The New Mobility Foundation: An Interview with Jan Peter Balkenende and Erik Jonnaert.

Access to mobility has become imperative to access modern society. Indeed, without transportation, many find themselves unable to access work, education, or social services. In light of this challenge, we sat down with the former Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende and Erik Jonnaert, a Green Mobility Magazine Editorial Board Member, to discuss their efforts to combat mobility poverty through the New Mobility Foundation. The New Mobility Foundation was created in the Netherlands in 2016; Jan Peter Balkenende is currently Chairman of the Foundation and Erik Jonnaert is on the board of this Foundation, dealing with its international relations.

Prime Minister, could you please share a bit about your past, particularly why you entered politics?

I have always had a great interest in society, economics and politics. I studied economic and social history and law and obtained my PhD. in law (‘Government Regulation and Civil Society Organizations’). I worked at the think tank of my political party, became a part-time professor at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in 1993, and was active in many organizations. A keyword for me has always been ‘Responsibility’. Who is responsible for what, and what values should be applied when carrying out these responsibilities? I believe in a values-based concept of a responsible society with the right balance between state, market and civil society. And I believe in the power of new ideas and innovation.

Prime Minister, how long have you been interested in transport, particularly mobility issues? 

People who know me well might say that I am a car fanatic. And that’s right, because the automotive sector is much more than just cars. It’s about design, energy efficiency, safety, and economic significance. I have long been convinced that transport requires a refined and innovative approach: a better balance between public and private transport, honesty about traffic jams, much more attention to sustainability, exploring new and radical ways of transport transition. The most important element of transportation is connection with others and society. We can never allow people to be excluded from mobility. The basic idea behind the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is: ‘Leave no one behind’. This is also crucial for mobility and transport.

How about you, Mr Jonnaert? How long have you been interested in transportation issues? 

Transportation is important to all citizens: it helps you to get access to your job, to education, to health services and it is key to help the economy grow. When I had the privilege to lead the European Automotive Industry Association ACEA ,I was directly exposed to the opportunities and challenges of both the green and digital transition for road transport. Mobility is obviously more than road transport, is more than vehicles and trucks, but through my work with vehicle manufacturers, I was made aware that behind the mobility agenda, there is an entire ecosystem which includes manufacturers, suppliers, road operators, infrastructure providers and service providers who are all committed to provide safer and more sustainable solutions to people through research and innovation.  Technology and innovation are key enablers on this path of transition, but at the end of the day, vehicles are being made to enable people to be mobile: in order to deliver on that mission, these transport solutions need to be accessible and affordable to people.  That is what motivated me to join the New Mobility Foundation, which focuses on the users of mobility solutions, especially the more vulnerable users, such as the elderly or disabled, in our society.  While I am also active as a consultant at FIPRA public affairs consultants in Brussels, where I continue to advise clients who want to make progress on their journey towards a more sustainable and digitally savvy mobility system, the New Mobility Foundation,  provides me an opportunity to promote a transport policy which is inclusive and does not leave anybody behind.

How did the New Mobility Foundation come to be? 

The New Mobility Foundation was established in 2016  in the Netherlands as an initiative of the Dutch Major Alliance, Royal RAI Association, and Noaber Foundation. Individuals involved in these organizations came together some years ago, recognizing that mobility empowers people by providing access to education, work, healthcare, and leisure. Mobility plays a crucial role in the economy and is a significant factor influencing people’s wealth, health, and happiness. Often, we may not fully realize that our overall life satisfaction is largely influenced by our ability to reach various destinations. While it all started in the Netherlands, we also try to get involved in shaping the policy debate across Europe and globally to address mobility poverty as a must to ensure that mobility solutions are accessible and affordable to all citizens.

What is the Foundation’s role & purpose?

We strive to improve mobility for the most vulnerable groups in our society. We believe in the power of collaboration, knowledge sharing and new technology to tackle the long-standing issue of mobility poverty. To get there, we work together with governments and key stakeholders across the different sectors and serve as a platform to connect the relevant stakeholders to exchange best practices.  The Foundation wants to combine a bottom-up approach by working closely with local communities and people in need with a top-down approach by working hand in hand with policymakers.

 So, what does the Foundation do to meet its objectives? 

The New Mobility Foundation is actively engaged in raising awareness of the social issue of mobility poverty while also supporting concrete, often local, initiatives aimed at addressing this challenge.

We contribute to policy discussions at the local, national and international levels. Notably, we collaborated the past year with the Dutch national government to organize two conferences with the theme “Accessibility for Everyone,” focusing on improving access to work, education, healthcare and social interactions. These conferences, held in the Netherlands in March and November 2023, convened over 300 individuals from diverse sectors and disciplines to discuss mobility poverty.

Our next steps involve collaborating with relevant stakeholders to develop an action agenda aimed at implementing concrete measures. We draw inspiration from organizations like the International Transport Forum (ITF) and want to partner with universities to foster innovation and coalition building in this field.

So, what is mobility poverty? Are there differing definitions in different communities? Is mobility poverty absolute or relative? 

“Mobility poverty” refers to a situation where individuals or communities face limited access to transportation options, which can result in restricted mobility and hinder their ability to participate fully in various aspects of life. This limitation in mobility can impact access to essential services such as education, employment, healthcare, and social activities. 

