Can my mobility define what people think of me?

The image people present on you can lead to a single person having multiple identities in mutually exclusive communities. Mobility possessions is one way of influencing personal identity and in the modern, digital world showing preferences and openness to using sustainable travel modes such as public transport and cycling and displaying your digital connectivity is a means of self-expression. This is in contrast to societies that still aspire to private vehicle ownership while viewing other sustainable transport options as “poor person’s mobility”.

• In the new digital world, public transport and cycling are the perfect environments for projecting self-expression through appearance and displaying connectedness through smartphone use.

• Mobility through the centuries has always been a defining indicator of personal and social achievement or failure with all the consequences.

• Mobility behaviour displays possessions that express advantageous freedoms to others competing for status in the street.

• Mobility possessions such as cars, the latest bikes, skateboards and private drones express freedoms; they are mobile displays to project how you would like people to see you.

• It is possible for a single person to have multiple identities – the image people have of you – in mutually exclusive communities.

A person’s identity is defined by the peer groups in society with whom they interact: you do not define your own identity – the ‘image’ people have of you. You can therefore have multiple identities in mutually exclusive communities – through face to face contact but these days more frequently through ‘groups of friends’ within social media channels. Despite this, you can influence your identity through projecting a personality to your peer groups. This is most commonly done through face to face and online communication; and through the possessions and the style of behaviour you display to them: your projected lifestyle.

Mobility possessions (or lack of them) play a major role in projected personality to peer groups

Mobility has played a major role projecting personality and defining identity. In this way, the decisions to purchase and use this or that mobility product or service primarily involve as much decisions that relate to social forces, as they do to any objective reasoning on the mobility advantages of car A over car B, bicycle over bus, or a ticket with a ‘main carrier’ over a so called ‘low cost’ airline. Mobility possessions such as cars, the latest bikes, skateboards, yachts, private drones or private jets have the additional benefits that they express personal freedoms and are able to be driven, sailed or flown around more or less at will – a mobile display to project how you would like people to see you. For example, your car is the one status possession you can display, parked outside your house. Except in the coldest climates, who parks their car in the garage anymore (having a garage is in some countries, status giving in itself). Of course the projected personality is not the real personality. The ‘sentence under the sentence’, as psychiatrists say, is quite different in most people.

Mobility behaviour therefore displays possessions that express advantageous freedoms to others in society, competing for status in the street. In the past 50 years, the projected mobility image was dominated by the power, potential speed, and the pseudo-sexual connotations of the car. Dominant was the post-war freedom of car ownership and use in Western Europe, a mind-set which predominated for half a century, as car ownership moved from elitism to saturation, from household cars to individual cars.

Since the 1980’s, cars could also project a family image, sensible, utilitarian. These two images were given rather crude gender social stereotypes. In this environment, it was also necessary to be new and fashionable: for example, from the 1980s, company cars initially had images of high status, elitism, your status in your community, graded on the basis of the quality of the car allocated to you. Once company cars became commonplace, the trend reversed – ‘oh I only have a company car’ – ‘we got rid of it; my car is mine’. However, in many social peer groups across Europe, peer group pressure expects a certain level of mobility from you; resulting in your group acceptance or your marginalization. In recent times the dominant role of the car in projecting mobility image is broadening to other modes of travel; promoting a broader range of mobility images and personalities in diverse peer groups. For example in IT use on public transport, privately rented jets, state of the art cycles, yachts, Segways etc.

The CREATE project (Jones, 2015) is essentially tracking mind-sets across Europe over time, in relation to traffic congestion. Stage 1 cities are identified where the mind-set is for image enhancing, socially acceptable car-based freedoms, with consequent traffic and congestion growth. Stage 2 cities represent those where, to the professional and the politician, ‘enough is enough’ and ways are explored to reduce the use of cars in urban areas. This change in the professional mind-set may not be matched by a social consensus. This consensus remains influenced by the image and functionality of the car born in Stage 1. Stage 3 cities have succeeded in reducing car use, with sustainable mobility policies and a mind-set more balanced between alternative modes of urban mobility. While this latter stage encompasses the larger cities in Western Europe, the Eastern European cities remain in Stage 1. The challenge is how to influence individual and professional mind-sets in the stage 1 cities to produce a quick migration to stage 3.

Public transport or cycling, in countries where the aspiration for car ownership is strong, is seen as ‘poor person’s mobility’. However, in the new digital world, public transport and cycling are the perfect environments for self-expression through appearance, and for displaying your connectedness with the new society through smart phone and tablet/laptop use – at the bus stop, cycle rental point, in the airport, on the train and so on. Of course this excursion into the importance of projecting image hides the huge intrinsic value that smart phone and tablet devices bring to extend the time for socializing, for leisure and for working – whether sedentary or mobile.

Mobility can be used in conversation to lay down relative status (and power); and therefore to command respect from people and peer groups.

 People meeting for the first time pass ‘mobility-based’ signals to each other to establish relative status. While in the past, one’s occupation may have been the first signal to pass on, in the modern world, these signals are more likely to emphasize mobility freedoms, mobility status and strong IT connectivity.

In the new world, your peer group may not demand a high performance car from you, but they will demand high performance connectivity

The exchange of mobility experiences is also a primary subject of dialogue. Of course, this should not be surprising, given the increasing volume of mobility for leisure and business travel, in addition to the commuting experience; but it serves to re-emphasize that mobility means more to a person than actual movement. This is essential intelligence to those planning and designing mobility products, services. It is something that psychologists in the car manufacturing sector have been working with for years but needs to take the foreground with all stakeholders in the wider mobility economy.

Psychoanalysts define two basic drives within any one individual; the drive for self-expression and the drive to bond with a group (sometimes termed extrinsic and intrinsic values). In individuals, each drive strives for dominance – they are mutually exclusive factors. In societies where social and kinship structures are weaker, individuals migrate in their behaviour to individual expression. In closer knit social structures, behaviour drives toward greater bonding. People’s social ‘drives’ in society are being played out through their mobility. Importantly, mobility is also an important way we judge our social performance, get our self-esteem and reflect on life’s achievements:

In modern neo-liberal society, mobility is associated with speed, flexibility, efficiency, accomplishment, and achievement, having the competitive edge: it expresses all of the elements that are driving modern society. Low mobility is associated with failure, suspicion, ‘loafing around’ and idleness. Mobility competition is not confined to car owner against car owner. The city cyclist eagerly overtaking the traffic (with additional internal competition to beat their best commuting time on their cycling app), people passing lines of commuters on escalators, unhappy with losing, not so much the few seconds they gain from their aerobics, but the loss of control in the crowd. The same is true of the arriving plane or train and the rush to grab bags and regain the control of time sacrificed on route.

Mobility is competition and its power is freedom and control.

Expensive mobility possessions, providing status and power could be being replaced by the status and power achieved through purchasing the latest new laptop or smart phone,  ‘applications’, or through the content and power of your Facebook page – perhaps a far safer environment to express your competitive edge


To better understand the central role of mobility in people’s lives, it is important to understand that mobility through the centuries has always been a defining indicator of personal and social achievement (in its many forms) or of failure – with all of the consequences. The social status of mobility is now mixed between physical mobility and virtual mobility (the ownership and use of smart phones, tablets and social media). In this context mobility is a powerful social force and one that policy makers need to fully understand.

  • JONES P.J. (2015). Urban congestion and network performance: a new understanding. Deliverable 2.1 of the CREATE Project, European Commission, Brussels.

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