Next Stop: Make transportation work for people

It’s 2021. The transportation sector needs to pay attention to one of the elephants in the room of our times: equality and how power imbalances became embedded in cities and regions’ transit services. One of the tangible consequences of the status quo is the upholding of invisible barriers that hold back a just and equitable transformation of our cities. Transportation systems and routes are also optimized to increase the system-level efficiency of daily transit. In that case, we must ask ourselves: whose efficiency has been prioritized?

Next stop, equitable mobility.

The first issue to consider is the dependency on cost/benefit analysis that maximizes transit vehicles’ occupancy. While this is financially reasonable, it also sets in motion a vicious cycle providing benefits only for the few who can afford to live in transit-rich neighborhoods. Infrastructures and routes are designed to load as many people as possible along a given route. High-performing public transport increases the attractiveness of places near transit stops. However, it will also increase the real-estate values and establish an unfair advantage between those who can afford to be near transit-stops and those who don’t.

The second bug is the optimization of service efficiency based on hypothetical trips between origins and destinations. While it is broadly used to plan public transit for the general population, it can leave behind the most vulnerable people: the ones whose mobility and income depend on public transit. Women with children, youth, elderly, contract workers, and self-entrepreneurs do not conform to regular patterns between home, work, and consumption places. Their movements are either minimal or extraordinarily complex and unpredictable. Hence they require a high-quality infrastructure that provides accessibility, safety, and flexibility, not one that is optimized for the most beaten path.

Spotting the bias

As the future is uncertain, social imagination and experimentation are leading the way to a joyful transition. Foresight gives the flashlight to pinpoint the key elements of our desired future state, but equity remains a primary goal to face collectively. Planning the future from the people’s perspective makes the system more equitable and leads to social and economic benefits. For example, in Karlskoga (Sweden), 79% of pedestrian injuries occurred in snowy winters, 69% were women. The local government made a test changing the order in which snowploughs cleared the streets. By removing snow from pedestrian and bike paths first, they witnessed a 50% drop in pedestrian accidents. This alone is good news for people who can avoid physical trauma, and the economic impact of these accidents before the new strategy amounted to €3,4m.

$10,900,000,000,000 is not a typo but the estimated value of women’s unpaid work in the United States alone, and this, too, has its distinctive mobility patterns. As this type of movement is seldom modeled beyond origin/destination analysis, a mobility plan can amplify gender-power imbalances.

Accommodating the overlooked needs of unpaid work and personal care activities will diminish women’s burden to carry such activities. Mobility infrastructures that don’t speak the language of unpaid work will increase the burden carried by women and increase the social cost of mobility injustice – in terms of productivity and health and maintenance costs. Criado Perez illustrates an example of this in her book “Invisible Women”. Prioritizing mobility for care-work is also challenging if we don’t question how we classify data. Sanchez de Madriaga shows how avoiding the classification of “Mobilities of Care” (housework, childcare, elderly care, etc.) as a typology of travel continues to keep the needs of caretakers hidden from policymakers.

In a nutshell

While it is necessary to plan, design and operate mobility services and infrastructure for the masses, they now have the potential to become equitable. A people-centric approach to mobility planning helps us question the key performance indicators of today’s mobility planning and overcome historical and structural power imbalances in post-covid cities. Eventually, public transit can be equitable efficient when:

  • Contribute to the wellbeing of people and their neighborhoods 
  • Favors the mobility patterns of the most vulnerable
  • Cultivates local values instead of extracting them for gentrification

Our project

In 2020 we worked for Harju county, a region of 16 municipalities that concentrates 45% of Estonia’s entire population. This project’s result was the first mobility equity map of the region, an extensive photographic survey, and a handbook for policymakers. The full report and its annexes can be downloaded from the Harju County website, while an English summary is available here.

Our strategic framework proposed concrete recommendations to ensure equitable and fair mobility through a just allocation of space in land-use planning and inclusive urban design. Another practical implementation of just mobility is to ensure universal access through inclusive design: every person should have the opportunity to use public transport, regardless of their disabilities or special needs. Vehicles, transit stops, and their surroundings should be designed in an inclusive and accessible way. Different user groups have specific needs that might not be obvious to a heterogeneous decision-making group. Therefore, minoritized and underrepresented people need to be involved in the design process for their individual challenges to be understood. Simultaneously, the heterogeneous decision-makers need to actively pursue learning from others, and placing themselves out of their comfort zones.