Nо Air: Provocative Thoughts on Future Mobility

An interview with researched Sven Kesserling about alternative mobility futures

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An interview with Sven Kesselring

An interview by Irina Lunevich

The 'miracle of flight' is not a miracle any more. More and more people take planes in order to go to work, to visit their friends and relatives, or just to spend a weekend in an unusual place. The future in which everyone is on the move doesn’t seem to be so utopian. This interview focuses not only on our relationships with aero-mobility, but also on infrastructure that supports it and on how air travel impacts social relations and our daily lives on the ground. Researcher Sven Kesselring shares his ideas about how mobility will be transformed in the future and what alternative mobility futures will look like.

Sven Kesselring is a senior researcher at the Institute for Transportation and Director of the mobil.TUM project at the Technische Universität München in Germany. He has published extensively in the field of interdisciplinary mobilities research and co-edited a number of books, including ‘Aeromobilities’ and ‘Tracing Mobilities. Towards a Cosmopolitan Perspective'. He is the founder of the Cosmobilities Network.
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In your works you mainly focus on mobility pioneers. However, they constitute just a fraction of society. Is it interesting to study how mobility affects the daily routines of other social groups, such as young people, housewives, elderly people?

Doing research about pioneers is always doing research about the future society. I remember that when we used the term ‘virtual mobility’ for the first time, people in the research center were laughing. When we were conducting our first interviews in 1999 it was really something new to have radio talks on the Internet. However, it has become a part of everyday communication. If we talk about elderly people, for example, at the age of 65, today they use the Internet a lot and it’s totally normal for young people to use FaceTime. One of the big things in my research is the normalization of mobility, the normalization of virtual mobility and digital lifestyles.

It is obvious that more and more people use the Internet all over the world, but can we talk about the normalization of physical mobility? I mean that housewives or elderly people do not travel as often as, for example, businessmen.

It’s totally normal to live in Munich and to have your holidays, for instance, at the Bahamas. People travel to Cuba or Thailand because they like to experience new places. Moreover, living in Munich and never going out of Munich doesn’t mean that your lifestyle isn’t mobility intense, because you produce or consume goods that are being moved around a lot.

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Communication technologies allow to work together without traveling /​photo: De Balle/​Flickr​.com

If it comes to consumption – all the food, all the clothes that we’re wearing, the electronic devices that we’re buying – everything is based on air travel and logistics. Thus, our life is extremely mobility intense and the whole lifestyle in the Western world is based on extensive travel.

Mobility is considered to be a social good. However, in your articles you write about the ‘mobile risk society’. What are the risks?

On the societal level, of course, there is an enormous risk of CO2 emissions and climate change. Ecological risks are related to individual decisions about where to we travel, how often we travel and how far we travel. Secondly, there are significant health risks related to mobility. People who travel for work get sick more often than people who do not. There are also a lot of social risks, uncertainties and insecurities which mobile workers are facing. They definitely have more freedom and more choices, but they are not a part of micro-​politics within a company. For example, when they stay abroad for a long period of time, there is a question how they can get back to the company or what is going to happen with their careers back home.

Never going out doesn’t mean that your lifestyle isn’t mobility intense, because you produce or consume goods that are being moved around a lot

Are there any ways to adjust to new mobility regimes?

The problem is that mobility in business life is still taken for granted. There are lots of reasons why people travel. If you are signing a contract or if you are building new connections with business partners, it requires lots of trust and face-​to-​face communication. On the other hand, there are a lot of opportunities to work together without travelling. Many companies install equipment for mini-​conferencing or Skype, for example…

However, only a handful of companies ask their employees to replace travelling with virtual mobility, with online communication. Moreover, people who have been working and traveling let us say only for a year, they talk about their mobility as something totally normal. The question ‘Do I really have to travel?’ is not a part of everyday routines.

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Should we use our travel time to work or to relax? /​Photo: Art Hupy, 1935

If the amount of travel is not going to decrease, what competences and skills should we develop in order to deal with the growing mobility pressure?

I think that people should allow themselves to lock off, to switch off the mobile, not to read e-​mails, to choose immobility… In addition, people have to be more active in fighting for their own rights. They definitely have the right to say ‘no’, to say ‘I have been traveling during the last two weeks, I cannot travel again. I need direct flights. I cannot take a stopover flight, although it is cheaper for the company’.

Another thing is the ability to save yourself from being totally exploited during travel time. When you travel from, let’s say, Moscow to Los-​Angeles, you have to ask yourself if a travel time is a working time when you have to prepare yourself or this is a time when you can relax, read a book or watch a movie. Time-​space compression is really a big issue in these new mobile working relations.

