CNU attends Ford’s “Go Further” Conference exploring accessibility and mobility

CNU, Better! Cities & Towns
July-August 2012

This past June, the Ford Motor Company invited the Congress for the New Urbanism to attend its “Go Further” trend conference. The conference invited futurists, technology experts, and urbanists to discuss four trends identified by Ford Motor: urbanization, accessible design, streamlined and simplified technology, and eco-psychology. Ford Motor futurist Sheryl Connelly framed these issues as fundamentally challenging Ford Motor’s business model.

For an industry that irrevocably changed American street life and its land patterns to fit automobiles (see Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic), there was an undercurrent throughout the event that carmakers are waking up to the cultural and demographic shifts that are weakening the singular focus on cars as the only mode of mobility. Rather, many of the ideas exchanged during the conference placed the automobile within a larger context, alongside walking, biking, and public transit as a way to move around.

In the opening keynote with technology writer David Kirkpatrick, Ford Motor President Bill Ford recalled his great-grandfather’s claim to “open highways for all mankind.” Ford pointed out that this ideal does not exist anymore: “We can no longer shove two cars in a garage and call it the American Dream. We definitely can’t do that in Mumbai.” Kirkpatrick was quick to needle Ford about how the auto industry actively killed the streetcar. “We can no longer afford to antagonize other forms of transportation. We have to integrate to survive,” Ford responded. And to survive, Ford Motor is recognizing — at least at the surface level — that consumers demand urban environments accommodating many transportation modes.

Ford’s keynote presented the Motor Company as adaptive and responsive to the environment, aware of the increasing demand for urbanism and how the car fits into that model. Carol Coletta, CEO of ArtPlace, led the conversation about urbanization. Coletta described the generational shift toward urban living, showing that younger people demand mixed-use, compact, and walkable communities. “Accessibility is a better vision than mobility,” Coletta said, highlighting the credo carmakers need to remain relevant.

So where are Ford’s cars in this ecosystem of place that Coletta describes? Ford Motor’s Blueprint for Mobility stands in stark contrast to these overtures. The Blueprint stresses auto-focused solutions through telecommunications technology and car-sharing; it’s a commercial for a better tomorrow through idealism and green gadgetry, but not true integration with other transportation modes.

The auto industry/lobby successfully redefined the meaning, purpose, and perception of streets exclusively for cars. As that paradigm shifts, Ford is aiming to establish itself as a cutting-edge company offering the vehicle for the next age. It is taking steps, but in its attempt to “Go Further” and open up new markets for car consumption, the automaker should redefine its conception of mobility. CNU’s Sustainable Street Network Principles can be a blueprint for long-term, successful, multi-modal environments. In the urban century to come, access is more important than speed.