A Sustainable Mobility Space: Theory and Principles to Guide Stewardship of
the UT Campus

Alan Bush
Doctoral Student
Community and Regional Planning Program
School of Architecture


This essay is an attempt to take the current flow of the public conversation around biking and mobility on campus and reframe it theoretically in a way that creates new possibilities for sustainable stewardship of the UT Campus. This paper and the accompanying presentation attempt to do three things:

1) To reframe the scope of the issue in a new way that might offer a new way to think about the goal of the mobility movement on the UT campus: to promote the creation of a sustainable mobility space.

2) Generate a set of principles that can guide the creation of a forum for the UT Austin mobility space that might engage the various stakeholders in a way that will engender sustainability.

3) Issue an invitation to the members of the community to participate in thinking and creating a forum that can help catalyze this process.

I. Reframing the Conversation: Cultivating a Sustainable Mobility Space

This project was inspired by the bike forum hosted by the Center for Sustainable Development in the School of Architecture in the spring of 2011. I left feeling frustrated that the dialogue seemed somewhat stripped of nuance, leaving it a conversation about safety, bike lanes, and learning the rules. That forum prompted a few insights: safety issues around biking are symptomatic of the larger underlying causes of conflict, but are not the root conflict itself. Reframing the goal of the discussion as the stewardship of a shared resource—a sustainable mobility space—might help us to escape the current positional debate. And, the right forum amongst the stakeholders to mobility at UT could help to transform that underlying conflict. Making sense of those insights inspired an exploration first of what it means to have a sustainable mobility space for a community, and second of how we might create the right conditions for such a space.

Definition of a Sustainable Mobility Space

First a definition of a sustainable mobility space—a sustainable mobility space is the adaptive usage of the mobility commons that provides for the needs of all in a way that justly and equitably responds to changing needs and constraints.

This prompts many questions. What is a mobility commons? What does the usage of the mobility commons mean? Who is the all that we are talking about? What does adaptation mean in this context? What needs and constraints are we balancing? All this is very abstract, so let me begin with a story that we can refer to throughout this paper to illustrate the elements of a sustainable mobility space.

The Story of Jonah

Let me begin this with a story. Meet Jonah. Jonah is an undergraduate in his junior year. He is studying chemistry, and lives over in west campus with a few friends. It’s just far enough away that it is a little annoying to walk, so most days he bikes over to campus. He doesn’t own a car, but borrows two of his friends’ cars regularly, paying for gas when he does.

Coming in to campus, he has to dodge his way through the people and traffic on 26th Street, waiting at the light on Guadalupe. Having grown up in southern California, he’s always amazed when traffic actually stops for pedestrians when they cross without a walk signal. So, he does too.
What he vaguely remembers from driver’s ed. is that bikes are legally thought of as cars, and have to obey the same rules. That contrasts with what he sees day-to-day. When he first got to campus, he watched what other bikers would do, and saw that they would slow down before cruising right on through the intersection. The cars seem to have come to expect that bikers plow through, so now if he stops they waive him on, even when they have the right of way. He’s even gotten a few eye rolls when he patiently waits for the car to go. So now, often as he comes through campus intersections that have a stop sign, he’ll slow down and look, but not stop. He’s been yelled at for slowing but not stopping going through a stop sign, yet pedestrians jaywalk all the time—even step off into the bike lane and put their own hides at risk—and no one seems particularly bothered with them. The double standards annoy him.

He knows inter campus drive says that you can bike against traffic, but he never does. Despite the sign, there isn’t a clear space for bikers, and after having a close call with a UPS truck that seemed surprised to see him, he stopped. Despite the little conflicts and interactions when getting around, he doesn’t think about it much. But every so often as he’s debating about getting off his bike—at an access ramp, or watching the flood of five o’clock traffic plug Martin Luther King Boulevard (which otherwise is never full)—he wonders if there could be some better way for us all to get around.

The Mobility Commons

The first key idea from this is to think about the space that we all share to get around as a common property resource. To get to class, Jonah has to navigate a common space of not only roads but sidewalks, access ramps, bike paths, pedestrian zones and so forth that are each shared with others. We’ll call this physical, regulated playing field “the mobility commons.” The mobility commons has four key features we will need to keep in mind. First, to get to class, Jonah has to weave through pedestrians, negotiates cars and motorcycles, moves alongside other bikes, and stops for a gentleman in a wheelchair in order to get to class. There are many different technological and physical ways to get around—mobility strategies—that have to share and negotiate usage of the mobility commons.

Second, there is a clear topography to the mobility commons. Jonah can’t really drive through the quad. He can bike north to south on campus, but he’ll have to do a lot of weaving, dismounting, cutbacks and so forth to do it. Jonah can only cross Guadalupe on foot at certain points. That topography to the physical infrastructure privileges some uses in some spaces and discriminates against others.

