Periodizing Mobilities and Scales of Transition

By Tim Cresswell

A Guardian report on April 30th 2015 suggested that the US, UK and other advanced economies might have reached or passed their point of peak car use.[1] The economic crash of 2008 meant that car traffic, growing since cars were invented, plateaued and fell. This has led to discussions of whether this was simply a result of less money circulating or something more fundamental in the world of mobility. One hypothesis is labeled the “interrupted growth” hypothesis and this simply suggests that car traffic will increase again once the economies recover and grow. Some evidence for 2013 and 2014 suggests this may be the case. Other arguments suggest that there has actually been a cultural shift in favour of forms of mass transit and dense city living. It might also be the case that roads have simply become saturated and there is little desire to have more of our landscape given over to more and bigger roads. This is a hypothesis put forward by David Metz the former chief scientist of the Department for Transport in the UK. He argues that we are entering a new fourth era of travel.

In the first era of human travel, our hunter–gatherer ancestors walked out of Africa and populated the earth. In the second era, they settled in agricultural com- munities and towns, where travel was generally limited to about an hour a day on foot. The third era began early in the nineteenth century with the coming of the railways, when the energy of fossil fuels could be harnessed to achieve faster travel through a succession of technological innovations, culminating in mass mobility made possible by the motorcar. There is now emerging evidence that growth of personal daily travel has ceased, so that we are entering a fourth era in which, on average, travel time, trip rate, and distance travelled hold steady. The ‘peak car’ phenomenon, whereby car mode share in cities like London reached a peak and has subsequently declined, marks the transition from the third to the fourth era.[2]

Why would such a transition happen? Metz argues that this is because of a reduced marginal value of additional car travel in a world with decent and efficient public transport.[3] People in a city such as London simply do not have to travel more to reach the things they need or want. Supermarkets, clinics, schools, entertainment etc. are all near enough to make driving further and longer pointless. The increased use of mobile communications technology also plays a role. Metz argues that the macro-economic factors are not, in fact, the major determinant in the transition to a fourth era.

Metz’s argument for a transition to a fourth era of travel is certainly not the first argument focused on historical transitions in mobility. He is drawing on well-known periodizations that may not put mobility at the center but do, nonetheless, have something to say about mobility. Most famously there are the arguments about the birth of the city that Metz draws on. V. Gordon Childe’s ‘urban revolution’ hypothesis suggested that urban life was born as a result of an “Neolithic revolution” in Mesopotamia where the fertility of the land enabled the planting of crops and production of a surplus which allowed people to stop being nomads and settle down in proto urban settlements.[4] Perhaps the most famous theory of transition is Marx’s theory of history, the theory of historical materialism. While the key drivers in this transition theory were the relationship between the forces and relations of production – it was clearly key to the move from feudalism to capitalism that serfs and peasants were freed from the obligation to Lords and the land and formed a mobile army of workers moving in on the rapidly expanding cities. Any account of the industrial revolution in the UK and Western Europe is, at least in part, an account of the rise of steam power and the railway.

Perhaps more specifically the geographer Wilbur Zelinsky proposed a “mobility transition hypothesis” in 1971.[5] Zelinsky wanted to match the general hypothesis of the demographic transition model with a mobility transition model. He stated his mobility transition hypothesis as follows: “There are definite, patterned regularities in the growth of personal mobility through space-time during recent history, and these regularities comprise an essential component of the modernization process”.[6] Zelinsky broke this hypothesis down into a series of related statements that together confirmed an irreversible link between modernization and mobility through time that paralleled the demographic transition. Despite the universalizing nature of the hypothesis and the high level of generality at which it is stated, Zelinsky’s paper actually prefigures much of the more nuanced language of more recent mobility theory.

But perhaps the greatest of the new mobilities is that of the mind. Perception and thought are no longer tethered to the living memory and to the here and now but have been stretched to virtual infinity. Through such instrumentalities as the printing press, camera, telephone, postal system, radio, television, phonograph, electronic computer, library, museum, school, theater, and concert hall, as well as personal gadding about, there remain no effective boundaries beyond which the nimbler mind cannot penetrate.[7]

