Book Review: Les mobilités partagées (Shared Mobilities) by Maxime Huré
Publications de la Sorbonne, Paris (2017), 160pp., €20.
Les mobilités partagées (Shared Mobilities) is the first of a new series (ed. Mathieu Flonneau and Arnaud Passalacqua) on Mobilities and Societies from Publications de la Sorbonne.
The advent of the sharing economy in urban mobility has dramatically altered the appearance of major European cities in recent years. Maxime Huré’s timely book offers an insight into the less visible changes that underpin this process, through a carefully-argued analysis of bikeshare and carshare as a new strain of urban capitalism, and a sustained and nuanced reflection of what this means for the governance of mobility in the contemporary city.
The first of the book’s six chapters provides a socio-technical history of bikeshare, and situates the precursors of the current technology in the green, leftist counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, leading to the first municipal bikeshare programme in La Rochelle, in 1976. The ensuing two chapters trace relate the emergence of the contemporary bikeshare industry into a near-duopoly of two giant outdoor advertising firms, starting in Lyon in 2005, with a public-private partnership between the city and JCDecaux.
Huré offers a penetrating survey of how power is transacted before, during and after the launch of bikeshare projects (and at each renewal or renegotiation of contracts). He considers the role of bikeshare (and, to a lesser extent, carshare) in city leaders’ efforts to reposition their urban or personal brands, manoeuvre neighbouring communities into de facto metropoles through transport governance, and compete regionally and nationally for investment and greater autonomy. From the user perspective, Huré relates how city governments have tended to separate user forums from private-sector firms operating shared mobility systems, leading users in Brussels (as one example) to form their own association to monitor service delivery. Over this period, firms have seen their power grow, relative to cities, through increasing standardisation of technology, consolidation of their own market positions, and burgeoning in-house departments responsible for municipal relations, tenders, passenger data, and cartography. Thus, while Huré demonstrates that the essential elements of bikeshare as a technology have been in place since 1976, it is in the evolution of power and financial relationships that change can be measured.
In addition to the question of power, Huré considers the spatial aspect of the new shared mobility paradigm, and its potential to accelerate gentrification and deepen socio-spatial inequalities. This extends to the street and cityscape, where the products of private firms are increasingly presented, and accepted, as public, municipal infrastructure, while their placement in fact responds to market prerogatives.
The second section of the book examines bikeshare (and carshare) as a new form of urban capitalism, since this mode has existed from the first as a public-private partnership. The author focuses on efforts by firms to privatise elements of the public realm, and on city leaders’ response to this. Huré relates how firms like ClearChannel have equipped themselves with ‘instutitional’ sensibilities and capacities able to deliver entire systems within an electoral term. In response, municipal actors have ‘corporatised’, acquiring a growing capacity to hold these ever more powerful firms to account through the courts, ‘reverse lobbying’ and recourse to European and national institutions and networks.
One of the key insights of this work is the case of bikeshare as an example of capitalism’s power to assimilate, and be strengthened by, critique. While the bicycle has been positioned since the 1970s as a symbol of anti-consumerism and the circular economy, advertising firms have normalised its use as an advertising surface. While these firms, and host cities, benefit from the association with environmental sustainability, airport advertising remains their most lucrative market.
Les mobilités partagées offers historians of mobility a critical account of the configurations that underpin urban bikeshare and carshare, one of the most visible recent shifts in the cityscape and streets of the developed world. The clear style of Huré’s prose, complemented by a clearly structured argument and section and general conclusions, makes his scholarship accessible to a non-specialist audience. Such a group might include anyone interested in a case study of privatisation and its agents in the city, of the relationships between municipal and corporate power in a time of the retreating state, and those interested in the future of multimodal urban transport.
Les mobilités partagées does not, perhaps, provide a comprehensive account of every technology that could be grouped under this term; it is primarily a history of public bicycle sharing systems in Europe, to which (less frequent) discussions of car-sharing serve as a counterpoint. Ride-sharing, as well as the relationships between bike- and carshare and other modes, lie outside the scope of this compact and admirably concise work. However, the questions Huré asks are a useful prompt for future research into these fields.