The third part is the law, or the formal expectations for behavior and conduct by users of the mobility commons. Pedestrians are prohibited from crossing roads at points other than crosswalks. Cars are expected to stop at stop signs and yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. Bikes are expected to ride in the road and stop at stop signs, and so forth. These rules are generally imposed and enforced by some “higher authority,” in this case the University of Texas and campus security.

The fourth aspect of the playing field are the contextual constraints to the mobility commons. One aspect is economic constraint. The University has a limited amount of money to work with in creating mobility infrastructure and balancing the needs of the many competing mobility strategies and mobility cultures. Another key constraint is physical. With the competing needs for classrooms, park space, dorms, and so forth there is only so much space to work with to expand the mobility commons. Another constraint is the broader physical context. Many students who attend UT live all over Austin and to get to campus, they have to navigate the mobility commons of the broader city.

This raises an important question: where is the boundary of the mobility commons for UT? If it were impossible to bike from other parts of the city to campus, it won’t matter how friendly to biking the campus might be since the city’s mobility commons would still discriminate against biking. Since it is impossible to draw a clear boundary between the mobility commons for UT and the city of Austin, the broader physical context becomes an important constraint to on the University developing a healthy mobility space.

So what we have so far is a definition of a mobility commons: a physical, infrastructural landscape shared by many users that:

  • Involves negotiations between a variety of mobility strategies.
  • Includes a topography that privileges some uses in some spaces and discriminates against others.
  • Is governed by explicit rules regulating use of the physical space.
  • Is subject to economic, physical, and other contextual constraints.

How We Use the Mobility Commons—the Mobility Space

The second half of this explanation is bringing people in to the picture, and answering the questions of how do we make decisions about how to use the mobility commons to meet our needs for getting around? Who makes use of the mobility commons?

Let’s return to this question of the law and safety for a bit. Obviously the law– the expectations for behavior—is quite different from the actual behavior
of users of the mobility commons. Cars speed on inner campus drive, pedestrians jaywalk, and cyclists run stop signs. So why is there such a difference?

Human behavior studies within social psychology offer a three part explanation. First, we are animals. One of our basic concerns is safety, and we are constantly revising our practices and behavior to keep ourselves within the parameters of what feels safe. So, even though the rules tell Jonah he can bike eastbound down inter campus drive, his sense of safety overrides his understanding of what is permitted and he makes a different choice.1

Second, we are social animals. We are constantly looking to others to establish for ourselves what values, practices and behavior we want to embody. So, even though Jonah knows the rule is to stop at the stop signs on 26th street, he sees so many others running them that he feels comfortable—even pressured—to stick to the prevailing social norm and run the sign as well.2

Third, we are moral animals. We share the same sense of the need for fairness that birds, monkeys, cats and other mammals display in the wild. So, Jonah’s sense of injustice is aroused by constantly taking risks and being yelled at for traffic violations when all he wants is what all those in cars seem to have: the right to move about freely and unhindered.3

Our many users of the mobility commons are always trying to figure out how meet their needs for getting around in a way that allows them to meet each of these needs simultaneously. We want to get around in a way that feels safe—Jonah doesn’t want to get hit on his bike while he’s getting around. We want to get around in a way that feels appropriate—we want to feel like our choices are acceptable enough to others and fit with some group of social norms for getting around. In getting around we want to feel like our treatment is fair–we don’t want to feel like we are being discriminated against in how we get around. The challenge on the UT campus—or anywhere—is to get around in a way that balances these different aspects of being human.

In Jonah’s bike to class, he seems to pass a bewildering number of people, all following their own individual routes to work. Underlying the complexity that Jonah sees, there are some patterns at work. Many students live like Jonah does: on West Campus, borrowing a car occasionally, and using a bike to get back and forth to school. When many people (a cluster) has a roughly shared set of practices in how they get around (a mobility strategy) and social norms in how they do it (a shared culture), we can think of it as a mobility cultural cluster. We’ll call Jonah’s mobility cultural cluster the west campus commuter bikers.

Seeing the users of the mobility commons in terms of mobility cultural clusters helps to make the question of who uses the commons manageable. Rather than there being 60,000 different competing uses, there are 4, or 16, or 25. While the interactions are all happening between individuals, the real negotiation over usage of a common property resource is happening amongst aggregate entities. In this case, they are mobility cultural clusters. So, a key step in providing a forum for effective negotiation and deliberation amongst the users of the mobility space is knowing the needs and constraints of those cultural clusters making use of the UT campus mobility commons.

So what does adaptation mean for our mobility commons and how people use it? Whether we are conscious of it or not, each aspect of the mobility commons changes over time as does our usage of it. Let’s say the law for UT had always been that bikes were allowed to ride through the quad at full speed. Before, this hadn’t been such a big deal, but as the recent cycling movement gained momentum, pedestrians started to feel threatened. Pressure mounted for the school to change the law, so the quad felt safe, appropriate, and fair for all to use. So, the school changed the law so that cyclists must dismount.