In many ways Zelinsky’s mobility transition hypothesis foreshadows the arguments of Metz. It traces a transition from a “Premodern Traditional Society” (such as medieval Europe) in which residential migration is almost non existent and circulation is limited to the very few through to “The Advanced Society” in which residential mobility is at a high level, migrants move between cities, unskilled and semi-skilled migrants move from underdeveloped lands and forms of circulation such as work-related travel and tourism are accelerating. The final phase in the transition is the “Future Superadvanced Society” in which improved communication and ‘delivery systems’ begins to cut into the rates of residential migration and we experience “further acceleration in some current forms of circulation and perhaps the inception of new forms” as well as, prophetically, “strict political control of internal as well as international movements” (Zelinsky, 1971, 231). Throughout his account Zelinsky differentiates between forms of mobility that transition at different rates. Zelinsky’s forms of mobility include rural to urban migration (very high as country’s transition from premodern to modern), inter and intra urban migration and various forms of ‘circulation’ that are very high in the advanced and superadvanced stages. Looking toward the future “superadvanced” society Zelinsky is quite prophetic.

Although there is an absolute minimum for both fertility and mortality, it is more difficult to fix an effective upper limit to human mobility, even if the phenomenon is obviously finite. Is there a point beyond which mobility becomes counterproductive economically and socially or even psychologically and physiologically? … When and how will mobility saturation be reached? In any event, further general socioeconomic advance may well bring in its wake socially imposed mechanisms for controlling location and movement of populations. What might be technically and politically feasible is unclear, but planning for a restructured urban system and for circulation and migration therein may become urgent in the near future. The traffic-control systems on our streets may be a primitive precursor of much more elaborate devices.[8]

Despite their similarities, Metz and Zelinsky come from different domains of academic interest. Metz in firmly embedded in the world of transport and his account of transition is one of changing modes and intensities of transport. Zelinsky’s account is embedded in an interest in migration and although it includes references to advanced technologies and various forms of mechanized mobility it is looking a world historical transformation in the kinds of migration and circulation that humans engage in. This is where recent work on mobilities that seeks to centre all forms of mobility – their patterns, frequencies and velocities as well as their meanings and characteristic practices can do some useful work.[9]

Finally it is interesting to ask what the periodizations of Metz and Zelinsky have to bring to the discussion of transitions currently being carried out under the umbrella of “Multiple Level Perspective on Transition”. This work originates from the writing of the Dutch Professor of System Innovation and Sustainability – Frank Geels.[10]

The Multiple Level Perspective of Transitions (MLP) is based on three analytical levels – socio-technical landscapes, socio-technical regimes and niches. These levels are often described as a ‘nested hierarchy’ with niches existing inside of regimes inside of landscapes. Niches are protected sites (by implication small scale) where innovations most often take place. The example of a laboratory is frequently given. Niches are allowed to, or encouraged to, deviate from dominant regimes. Regimes are the established and relatively stable socio-technical contexts. Regimes (drawing on Giddens’ structuration theory) refer to the “deep-structural rules that coordinate and guide actors’ perceptions and actions”.[11] The socio-technical landscape is an even wider set of established structures including the actual physical landscape (and by implication, dominant socio-spatial arrangements) as well as dominant sets of values and economies. In most apparent senses these are also scales and are represented as such in diagrams, which show a base layer of small niches feeding into a large and higher regime which is, itself part of a still larger and higher landscape which seems to map nicely on to the scale of the nation. Geels and colleagues are not providing accounts of transition from era to era – but, more modestly, from one technology to another – such as the horse drawn carriage to the automobile. The models are being used to think about ways to transition in the future to more sustainable socio-technical regimes. Geels’ model of transition is very technology centred unlike the accounts of either Zelinsky of Metz.

So how do these different accounts relate. Geels’ account of transitions puts an emphasis on small-scale niche developments working their way up through levels to become part of the landscape. We can think of current work being done on electric cars in places like Tesla in these terms. But was this how older, large scale, transitions happened or are happening. Zelinsky’s account of the transition from premodern to advanced mobility societies is based on massive changes in patterns of mobility as people left the land and moved to the city. The drivers here were fundamental changes in agricultural productivity and cultural and social changes in what the relations of production. Hardly “niche” developments. Metz’s account of transition is one in which car use reaches saturation point and it simply becomes irrational to drive further of more often. Again – this is not fundamentally anything to do with niches (which is not to say that niches do not have a role to play here). So, my question is, where should we look for the drivers for transition to a new era of mobility (not transport or migration but both and more besides)?


[2] Metz D, 2013, “Peak Car and Beyond: The Fourth Era of Travel” Transport Reviews 33 255-270. P267

[3] Ibid.

[4] Childe V G, 1937 Man makes himself (Watts, [S.l.])

