Planning for the next generation

Interview with Andras Ekes, Managing Director of Mobilissimus

October 6, 2017 | By Nathan Johnson

Andras Ekes is a mobility expert and the managing director of Mobilissimus, a Budapest-based mobility planning company. Ekes has participated in the elaboration of international methodology of sustainable urban mobility planning (SUMP), and he represents this planning approach for people in several cities in Hungary and the CEE region. A pioneer in the field of sustainable urban mobility planning in Hungary, Ekes is the author of numerous plans, strategies and studies related to the development of urban areas and transport systems. He is committed to smart, cost-efficient, eco-friendly planning and project implementation approaches that that take public requirements into consideration.

Over the past decade or so, Ekes, working both with Mobilissimus and the Metropolitan Research Institute (MRI), has been involved with the REC on many occasions, whether in participating in common training or SUMP-related events, or in contributing expertise to various REC projects. In September 2017, he spoke with Nathan Johnson from the REC via Skype.

Disclaimer: The view and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the speaker and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the REC.

REC: How and when did Mobilissimus get started?

Andras Ekes: I was working for the Metropolitan Research Institute (MRI) in Budapest from 2002 to 2015, and it was a very good time for me, both personally and professionally. As I got more and more interested and involved in the mobility sector, I wanted to establish a separate company that was independent and could work both in a local and an international context. The main focuses would be on urban mobility, urban planning and mobility consulting. Everything was put into place in 2015 and we were operational by January 1, 2016. There were four of us at the beginning, and then five quickly afterwards. We now have an eight-person staff and a strong pool of external and self-employed experts.

REC: Describe the kind of work that Mobilissimus does.

AE: Our main profile is the preparation of Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans, or SUMPs—both for Hungarian cities and in an international context, and we specialise in defining public transport-related problems in medium-sized cities. The first SUMP we prepared was for the city of Zalaegerszeg in western Hungary (pop. 61,000). We are really proud of the document that we produced—and be even prouder when all of the SUMP elements are implemented. We’ve also developed plans for Dunaujvaros (pop. 48,000), Eger (pop. 55,000) and Nyiregyhaza (pop. 118,000). What’s important is that some of these projects are not just SUMPs alone, but combine other aspects as well. We might propose completely new networks, new bus lines, or alternate scheduling timetables. Sometimes what’s needed is a new tariff system or a new passenger communication system. The latter is important both in terms of maintaining existing users and winning new users. It’s also important to anticipate that systems put into place will likely be used for years and years, so we’d really like to put a stop to a negative transport spiral where and when it’s possible to do so.

REC: How do plans and approaches differ from city to city?

AE: People in some cities are more directly engaged, and they would like to have an open planning process. Other cities are more conservative, and the people might prefer a process involving professional consultations and working with expert decision makers. We try to convince people to be as open and as flexible as possible, and to think a bit beyond older-fashioned planning dynamics. Young people tend to be most open, while also providing good ideas. But we also find that older people who are used to being told what to do are quite happy to be asked for their opinions and input. So, our approach might involve several direct and open public consultations, or we might work more directly with a city council or mayor’s office.

REC: How do you typically establish a working relationship with a city or municipality?

AE: In many instances, contacts with several cities have been built by different people over decades, and advice can come from other cities and experts. Sometimes city officials will contact us. Also, there are different issues that come up during the SUMP development process.

In starting new working relationships, you sometimes have people who behave like an enemy at the beginning of the planning process. But you find after a couple of months that these people open up to our approaches and suggestions—and then they might in the end be absolutely convinced that what we’re offering is great for them—both professionally and politically. We’ve managed to move from, say, a ‘negative ten’ to ‘zero’—which is when the tough work truly begins.

REC: What about your work outside of Hungary?

AE: Most important to us is working within a Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) regional framework, and at least 50 percent of our activity is in an international context—Horizon 2020, three-year Interreg projects, an urban freight project, work related to community planning and mobility, sharing solutions et cetera.

We like to be able to play the role of ‘translator’. For example, EU projects might invite experts from Western Europe who arrive to this region and use examples that are 100-percent based on their home cities—cities that are completely different from the ones here, and therefore the examples can’t be adapted. We can better understand what’s happening in the region, speak the local language, and can understand the kind of work that the EU can do here, whether it’s Ukraine, Bulgaria or Romania. We’ll go to Lithuania and speak at a conference or participate in a forum. We’re in a good position geographically.

REC: What are the greatest strengths and assets of Mobilissimus?

AE: A key strength is our professional independence, but most important is the strength of our multi-disciplinary team, which includes economists, mobility planners, civil engineers and urban planners. We such a diverse set of skills, we can work from a basic local level to the high EU level. This sort of cross-fertilisation enhances our practical contributions we can make to strategy making.

REC: What are the biggest challenges and opportunities in front of you?

AE: One big challenge is that market conditions right now are totally unstable. We are a small company, and we do everything as transparently and correctly as possible from a market point of view. It’s not easy to survive this way, or only from the Hungarian market. One of our greatest challenges is to offer things that are new, compared to other companies, so we try to identify gaps in the market in terms of social groups and stakeholders.

One such gap is mobility poverty. This when people either can’t access or can’t afford different mobility services. While this is very important in a CEE context, it’s a quite hidden phenomenon, and we’ve been at work on these kinds of issues for a couple of years.

A second gap that provides an opportunity for us is related to mobility plans for companies and schools. If we can raise awareness in schools, institutions, companies, families and employees, we can improve knowledge about mobility. And we can have an influence on habits and behaviour, which can result in fewer cars, more bicycles and more public transport users. We see big potential in working with companies, as many of them are open to trying new solutions. They are willing to spend lots of money, but don’t always know what to do with it. If we can help them implement plans they would start to understand the habits of their employees and be able to build up a ‘mobility chain’. We can provide give shape to different ideas—carpooling, cycling infrastructure, tax benefits and so forth. The same goes for schools. We can measure behaviour to influence new behaviour, which can also improve safety levels by reducing risks of accident.

REC: You live and work in the Hungarian capital city. Describe the dynamics of mobility in Budapest.

AE: There are some great opportunities for making mobility advances in Budapest, but the main problem stems, in my opinion, from a lack of clear thinking and decision making. We, and other cities in this region, have inherited a legacy of taking a rather conservative approach regarding the use of old, or at least outmoded, forms of transport. Because decades ago it was quite difficult to get a private car, having one suddenly became seen as a privilege and status symbol—something like an extension of one’s flat or home. This way of thinking is true at least of the central government: when they think about voters, they consider them as ‘car users’.

Right now, roughly 380 per 1,000 citizens of Budapest are car owners, but car use and ownership is growing. Almost ten years ago, there was a chance to introduce some traffic calming measures—a congestion charge, for example—but there was a rupture along the way and the opportunity was lost. The decision makers didn’t really understand the situation then, and they still don’t grasp the long-term consequences of the status quo. We, on the other hand, would like to make plans that take our children and grandchildren into consideration, but this will require heads and decision makers and planners and experts who can say ‘no’ to business as usual. On a more optimistic note, I feel that the country’s new, younger generation is totally different. For many of these young people, public transportation is quite ‘chic’. They will one day be of an age to make decisions of their own and can reposition the decision-making landscape. And we feel ourselves as part of this generation.

TAGS: Hungary | Sustainabile mobility | Urban mobility | CEE region