. 

The participants were from the US, Asia, and Europe, and had a range of experiences depending on when or where they grew up. 

The investigation began with participants building their first mobility experience in 5 to 8 minutes using materials from around their room. This gave them the opportunity to reflect on the powerful feeling created by movement in their lives. By building or drawing these experiences they articulated the physical relationship they had with their particular mode, landscape and people. 

Richard was excited about getting a bike which allowed him to explore his neighborhood beyond the front yard. He rode his bike on the safe and predictable sidewalks over and over again. Learning how to ride a bike is a very common US mobility experience for youth. 

Many students from India spoke about riding behind a person on motor bikes. For many Americans and Brits, this might be deemed unsafe.  But, because they were passengers and did not have to navigate the street, they were able to enjoy the ride that must have been an exhilarating experience for these participants.  

For Geoff from Britain, taking the double decker iconic London red buses was his favorite memory. He was so proud when he took the bus by himself to school at 5 years old. The bus was, in Geoff’s memory, reliable, routine, and safe. He learned how to navigate the city.  

A participant from China spoke about the first time her and friend explored a new subway station.  An Italian student spoke how animated riding the Argentine subway compared to riding it in Italy. One participant said he was fascinated by mobility, Trains going through buildings, or over hard freeways.  

Building or drawing these experiences gave participants the opportunity to highlight the sensory experience connected to mobility. 

From the pleasant smell of a new subway station in China to the smell of a woman’s perfume who sat next to a participant on the London bus, these scents were intertwined with their experiences. Another participant remembers being rained on while riding on a motorcycle with her dad.  Participants did not mention getting somewhere on time or quickly. They spoke about their lasting mobility moments as a critical part of the experience.  These intangible elements humanized mobility infrastructure. It tells us how the body responds.  

By sharing these stories with each other we have many ways to solve a problem. Plus the group came together to find common ground.  These early relationships we develop with movement and become our DNA for mobility. By understanding these individual relationships to movement activity we can begin to develop core mobility values. These spaces were implicitly safe.

Many of the experiences were social shared experiences. While others satisfied our quest of adventure and curiosity. There was also a predictability or routine to these experiences and many were repeated over and over.   No matter where people came from they incorporated mobility into their budding young lives.  

For the next activity participants built their ideal mobility system in 5 to 8 minutes using materials. With their new awareness and collective knowledge the participants  develop mobility based on their core values. Instead of building a brick and mortar system, or a car the participants focussed on experience, needs, and aspirations. They wanted mobility to be safe and reliable, a social and environmental benefit and enhance the landscapes. 

Mobility has to be a sharable experience with others; they drew images of people together.