The point is that neither law nor social norms are fixed entities. Both change, and respond to each other in a constant adaptive relationship. The same is true for the topography, constraints and usage of the mobility commons. It is the dynamism of how we get around on campus, how the interactions between the formal structures of the mobility commons with complex human needs, their aggregate expressions, and the evolutions of each part that makes the mobility commons a mobility space, and makes the mobility space an adaptive dynamic complex system.

A Sustainable Mobility Space

Now that we have a road map to the elements of what makes for a mobility space, what does it mean for that space to be sustainable? In one sense sustainability is the mother of all constraints, the sandbox in which our society must play—or else. In another sense, it is the expression of what it means to be an active citizen through the multiple layers of citizenship: local, communal, urban, ecosystemic, state, national, biomal, global. Sustainability requires us to have an active awareness of the impacts and consequences not only of individual choice, but of systemic impacts for the whole of the UT mobility space. For the UT mobility space, sustainability means it is responsive to its role in pressing on ecological, economic, physical and social constraints at each layer of scale.

II. Principles for Stewardship

Having sketched out the components of the UT mobility space, what does that suggest for how to approach the catalysis of a sustainable mobility space? The following are a set of principles and propositions meant to provide the beginning outline of how the UT community might craft a sustainable mobility space.

1) Common Property Resource Stewardship—The mobility space for the UT Austin campus can be thought of as an emergent common property resource. A common condition of healthy, long running emergent common property resources is that they are effectively stewarded by their users. Consequently, the sustainability of the UT Austin mobility space requires active stewardship by the community that makes use of it.

2) Democratic Process—Stewardship of a common property resource involves the structured, engaged participation of all actors that make use of the common property resource in making collective decisions about how to manage the common property resource. Stewardship usually takes the form of a democratic process of one variety or another. So, the UT mobility space should be stewarded by some kind of democratic process of engagement and negotiation.

3) University Role—The University should embrace a democratic process for creating an adaptation plan for the UT mobility space. This would allow the administration to step back and play the role of a critical stakeholder. Far from tying their hands, this would in fact allow them to negotiate for their needs within a process environment capable of producing a visionary plan that is consonant with the system of constraints and is integrative of the interests of current and future users.

4) Cultural Clusters as Stakeholders— To be effective, the democratic process should focus on the cultural clusters as actors and not mobility strategies or individuals. This sets the stage for dynamic negotiations by framing the actors in a way that is few enough in number to be manageable, and flexible enough in interests to be adaptive and negotiable.

5) Knowledge of the System—The process should be built upon a sufficient foundation of field research to establish the landscape of use. Who are the cultural clusters that use the UT mobility space, and what are their impacts, socially, economically, ecologically? Mapping the breadth of the cultural system of use is important to ensure the fairness and adaptability of the system, and to identify the constraints and costs involved in the support and promotion of each cultural cluster now and in the future.

6) Building Collaborative Capital— Because the collaborative capital to do long-term creative negotiation takes time to build, an initial forum should focus on how cultural clusters negotiate in the space, assuming the mobility commons is static. This forum can inform later forums, which can delve into what how the mobility commons itself should adapt.

7) Adaptive Laws—In order for the mobility space to be as adaptive as is necessary, the laws that govern the mobility commons must be on the table and open to negotiation.

8) Adaptive Mobility Topography— In the long run, in order for the process to address issues of fairness, appropriateness and safety, the topography of the mobility commons must be on the table for negotiation.

9) Sustainability Driving Privileging**—The consideration of economic, social, ecological, and physical constraints should privilege some uses over others, namely the uses that fairly provide mobility while staying within the system of constraints for the mobility commons. This is the linchpin element to sustainability: some cultural clusters are simply more sustainable than others. In order for a sustainable mobility space to emerge, we must collectively drive an evolution from our current mobility strategies towards those that live within our system of constraints.

III. Conclusion and an Invitation

Dr. Steven Moore is fond of saying there is nothing quite as useful as a good theory. That said, to go from here to active stewardship of the UT mobility commons involves the hard work of organizing, dialogue, and accepting the pains of change. And, only once we have a healthy system of stewardship established can we begin the long work of sustainability.

There are many questions left to answer: what might such a forum look like? Who should host and organize it? How do we keep the process transparent? How do we infuse the process with solid data and useful knowledge without descending into lecture tedium? What techniques do we use to create the space for considered thought, not just positioned debate?

With that, I hand this idea to you: democratic forums take many hands and the willingness of all participating to build. If you find this idea compelling, make it your own. My presentation proposes some possible forms for such a forum to get the conversation and creative juices flowing and lays out some ways that other community members might provide feedback and participate.


  1. Max-Neef, Manfred A. Human Scale Development. Apex Press, New York. 1991.
  2. Fischer, Claude Serge. To Dwell Among Friends: Personal Networks in Town and City. University of Chicago Press, 1992
  3. Kaplan, Steven & Rachel Kaplan. Humanscape: Environments for People. Ulrich’s Press. 1982.