[5] Zelinsky W, 1971, “Hypothesis of Mobility Transition” Geographical Review 61 219-249

[6] Ibid. P221-222

[7] Ibid. P225

[8] Ibid. P248

[9] Cresswell T, 2006 On the move : mobility in the modern Western world (Routledge, New York), Cresswell T, 2010, “Towards a Politics of Mobility” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 28 17-31, Sheller M, 2012, “The Emergence of New Cultures of Mobility: Stability, Opening and Prospects”, in Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transportation Eds F W Geels, R Kemp, G Dudley, G Lyons (Routledge, New York) pp 180-202, Sheller M, Urry J, 2006, “The new mobilities paradigm” Environment and Planning A 38 207-226

[10] Geels F W, Kemp R, 2012, “The Multi-Level Perspective as a New Perspective for Studying Socio-Technical Transitions”, in Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport Eds F W Geels, R Kemp, G Dudley, G Lyons (Routledge, New York) pp 49-79

[11] Ibid. P54

Malta and the Politics of Mobility

Malta and the Politics of Mobility[1]

Today, in the business section of the New York Times. There is a story with the title “Malta Citizenship and Perks for a Price”.[2] The story recounts how the wealthy mobile elite – people referred to in the story as the “0.1%” – are able to claim citizenship of Malta by renting a property on the island for one year in order to establish residency. Once residency has been established these super-elite avatars of a global world can claim citizenship of Malta and thus of the European Union.

One Vietnamese businessmen, eager to start the clock ticking on the 12 month timetable for residency, sent the necessary paperwork on his private jet to expedite renting a property he had never seen.” (pB1)

An immigration lawyer on the island claims that these new “citizens” come to Malta exactly twice – to claim a residency card and then to get a passport. They do not actually have to be in Malta during the 12 months. There is one other small matter. The would be “residents” have to pay 1.2 million euros in order to claim their passport. Some hope the scheme will raise 2 billion euros which equals 25% of the island’s GDP. It turns out that the two times the new citizens have to visit the island is a dramatic improvement on an earlier version of the scheme where the global elite could simply pay. The residency requirement is a new hurdle they have to cross. The scheme is defended in the following way by the chief executive of “Identity Malta” – the body which administers the program.

“We want to attract individuals who can add value to our country because of their ideas, and their networks and their businesses and their talent.”


The article is framed within a recognition of Malta’s history as a node of multiculturalism formed through a series of invasions “The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Fatimids, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, French, a European lay religious order and the British all tried to conquer or rule Malta and many succeeded. Maltese, the official language with English, looks and sounds Arabic, but its speakers are primarily Roman Catholics who pray to Allah, or God.”(B7).

The article concludes with the Identity Malta chief executive expressing his belief that it would be too much to expect the new citizens to actually spend more time in Malta as they want to attract the “real high flyers”. Given the case of the private jet owning Vietnamese businessmen this would appear to be both figurative and literal.


The idea of the citizen has, of course, long been attached to two geographies, the geography of a particular place or territory that the citizen belongs to (originally the city-state, then the medieval market city then the nation-state in the classic formulation) and a geography of mobility. The citizen belonged to a place and was able to move within that place and across its borders.[3] It has increasingly been argued that those geographies are being reconfigured. One form of reconfiguration is the new global elite for whom, it is argued, national boundaries are becoming less and less important. These are the private-jet owners – the inhabitants of a smooth space of flows in which bodies move alongside capital at a global scale. Another form of reconfiguration is the shadow-citizens who are increasingly incarcerated within ever more limited worlds. For these citizens even being a member of a nation-state does not appear to bring the full parcel of rights you might expect.

On both of these cases geographies of citizenship are tangled up with meanings and practices of mobility as well as emerging senses of borders as things which are being relocated and multiplied in such a way that they can no longer be simply reduced to the black lines on a political world map.[4] This question of the meaning of borders has become particularly acute in the European Union where the promotion of mobility as an ideal has been matched by the removal of internal borders (particularly in the Schengen zone) and the strengthening of external borders. Etienne Balibar, the French political theorist, has argued that the whole of Europe has become a “borderland” in which the external borders have been replicated internally along lines of race and national identity such that some Europeans (ones with dark skins mostly) experience borderness as part of daily life – not just at an actual political border.[5] So what is happening in Malta is part of this process of “bordering” and the reconfiguration of geographies of citizenship.


