Will transport users choose from available options, create alternatives, or subscribe?

CAPE TOWN– We make choices all the time. Navigating through avenues of alternatives and choosing based on habit, newness or just sheer curiousity. Here, I’m riding toward the City in a taxi driven by a man from Somalia. Somewhere between the prejudice and kindness the robot opens for traffic, with minibus taxis filling up all three lanes and buses piling up in the opposite direction. Everyone is coming grom the city. Whether you’re alone in the car, or jam-packed in the bus, both are stuck in traffic. What will transport users choose? When we could all be stuck anyway, what is the future of choice?

What exactly is public transportation service for? In SA it seems to simply orchestrate symphonies behind eradicating what Kgafela oa Magogodi called a “theatre of poverty” through changing how space, place and movement are organised. There are limits to this type of narrative. It makes operational sense to reduce the unit cost of mobility through regulating property prices along a bid-rent curve— while ensuring that some people are better off, and none are worse off. This is a welfare argument behind public transportation operations. However, there is a potential line of questioning that is particularly unique: is the positive externality of service the language of value?

Consider what we prefer to measure: time, reliability, form, place, and the tactile. However, there is an embedded economy of value systems and an appreciation for novelty. Discussed in Tibor Scitovsky’s work on The Joyless Economy, there seems to be three types of services underlying value: (a) novelty; (b) comfort and pleasure; (c) and unmeasured contributions. His book reveals the importance of advancements, and the grip growth has on consumer behaviour. Yet, today we are for the first time confronted with a consumer that attempts to not only consume products, but to create, or at least participate in creating, customising and reviewing. Furthermore, whether they are on YouTube to describe new products, or driving an advertorial campaign like the #WOOLWORTHSWATERCHALLENGE, they represent a crucial interchange. A shift from consumer to prosumer culture is absolutely obvious today. Especially as increasing numbers of people with access to both internet and smartphones are participating in prosumerism in some respect.

I suspect that the once intangible notions of value, principle, meaning, and well-being may become much easier to measure, influence and reformulate.

What is a prosumer?

Recently confiscating a copy of the Journal of Consumer Behaviour from someone else’s address, teaches alot about incredible finds. In this particular issue, they introduced the idea of prosumer behaviour. Which they describe as these collaborators, or individuals who range from expecting 3D modelling capabilities when custom designing shoes. As experience matters more and more, households will host a salivation for 4D type materials, great lifestyles, and technologies integrated in the act of monitoring this greatness. Firstly, the novelty of invention pushes curious technological advances. Secondly, consumer decisions flutter between maintaining a certain level of comfort while reaching out to grasp higher pleasures. This is evident through the variety of applications, solutions, companies, and personalities in the digital landscape (something close to an Pardox of Choice (a book I need to order urgently!). And finally, through big data, advanced simulation techniques, smaller sensors and machine learning, it is rather plausible to measure what was once immeasurable.

It is only natural to suspect that the once intangible notions of value, principle, meaning, and well-being may become much easier to measure, influence and reformulate. While this is already happening in direct and indirect ways, what matters are the data-centres, copper cables, chip and circuit boards, energy networks and other industrial demands. These could constitute a new dimension to economies. Public transport economies seem to have distinctly unique externalities and a special service characteristic underlying them. In some popular culture circles, transit might reveal a sense of altruism against the backdrop of hyper-individualistic societies. This could mean anything from a service design perspective. Will the next few years have individuals choosing from the available options or creating their own alternatives?

Choice making and public transport

Minibus taxis, tuk-tuks and tambai (i.e. paratransit) are alternatives borne out of necessity and capital. Todd Litman argues that in public transportation there tends to be some value to adding more options. Whether it is Metrorail’s new trainsets, or the Gautrain expanding to “townships”, or bus rapid transport operating parallel to existing city buses— there is some value to commuters. For regulators, their question is at what cost? As prosumer culture emerges in the mobility sphere there is much more to consider than before. Information changes economics. People won Nobel prizes just on this issue. More specifically, as information changes, and the speed of connections increases platforms like Uber, Lyft, Bolt (taxify) and others practically add even more options to the market. Anyone can be a driver at a certain time— weekends, university holidays, or while moonlighting. Even driving long-distance one could offer secure travel services through platforms such as Blablacar. Of course humans aren’t “graphs in books of academics” as Lesego Rampolokeng wrote in prose, but there is something else simmering. An old frontier about choice making, which I’m certainly uncertain about it. 

This post is a background note for a forthcoming study on this topic. Just a remind for new readers, one of my first posts had to with the manner in which Uber penetrated South Africa, technologies piloted in South Africa before ride-hailing was popular, much later on I wrote about the regulatory dynamics of the company in Road Transport News. 

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