technology transport

The final mile problem

The ‘last mile’ is a well known problem in transport. It refers to the distance from people’s homes to the bus stop or train station. Or it could be at the other end, the distance from the train station to the office. It’s the beginning or end of a journey, the distance to or from the transport hub. With cars, it may refer to the distance from the car park to the front door.

You’ll often hear things described as a final mile solution. For a few years I worked in an office block in London, and next door was a company called Project 42 that was developing an electric unicycle. We got used to seeing people glide past the windows, or roll into the lifts. Round my neighbourhood you’ll often see young people on their self-balancing “hoverboards“, blue LEDs aglow and tinny beats hissing from the Bluetooth speakers. Just as often, you’ll see someone lugging their hoverboard home after its batteries ran out on the way to the cornershop.

There are many others. In the 00s you might have taken a micro-scooter, in the 90s strapped on your roller-blades, and before that a skateboard perhaps. The bike is appropriate in some contexts, but most of us use bikes for whole journeys rather than taking them on buses or trains. The folding bike would be a final mile mode of transport.

One company that has tried to tap into this market is Ford. They set their employees the Final Mile Mobility Challenge, inviting applications from all around their global staff. Hundreds of ideas were developed, with the company choosing to take some further. Patents have been taken out on a detachable car wheel that doubles as a unicycle, or this miniature vehicle that you unload from the back of your car and stand on.

Fun though all of these undoubtedly are, nature did of course provide us with a perfectly adequate final mile solution in our own two feet. History has given this innovation a variety of names over the years: Shanks’ Pony, riding the shoe-cart, or Saint Francis’ horse as it is in Spain.

That doesn’t mean we get to ignore the final mile though. It means transport planning needs to include walking routes. More people will take public transport if the routes to bus stops are attractive and feel safe. That could include public spaces, art or plantings that make a walk more interesting. It could be promoting cafe culture or market stalls that people can access on the way. Bridges or well designed underpasses allow people to get across busy roads or intersections without having to wait their turn at the crossing. Cut-throughs and shortcuts for walkers are always welcome.

There have been a number of larger experiments in separating pedestrians and traffic. One of the most ambitious was the 1960s new town of Cumbernauld in Scotland. It became something of a laughing stock for its avant-garde town centre, but it also pioneered the idea of segregated pedestrian paths. The whole town was planned so that people could get from their homes to the town centre without ever having to cross a major road.

Milton Keynes, not far from me, is another example. It has a network of foot and cycle paths called the redways, marked in red tarmac. Whether they have succeeded in coaxing people out of the cars or nor is up for debate – I always find them rather empty, and it often feels like a long way round in a town where everything was built too far apart. But parts of them are really well done, and the idea itself is a good one.

I also like Toronto’s Path network. Where Cumbernauld elevates its walkers above the town, Toronto puts them underneath it. The Path runs under the city, with direct links between many tourist attractions, stations, shops and offices. This is very useful in winter. You can duck out of your office and go and get some lunch, or run some errands, without coming up into the cold. There are shops and cafes all along the paths, making it the biggest underground shopping complex in the world.

Designing cities for walking is by far the easiest answer to the final mile problem. And that means that walking needs to be treated as a mode of transport too. It can be encouraged or discouraged, and there are loads of reasons why we’d want to encourage it. It’s healthy, and would help to address our problems of obesity and sedentary lifestyles. It’s democratic – nobody is priced out of walking. It builds community and a sense of shared space. And it requires less infrastructure – no need for car parks or bike racks or charging points. It’s a little slower than some other ideas, and not everyone can walk, so it’s not the only solution – but it’s certainly the first place to start.

As I investigate innovations around transport this year, that’s going to include walking. It might be more exciting to imagine alternatives to walking, we also need innovation around the oldest form of transport and how to make it a more attractive option.

5 comments

  1. I am well impressed with your take on the final mile problem and feel that this should be a priority for local and national government. It would be nice to get the message out but there always seems to be apathy among people until they actually try walking and find that it is really enjoyable and free. Keep up the good work. Hope you don’t mind me re-blogging.

  2. Wow this is such a cool article, very unique and interesting.

    Thanks for sharing Jeremy and if you have a second maybe you could check out a short story of mine 🙂

    Happy Monday!

  3. Interesting thoughts on a problem that is perplexing us here in Los Angeles. One of the better solutions being tried now is bicycle sharing, where you rent bicycles for that last mile and drop them off (ideally) at a rental spot near your destination. So far, so good. Thanks for the post.

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