As a side note, I would like to mention that the term “mobility poverty” can be misleading. The use of the word “poverty” in “transport poverty” specifically relates to transportation but may erroneously evoke associations with a lack of financial resources. However, the issue is more comprehensive. Moreover, it can be stigmatizing. 

In the academic world, there is a growing preference for the term “accessibility poverty” instead of “transport poverty,” and the term “TRSE” (transport-related social exclusion) is also gaining popularity.

Can you provide us with an example of mobility poverty, perhaps from your own lives or based on a case you came across through the Foundation? 

Certainly, the Netherlands has a long-standing cycling culture. Cycling is one of the preferred forms of transportation. Many students use bicycles to go to school. With a growing population of non-Western residents who are not yet accustomed to the cycling culture, it also occurs that students attend a school that is within walking distance or easily accessible by public transportation but does not provide the right level of education. In practice, this means that there is a missed opportunity to develop talented students from these scholars. However, individuals residing in rural areas with infrequent or no public transportation services may experience difficulty reaching essential services like healthcare or employment opportunities. Urban areas with poorly maintained sidewalks, limited pedestrian crossings, or unsafe streets may discourage walking or cycling, particularly affecting those without access to personal vehicles.

Do we have a lot of mobility poverty here in Europe? 

The complexity of the issue and the absence of a standard make it challenging to quantify the extent of transport poverty in a single figure. One of the challenges is that indicators of accessibility (expressed in the number of jobs or facilities within a certain travel time, for example) do not always align with the perceived accessibility. Multiple studies provide insights into the extent of perceived accessibility issues, the accessibility of destinations, and the extent of car dependency. Based on various studies, including those from the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), the Knowledge Institute for Mobility Policy (KiM) and the University of Groningen, we estimate that the number of people experiencing accessibility issues in the Netherlands is in the range of 5 to 15%. Having a driver’s license and a car seems to make a significant difference at first glance, but for some people, that option may not be affordable.

Are current European policies aimed at overcoming the climate crisis increasing mobility poverty? 

Current European policy is focusing on the green & digital transition by ensuring we move to zero-emission mobility solutions, which are smarter by leveraging digital technologies; it is right to embrace the sustainability agenda for mobility similar to what is happening across other sectors in order to get closer to a more climate neutral economy in Europe. However, sustainability has three pillars: besides caring for the planet, we should also care for the people and for the economy, which affects people’s jobs. The risk we face now is that we leave people behind because access to mobility becomes too expensive or too complex: the Social Climate Fund created by the European Commission is meant to address some of these challenges by providing funding to member states to mitigate the negative social aspects of the twin transition: the jury is still out there whether the proposed system will work. Key in this new ecosystem will be access to public transportation, which includes buses and rail, where more effort is needed to keep the cost down for users. With changing demographics, elderly people have become an increasingly bigger age group, which will require more attention to ensure they can stay mobile: some of these people will no longer be able to walk or use a bike, so alternatives should remain available. This will finally require a menu of mobility options to be made available without excluding or banning one mode for another. It also requires closer collaboration and partnerships between the private and public sectors, which is one of the focus areas of the New Mobility Foundation.

Broadly speaking, what are the solutions to mobility poverty? 

It will all start with mobility solutions that are inclusive: while we are making progress in ensuring a more sustainable mobility ecosystem, we should also address the social aspects. Each initiative, be it a new policy, new legislation or a new technology solution, should be designed with the end user in mind by offering a solution which is accessible and affordable for all groups in society without forgetting the more vulnerable user groups such as the elderly and the people with physical disabilities for who being mobile is often a challenge

What are the solutions undertaken or proposed by the NMF? 

The NMF always focuses on an integrated approach: bottom-up working with local communities to find practical solutions to their mobility needs and top-down by engaging local and national governments to get measures in place that provide the right conditions to enable more accessible and affordable mobility solutions.

If you could wave a magic wand, are there any measures or instruments which you would implement at the local, national, European, or even international levels to mitigate mobility poverty? 

You only get what you measure: that is why it is important that policymakers, ideally at the European level, start finalizing a mobility poverty index with input from the member states.

In parallel, it is important that at European and international levels, governments exchange best practices on a regular basis so that these can be reapplied on a bigger scale across Europe or even globally. However, regions and cities also have a role to play, as most of the solutions will be developed locally.

The European Social Climate Fund, which has been announced, should help to alleviate the financial implications, primarily by reducing the cost linked to the green transition, targeting the more vulnerable income groups in our communities especially. The watch out is to ensure that the fund is used for people in need.

There is also a place for more research and innovation to ensure that new technologies get developed, which makes it easier to have access to mobility.

Are you optimistic that governments and civil society will find solutions to mitigate or overcome mobility poverty?

We cannot afford to stay on the sideline of this challenge:  access to mobility is a human right, and we have a joint responsibility to ensure that mobility remains accessible and affordable to all.

Would you like all our readers to know any final messages, concepts, or solutions? 

Keep it simple: while the challenge may be big and complex, we should just keep our focus on some basic principles and act accordingly. We live in a welfare society where most of our citizens enjoy easy access to mobility; however, there are always groups of people who risk being isolated if we are not more inclusive in our approach to progress toward more sustainable and smart mobility. No access to mobility means no access to our welfare society (be it access to health care, education or a job).