Alternative futures for mobility

Futurists and trend-hunters alike are apt to underline one emerging term when it comes to how we move from place to place: new mobility. But the future of mobility is far from fixed, and an umbrella term doesn’t quite capture the many possible alternative futures of this shift. Here’s why planning for multiple scenarios significantly boosts our chance of effective design — no matter which future we end up with.

When we talk about the future, we tend to deliver a linear forecast based on how key trends are expected to impact us. This is often the case in urban planning and transportation planning. But even the trends we can clearly see emerging are neither static nor predictable. There are different ways the future could manifest, and we cannot afford to prepare for just one singular future.

That’s why transportation planning is making use of scenario planning as a growing practice, projecting multiple alternative futures, assessing their likelihood and outlining strategies for each.

With new mobility in particular, this is of utmost importance. New mobility captures the convergence of emerging transport technologies and mobility options that are set to reshape the future transportation landscape. It’s already transforming the way we move around, live and interact with each other — and with so many emerging factors at play, scenario planning becomes even more crucial.

Generally, there are five key strands in new mobility:

 (Read the New Mobility whitepaper)

Complicating the situation are new business models that are creating shifts in the way that people interact with the transportation system, and also shifting their expectations. In combination, these strands of change could take our transport networks and places towards many different futures. Opportunities and challenges impact much broader areas than one might immediately see. Changes could be fairly immediate, like electric buses or cars, to broader-scale changes about how people travel. The intent of decision-making tools and scenario planning is to help us dig a little deeper into these impacts.


Alternative Futures

In the WSP whitepaper Decision-Making for Alternative Futures, there is detailed discussion of how scenario planning works (in contrast to a single future forecast).

What would happen if some major trigger point happens? Technological change? Climate change? Geopolitical change?

Through scenario planning, we pose questions that force us to consider the unexpected and examine trends from many perspectives to gain better clarity. Scenario planning is a framework for both quantitative and qualitative analysis of potential trend impacts. This way, we can better assess which solutions will endure through a wide range of possible futures.

WSP now has a defined Scenario Planning Toolbox, which is comprised of three parts: scenario development, system dynamics and modelling.


Scenario planning is intended to complement traditional planning processes — not replace them. Planning practitioners and strategists are deeply experienced in planning for where we think the future will go — and those processes remain critical to setting the vision and basis for planning and investment decisions. Whether applied to new mobility, or any other area in transport, scenario planning introduces another dimension to the conventional approach.


Managing Uncertainty

There is inherently a high degree of uncertainty when assessing future trends, which is why the ultimate goal of scenario planning is to find solutions that work well under a variety of scenarios and circumstances.

One of the most fundamental challenges in modelling or simulation is understanding what should be modelled and what variables should be considered, given the scale of uncertainty and potential change. Scenario development is one way to develop a clear set of parameters for effective modelling and analysis.

As one relatively immediate example, one challenge that we see already is the impact of ride-hail on transit services. As services like Uber and Lyft serve upwards of seven million users in Canada, transit providers have begun to feel the impacts. In communities where people rely more heavily on these services, ridership and revenue can be drawn away from transit — which depletes transit services’ ability to continue to fund and provide services. But if transportation companies take a more balanced approach, they could come up with solutions that are more complementary than competitive — such as first and last mile coverage for transit stations, instead of park and rides.

Solutions like this illustrate how scenario planning can work with uncertain and disruptive technological trends to maximize benefit.


In Practice

From a practical standpoint, the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area is a great example of how scenario planning can be used in understanding new mobility and other mega trends. The region is undergoing a period of rapid population growth, and Metrolinx, the regional transportation agency, has been working with local partners to plan and implement projects, policies and programs that meet the region’s evolving needs.

Leading up to the 2018 update of the regional transportation plan, WSP guided Metrolinx through a scenario planning process to help ensure that the actions put forward are resilient to a number of different alternative future scenarios. Drawing from trends identified alongside Metrolinx through workshops and validated by a thought-leader panel, WSP crafted a set of six scenarios, anchored on themes of:

  • an on-demand economy
  • extreme climate change
  • concentration of growth in select core areas
  • rapid adoption of emerging technologies
  • economic decline

With this framework, we elevated the importance of certain areas of the regional transportation plan that would have otherwise received less attention, such as investment in improving operational performance and land use transport integration. This is just one example of how scenario planning has already created real-world improvements to the way we travel.



Kit Chiu
United States
Blair Underhill
Transportation Planner, Advisory Services, Canada

To learn more, please visit our New Mobility service page.


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