Mobility is not a free choice anymore. It’s something that you have to do

It seems that virtual mobility could become an alternative for physical travel…

In general, more communications equals more reasons to travel. However, it is important to understand how the relations between mobility and immobility and between physical and virtual mobility is going to develop in the future – and it is not only about what the free market directs you to do, but it is also about political decisions. Probably, in 50 years, we are going to have political and legal conditions that will be much more regulating and that will change somehow the privatization of air travel. It will be more economically interesting to replace physical travel with other forms of communication.

Today, we’re observing a significant change in the organization of the global world. Families and friends are connected through technologies and, probably, in the future people will interact in a virtual space. It is different from face-​to-​face interaction, but maybe we will have an opportunity to see facial expressions and body language, to smell people and to have more kinesthetic experience online, which is very different from what basic technologies allow us to do today. I would say that it’s definitely not possible to replace all physical travel by virtual travel, but the relations between mobility and immobility will be re-​configured in a new way.

You said that mobility is already affecting people’s lives, but how it will affect our lives in the future? Some groups of people will stay immobile for various reasons… How this relationship between mobile and immobile groups of people could alter the social structure?

One of the dystopian views on the future society is that mobility and, in particular, air travel, will become accessible only to a very small group of people. It is the mobility of the rich or super rich who are still able to travel around the world, while all the others have to stick to one place. 

On the other hand, we could imagine the future in which just a small group will be forced to travel for work. Thus, mobility is not a free choice anymore. It’s something that you have to do. People who are able to decide if they stay at home or if they go only for short trips have the wealth. So it could be a privilege to decide for your own immobility. If we look at statistics, we can see this trend.

In any case, I am sure we will soon reach some sort of a tipping point when suddenly a different concept of mobility, which is not linked to the physical travel any more, would become predominant and would open completely new perspectives for the society. 

The emergence of low-​cost airlines allowed the inclusion of new social groups into air transportation…

I see a conflict and a dilemma between social equality and ecological sustainability. I think this is the task for our century to solve this problem and get this back into balance. I am also convinced that mobility is a common good, it is not a product as many people in the industry think today.

What we need to find is a policy and an organization of movement that supports less disastrous and less negative forms of mobility. We (now I’m talking about Germany) have policies for trains, for road traffic, for container shipping, for ships on rivers and all this things, but Germany actually does not have an air traffic policy. On the city scale we use a lot of different instruments to control private cars and promote public transport. It is not a taboo any more to talk about limiting mobility. Air travel will be also probably limited in 50 or 100 years from now. 

Still, the amount of air traffic is growing every year. Many airports around the world fail to meet growing traffic demand. How should an airport infrastructure be changed in order to keep up with the increasing number of passengers?

First of all, I have to say that all statistics are political and they always work as an instrument to determine the future. If we adapt infrastructure to estimated travel demand it means that we accept statistical forecasts. It’s not the capacities that have to be adapted to demand, but the other way round: we need to make political decisions about what the demand for air travel should be.

Today, the Munich airport receives around 13 million passengers per year. A travel demand of 40 million travelers per year means an enormous extension of airport infrastructure and all the logistics in the background. But there should be a political decision to limit this growth. We can say: ‘We do not accept more than 25 million passengers per year and this is the infrastructure which we consider as sustainable for our region’. This will have a lot of economic consequences, but it does not mean that the region of Munich will totally fail. It means that companies and stakeholders will have to adapt to the policy.

We should simply think about other opportunities to provide access to air travel in the future.

Are governments and local authorities ready to limit the number of passengers in airports?

Yes, I think so, but not everywhere, as there are a lot of cultural differences between cities and countries. However, there is a discussion about what is acceptable and what is not. If we’re talking about the Central Europe, there is a significant change in the understanding of what planning is today, in comparison with the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. There is a paradigm shift in a lot of planning processes from “we need to adapt to increasing travel demand in society” to ‘we are actually a part of shaping the mobility of future; we decide what is realistic and what is sustainable’.

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Inability to keep up with growing traffic demand leads to airport congestions and flight delays/​Photo: Buh Snarf/​Flickr​.com

So, the growth of air traffic increases environmental risks. Alternative fuels might help reducing the impact of the aviation on the environment, but are there any other ways to achieve sort of a balance between sustainability issues and traffic demand?

This is a really complicated question. Airports are the places where different scales of global society are coming together. This requires specific forms of consensus: a balance between the interests of local actors and that of global stakeholders. In addition, we need to think about new sustainability strategies that strengthen the region itself. This could decrease the necessity of traveling. Nowadays, every nation-​state discusses the possibility to build airports even in economically less developed regions. I believe that the increase in the number of small-​scale airports is the way of producing enormous ecological consequences. We should simply think about other opportunities to provide access to air travel in the future.