This raises the issue of a strange absence in the New York Times Malta piece. There is one other reason that Malta has been in the news over the last few years that is logically and politically related to the story of the global mobile elite. Malta has also been the site of the mass incarceration of African immigrants arriving, uninvited, by boat. And these are just the ‘lucky’ ones who do not drown in the attempt. On 12 October 2013 the BBC reported the Maltese Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, as saying that the Mediterranean was turning into a cemetery due to the number of Africans who were drowning in and around Malta during attempts to enter the European Union. “I don’t know how many more people need to die at sea” he said, “before something gets done”.[6] Part of Muscat’s complaint was that the European Union was doing nothing and leaving it up to Malta (and Italy) to deal with what was an EU problem. Between then and now the issue of dangerous attempt by Africans to migrate in unseaworthy and overcrowded boats (the opposite of private jets with residency papers) has become many times worse. Muscat attempted to have some of the migrants flown back to Libya against their wishes. Malta, he pointed out, is an island with 400,000 people that was struggling to deal with tens of thousands of uninvited guests. In the last few years Malta has developed a regime of detention as the immigrants who want to arrive in the European mainland arrive instead in Malta and do not want to be there. They are stuck within a fairly unique regime of mandatory detention. The states of the EU, meanwhile, do not want the immigrants either and effectively use Malta in its historic role as fortress island. The geographer Alison Mountz has been examining this use of islands as sites for the management of global migration – where the process of ‘bordering’ gets relocated “offshore”. Malta becomes part of what Mountz calls “the enforcement archipelago”[7] – a collection of islands that includes Guantanamo, Christmas Island, the Canary Islands and Lampedusa.


It is surprising that the New York Times journalist does not connect these two stories. They illustrate the increasingly stark politics of mobility in today’s mobile world.[8] In one case we see a set of laws made up to encourage Maltese and thus EU citizenship based on money and a spurious notion of residency. On the other we see the policing of citizenship through the outsourcing and offshoring of border construction. Malta is a semi-permeable membrane. The Maltese Immigration Act that regulates the African arrivals defines a group known as prohibited immigrants – immigrants who are not authorized or whose authorization is invalid because they are unable to support themselves of their families. Once labeled in this way the immigrants are issued a “removal order” which requires that they are removed from Malta – an action that cannot actually take place. Any person with a removal order can then detained.[9] The chief executive of ‘Identity Malta’ wanted to attract the “real high flyers” in order to “add value to our country” through the enrollment of their ideas and networks. Clearly there are other networks they would rather not be part of.

Balibar E, 2004 We, the people of Europe? : reflections on transnational citizenship (Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.)

Balibar E, 2009, “Europe as borderland” Environment and Planning D-Society & Space 27 190-215

Cresswell T, 2009, “The Prosthetic Citizen: New Geographies of Citizenship” Political Power and Social Theory 20 259-273

Cresswell T, 2010, “Towards a Politics of Mobility” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 28 17-31

Cresswell T, 2013, “Citizenship in Worlds of Mobility”, in Critical Mobilities Eds O Soderstrom, S Randeria, D Ruedin, G D’Amato, F Panese (Routledge, London) pp 81-100

Mountz A, 2011, “The enforcement archipelago: Detention, haunting, and asylum on islands” Political Geography 30 118-128

Rumford C, 2006, “Theorising Borders” European journal of social theory 9 155-169

[1] I am grateful for conversations with Owen Jennings concerning the role of Malta as an island in the politics of migration.

[2] Jenny Anderson, ‘Malta Citizenship and Perks for a Price’ New York Times, Friday May 1, 2015 pages B1 and B7.

[3] For my accounts of this see Cresswell T, 2009, “The Prosthetic Citizen: New Geographies of Citizenship” Political Power and Social Theory 20 259-273, Cresswell T, 2013, “Citizenship in Worlds of Mobility”, in Critical Mobilities Eds O Soderstrom, S Randeria, D Ruedin, G D’Amato, F Panese (Routledge, London) pp 81-100

[4] See Rumford C, 2006, “Theorising Borders” European journal of social theory 9 155-169

[5] Balibar E, 2004 We, the people of Europe? : reflections on transnational citizenship (Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.), Balibar E, 2009, “Europe as borderland” Environment and Planning D-Society & Space 27 190-215


[7] Mountz A, 2011, “The enforcement archipelago: Detention, haunting, and asylum on islands” Political Geography 30 118-128

[8] Cresswell T, 2010, “Towards a Politics of Mobility” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 28 17-31

[9] For an account of the detention regime in Malta see