By Jamie Furlong and Emma Lawlor (November 2022)
The essay-based articles in this collection are broad in their focus but are tied together by their exploration and examination of some of the critical challenges existing in active travel research. The articles pull together original perspectives on some key questions in the field that will be discussed below.
How can we frame active travel in terms of structural/spatial inequalities and mobility justice?
Alongside transport equity and transport justice, there has been increasing consideration of the importance of mobility justice within the field of transport, with the topics investigated becoming more wide-ranging and diverse (Verlinghieri and Schwanen, 2020). Mobility justice was foregrounded by Sheller (2018, pp30-31), who took a multi-scalar approach, understanding the concept as “thinking about how power and inequality inform the governance and control of movement, shaping the patterns of unequal mobility and immobility in the circulation of people, resources, and information”. In this collection, Mullen’s article on mobility justice and walking environments takes a step back to uncover the normative assumptions that underpin any interpretation of mobility justice and can help ground future investigations of mobility. She uses this approach to show how prioritising walking environments is critical to satisfying the normative assumptions of justice, and therefore achieving mobility justice and sustainable mobility. Mullen argues that a just mobility system is one that should have equity and/or equality of access as a key component. As Lam’s article shows, applying an intersectional perspective on cycling illuminates the multiple systems of oppression, which together increase inequalities and reinforce power dynamics. With the approach in this article, structural factors that lead to inequalities in urban cycling are exposed - specifically access to economic resources, free time and perceptions and experiences of safety in public space.
How can we better understand and frame the barriers that exist to active travel?
It could be argued that, until the structural and spatial inequalities that cause unequal access are removed, it is difficult to achieve any kind of justice in transport. Many of the articles in this symposium consider, in particular, the structural, political and governmental barriers that currently exist in active travel, and how these reinforce inequalities of access. In their article on the political economy of automobility, Macmillan et al. consider the way in which, despite a clear knowledge base on transport, health and climate change, the symbiotic relationship between neoliberalism and automobility has led to a kind of stasis, where transport planning is ‘stuck’ in an auto-centred state. Jennings’s article on bicycle mobility in urban South Africa highlights the way in which this dominance of automobility and the wider problem of limited active travel uptake is exacerbated in Cape Town by a lack of understanding of residents’ mobility desires and wishes. Perhaps, as Sagaris’s article on the blindspots in active transport research and practice suggests, knowledge about human behaviour, identity and agency is often lacking because recommendations for change are based solely on the results of transport modelling. Millonig’s article on what drives us to walk proposes a new framework that could be part of a systematic and comprehensive approach to assess walking barriers and would help identify the characteristics of those most impacted.
To what extent does active travel contribute to climate change mitigation?
On another dimension of inequality, equity and justice, Brand’s article explores to what extent there is clear evidence that active travel does and can mitigate climate change? Brand’s detailed overview of the field leads to clear future research goals: 1) a better understanding of the climate effects in inter-urban and rural settings; 2) approaches that ask, “what works in specific circumstances and for whom?” rather than just “what works?”; 3) more flexible research designs to account for delays in policy implementation; 4) a more detailed understanding of the effects of active travel on dietary intake and how this might relate to CO2 emissions.
What are the other directions for future research proposed in this collection?
One of the key themes that emerge in this collection is that there is insufficient attention given to local contexts. Part of this problem, as Sagaris highlights, is that there is a widespread ‘universalisation’ of transport research findings generated in contexts in the Global North, as if they can be applied across different contexts. The case study in Jennings’s research in South Africa presents a similar picture:
“There are no easy ‘best-practices’ to transfer from cities that share the inequity and political and spatial characteristics of urban South Africa and that also have the high rates of cycling to which Cape Town in particular aspires.”
Lam comes to a similar conclusion:
“Given the Western-centric evidence base in this paper, it is important for future research on cycling and equity to include perspectives from the ’Global South’ through multilingual references and/or co-authorship with researchers from Global South countries.”
Macmillan et al. suggest a future research agenda that would incorporate comparative histories of national transport systems alongside detailed examinations of the impacts that commercial interests have on decision-making at a much more local level. To some extent, this mirrors calls from Lam for a more human-centred approach that addresses group-specific barriers and Sagaris’s call for a shift away from thinking so much about infrastructure towards a ‘nose-in-the-asphalt’ focus on human agency, institutions and bureaucracies and the role of social movements and citizens’ organisations.
The articles in this collection make compelling cases for the direction of future research on active travel: a deeper, more contextual and locally-oriented understanding of mobility wishes, desires and activity; and the decolonisation of transport research, such that, fewer mobility conclusions are transposed from one, typically Global North location, onto another, typically Global South, location, without consideration of the specificities of the local and national contexts. As different cities wrestle with ways to minimise the impacts of climate change and simultaneously improve urban environments, each needs to be understood in its local, regional, national and international context in terms of governance and policy, geography, architecture and design, demographic composition, transport history and culture. Ultimately, the definition of, and trajectory towards, successful active travel environments, is unlikely to look the same for every city in the Global North or Global South.
Sheller, M. (2018) ‘Theorising mobility justice’, Tempo Social, 30(2), pp. 17–34. Available at: https://doi.org/10.11606/0103-2070.ts.2018.142763.
Verlinghieri, E. and Schwanen, T. (2020) ‘Transport and mobility justice: Evolving discussions’, Journal of Transport Geography, 87. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtrangeo.2020.102798.