From Place to Place to Sense of Place

Transportation in a Postpandemic World

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What do we learn about transportation—about movement itself—when we stop moving?

With ongoing pandemic-driven global lockdowns, our economy, our society, and our lives have ground nearly to a halt. There are few if any airplane or train trips, and travel by car has been dramatically reduced. Entire industries are teetering. Global trade is under severe pressure. Tourism is expected to lose $1.2 trillion. We've just . . . stopped. For a creature accustomed to frequent motion, it's a huge psychic and economic challenge. 


Woman wearing a backpack waiting at a train station


Is there an upside? A mind shift—an emerging geospatial consciousness—was under way long before the virus. It has been driven by both environmentalism and new technology, known collectively as location intelligence, which has enabled us to literally see and measure the world in radically new ways. This is helping us grow a new sense of place—and that is, inevitably, transforming our understanding and experience of mobility and our management of transport, whether of goods, materials, or ourselves. 

In other words, we're learning something about journeys and destinations. So what happens to transportation when we see the world through this new lens?


Map showing how transportation systems connect in a region
  • We experience a world without unwanted intervals of inactivity. Thanks to location intelligence combined with virtual reality technology, Swiss Rail passengers can point their smartphones at a statue and—using an augmented-reality app that integrates artificial intelligence (AI) with global-positioning data—get a history lesson about the town and why and when that monument was built. Your journey is no longer simply a gap between your departure point and your destination. Your trip is now a continuous flow of meaningful places. 
  • Autonomous vehicles (AVs) take this one step further. Even in cars, we'll stop being the agents of motion, stop having to keep our eyes on the road. We'll all become passengers—and observers. It's understood that AVs will save lives as well as time and money, enabling vehicle sharing and reducing the number of cars on the road and carbon emissions. AVs will also impact human attention in unpredictable ways.
  • Roads are as smart as the cars that drive on them. In New Zealand, the NZ Transport Agency used geospatial analysis to identify high-risk roads and prioritize safety projects, based on a predictive road engineering process that includes driver behavior models for acceleration on straight roads and deceleration on curves. 
  • Different vehicles get absorbed into holistic transit systems. The startup organization ioki, owned by Deutsche Bahn, is using location intelligence to visualize services for passengers. When they arrive at the station, they can make a quick decision on whether to take a taxi, rent a bike or scooter, ride share, or just walk. 
  • Ports become tech hubs. Erwin Rademaker—program manager of the Port of Rotterdam, Europe's biggest, busiest, and smartest marine hub—says, "Our infrastructure will have to communicate with autonomous ships and autonomous trucks. Even the port inspector of the future will be a sensor. Through a digital twin, we are literally transforming the physical port into a digital port." 
  • Some infrastructure is built, some repurposed. Geodesign—where location intelligence, landscape architecture, building architecture, engineering, and construction come together—is evolving. Geospatial systems are being integrated with computer-aided design (CAD), building information modeling (BIM), and 3D visualization into digital twins, to design smart, context-aware structures that live in harmony with their geographic environments. Canal & River Trust in the UK is repurposing the country's obsolete canals as a network of recreational facilities.
  • The city is relocalized—and reimagined. For the past century, one modernized a city primarily by accommodating automobiles. Today, bicycles have the right-of-way in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands. These and many other societies are bringing life back into the city and business back into the core. In the process, they are relocalizing their communities, returning megacities to human scale.


Busy highway with some cars highlighted, showing the distance between them


In the world envisioned by Yi-Fu Tuan, the father of humanistic geography, place is opposed to space—the intimate versus the distant, the grounded versus the expansive. Space is the empty universe, the unmarked, the unknown. Place, in contrast, is created by the human mind, by the social processes of imagining, understanding, planning, and conceiving. So maybe the issue isn't what we learn about motion when we stop moving. Maybe it's what we learn about place when every place, including those we're moving through, becomes infused with meaning and value. 

By Ian Koeppel, a cultural geographer and France-based international expert in the transportation industry for Esri.