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The emerging business of mobility (Part I)

Published 30 July 2020 / By Biao Xiang

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Introduction

This two-part blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum. An earlier version of this post, together with Part II, was published in the REALEURASIA Blog, hosted by the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.

 

Platform-based technology companies which provide delivery and logistics services are among the biggest beneficiaries of the COVID-19 pandemic. Delivery orders in Wuhan, China, according to data from Alibaba, jumped five-fold during the lockdown (23 January to 8 April); and the average distance of riders’ daily travel more than tripled. Meituan — the largest meals delivery platform in China, which is now diversifying into other types of delivery — received nearly 4 million orders in Wuhan during the same period, seeing the doubling of orders for food and a 236% increase for prescription drugs for chronical diseases. This trend is likely to continue. China’s online takeaway market is expected to grow from an annual turnover of RMB 577.9 (USD 82.47) billion in 2019 to RMB 650 (USD 92.75) billion in 2020.

But what is less recognized in mainstream conversation is the business model: these companies are selling movements. Or, more precisely, they’re selling you the service of having someone else move on your behalf. An Alibaba report estimates that a single rider enables 24 residents to stay at home. Many of us are ‘outsourcing’ our mobilities to a new army of specialist mobility labour.

Therefore, mobility becomes a business in and of itself. This mobility business is, however, very different from the notion of mobility as a commodity as proposed by previous scholars. Zygmunt Bauman, for instance, argued that in the era of globalization, “[m]obility climbs to the rank of the uppermost among the coveted values – and the freedom to move, perpetually a scarce and unequally distributed commodity, fast becomes the main stratifying factor of our late-modern or postmodern times.”[1] Other researchers have put forward the concept of ‘mobility capital’: they suggest that mobility capital — the competence and opportunities to move as one desires — yields additional opportunities and resources, analogous to economic, human (educational), and social capital (networks). Furthermore, mobility capital can be exchanged with other forms of capital.[2] These theories conceptualize mobility as a commodity or a form of capital in a metaphorical sense. Mobility is valued, but it cannot be sold or bought as a tradeable good. On the contrary, mobility is inalienable. You want to be mobile yourself, and not delegate it to someone else.

The pandemic seems to have turn this notion upside down. The worldwide lockdown is arguably leading to a “bankruptcy of mobility capital”. The restrictions on mobilities reduce the value of the resources that enable mobilities. The pandemic may even have turned mobility from an asset into a liability. To move is to expose oneself to danger and suspicion. Conversely, only the relatively privileged and resourceful can afford to stay at home for extended periods of time without sacrificing their incomes and quality of life. It is perhaps more pertinent to talk about ‘immobility capital’, i.e., the capacity of not moving. While previously “one person’s speed is another person’s slowness,”[3] during the lockdown some people’s stasis necessitates others’ hypermobility. The Beijing-based startup Flash Delivery, which grew rapidly during the pandemic, provides 7-day 24-hour service with the promise that it would “respond within 1-minute, pickup goods within 10 minutes, reach the destination in the same city within 1 hour.”

These outsourced mobilities have become commodities quite literally, rather than metaphorically. You can buy a piece of mobility service at a price for the sake of safety, convenience or efficiency. You can sell your mobility labour, measured by time and distance, for a fee. Mobility is alienable on both sides. In fact, mobility has arguably become a ‘super-commodity’. It is traded among large numbers of buyers and sellers instantaneously and seamlessly, facilitated by web-based apps; the price is constantly adjusted according to real-time demand-supply dynamics using algorithms.

 

[1] Zygmunt Bauman. 1998. Globalization: The Human Consequences. Polity Press: 2

[2] Kaufmann, Vincent, Manfred Max Bergman, and Dominique Joye. 2004. Motility: mobility as capital. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 28(4):745–756.

Moret, Joëlle. 2016. Cross-border mobility, transnationality and ethnicity as resources: European Somalis’ post-migration mobility practices. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 42 (9):1455–1472.

[3] Tim Cresswell. 2009. " Towards a politics of mobility" Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2010, volume 28: 17-31. Page 21.

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