More than mobility: why justice matters when it comes to transport

13 Sep 2017 - 13:15

What does a just transport system look like? This is the question spatial planning and transport expert Professor Karel Martens posed during his recent visit to UCT where he presented a master class on his study of justice in transport.

Professor Karel Martens is currently based at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa where he holds the Leona Chanin chair as well as at Radboud University’s department of planning. But, despite being based in Israel at present, Martens grew up in a small town in a rural area of the Netherlands. “My father was a bus driver,” he explains, “so perhaps that is where my interest in transport comes from.”

Martens went on to study spatial planning and policy science but for the last decade he has specialised in the study of how the principles of social justice might be applied to the sphere of transport.

What is transport justice?

According to Martens, transportation is inherently political. “It may not often be thought of as such but in fact transportation planning and policy is inevitably political because it affects different groups of people in different ways,” he explains. This fact is often overlooked even by those transport planners with the best intentions to do good by alleviating congestion, reducing pollution, raising service levels or lowering costs.

Consider education, housing and health care,” says Martens, “Most people accept that these are services that the government must provide and they should be based on ideas of social justice or fairness.” Martens gives the example of health care systems which use taxpayer money to provide universal health services. “Transport should be the same because it equally affects people’s lives,” he says.

For Martens it is therefore not a question of whether transportation planning should be based on the principles of justice but rather which principals it should be based on. It is this question that he attempts to answer in his book, Transport Justice: Designing Fair Transport Systems (Routledge 2017). In the book Martens examines how social justice philosophies from Walzer to Rawls and Dworkins’ notion of the equality of resources apply to designing a fair transport system.

Evolving priorities: from performance to people

Why has transport planning been exempt from such considerations of social justice in the past? Martens argues that it has been due to the focus on maximising the efficiency of getting from point A to B. Or, in other words, the onus has been on the performance of the system, rather than on the needs of the people who use it.

“If you look at the city of Amsterdam through this lens, you can see quite clearly that we should not be worrying about the people who are sitting in the traffic jams,” explains Martens, “traffic is not so bad, it is a sign that this is the fastest way to be mobile in the city and that the individuals concerned have the means to realise that mobility through cars. But, if you look at the people are in social housing, who do not have cars, you see how hard it is for them to access economic opportunities such as job interviews. This is what we should be thinking about.”

Future Cape Town: towards a more just transport system

Viewed through Martens’ lens the inequities of South Africa’s transport systems are easy to pick out. It was for this reason that Professor Mark Zuidgeest, a civil engineer and the SANRAL Chair in Transportation Planning and Engineering at UCT’s Centre for Transport Studies (CfTS), invited Martens to UCT to present a masterclass on the subject.

Zuidgeest describes the current transport system in South Africa as the result of a long history of top-down decision-making and disempowering and exclusive policies – one that is not easily repaired. “We have a system in which it is often the people who are least able to afford it who spend the longest amount of time and, relatively speaking, the most amount of money in using the transport system to gain access to economic opportunities, if at all it is possible to reach these economic opportunities on time,” he explains.

According to Zuidgeest current research at the Centre for Transport Studies looks into these disparities by developing models and algorithms that quantify and map levels of accessibility in Cape Town. This allows for the study of transport-related social exclusion, not only looking at the spatial dimension of the problem, but also at affordability and temporal availability.

Another participant of the master class, Dr Lisa Kane, agrees. Kane is both an Honorary Research Associate at the CfTS and a board member of the NGO Open Streets. In her view the greatest inequities in the South African context, measured in terms of ability to access opportunities, are between those with cars and those without cars. Kane considers Marten’s work as a challenge to the profession of transport planning, its methodologies, and to how it is presented to students. She says: “At the master cIass I was surprised by the vehemence with which Martens argued that the current transport planning methodologies need to be completely overhauled. This is something which I and others have also argued for, but his book adds weight to this argument.”

What would a just transport system look like in Cape Town?

Zuidgeest lists public transport reform and renewal, travel demand management, the development towards hybrid public transport systems, the introduction of public transport user-based subsidy schemes, transit-oriented development, and non-motorized transport strategy as some of the proposed initiatives to shift away from a mobility-focused paradigm into a new dispensation of inclusive local transport.

“I think it’s safe to say that it would mean a further shift in investment away from roads and supposed congestion-alleviation schemes,” says Kane. In her opinion anything that can improve access to opportunities for those who currently do not have them is beneficial.

Martens admits that the research he has conducted has been mostly on transport systems of the developed world but in the case of a city like Cape Town he believes the need for a just transport system is equal to or perhaps even greater than other parts of the world. “Transportation is important. Without it people cannot participate in the job market, access health care or education or enjoy time with friends and family. I believe it is a prerequisite for a life of meaning and value.”