Sustainable motility

By Andre Novoa

As a researcher of the Living in the Mobility Transition project, I have been thinking about new ways of unpacking the so-called “mobility transitions”, over the past six months. Last month, both at the Royal Geographical Society and the Cosmobilities/T2M annual conferences, I came forward with some ideas, although these are still (very) preliminary and incipient.

I introduced the notion of “sustainable motility”. According to my readings and findings, one of the aspects that stands out in this field of studies is a focus either on technology (services, infrastructures, etc.), efficiency (efficiency of services, of fuels, etc.) and/or on the actual movement of people. This theoretical and analytical bias has ruled out a more incisive focus on other dimensions, such as the social and cultural aspects of mobility transitions. I believe that a model based on the concept of sustainable motility can override this lack, borrowing a more multifaceted tool of analysis to this area of expertise. But, first, let us consider what I mean by sustainable motility.

Sustainable motility is a recast of Vincent Kaufman’s concept of motility, a central piece of his renowned work Re-thinking mobility (2002). Drawing upon his theory, sustainable motility could be defined as the capacity of a person to be sustainably mobile, or more precisely, as the way in which an individual appropriates what is possible in the domain of sustainable mobility and puts this potential to use for his or her activities. In other words, sustainable motility refers to the individual, and collective (when assessed together), array of possibilities for moving through sustainable forms of mobility. It is the consideration of being sustainably mobile even before mobility takes place, and to assert the consequences and ramifications of such consideration in what regards the adding (or subtracting) of quality of life to the individuals involved. So, how could this be important to the study of mobility transitions? Why should it be?

In the first place, I believe that sustainable motility could prove itself worth to grasp the distribution of potentials of sustainable mobility across a given context. Sustainable motility could be measured with a group of five variables (these variables should be perceived, at this stage, as preliminary and provisory: (a) the distance to one or more sustainable transport services, (b) the coverage, in terms of distance, of these services (especially, if they serve commuting and daily practices of mobility), (c) the time efficiency of such services in comparison to non-sustainable forms of dislocation, (d) the accessibility of these services, namely in what concerns affordability and (e) the amount of available active transportation infrastructures (this variable should pay attention to spatial planning and land-use). Each one of these variables should score from one to five, one being “very poor”, two “poor”, three “good”, four “very good” and five “excellent”. This means that each one of the variables suggested has to be broken down into tangible and concrete measures. Consider the following table.

  Very Poor Poor Good Very Good Excellent
(a) > 2km > 1km > 500m > 200m < 200m
(b) < 20% 20% – 40% 40% – 60% 60% – 80% > 80%
(c) 2x slower Slower Same Faster 2x faster
(d) Too expensive More expensive Same Cheaper than Free
(e) Nothing Insufficient Few Some Many

Figure 1. Model for variables.

A result would then output. I believe that this measurement could be important to evaluate the distribution of potentials of sustainable mobility across a pre-determined geography. It could be a viable tool to assess the justice and equality of access of certain mobility services as it would allow for a visualisation of who has the highest potentials, of which parts within a city the sustainable services are concentrated in, where the potentials of movement are the lowest and to evaluate whether there are significant differences in and across districts. The model could be used, thus, with a multi-scalar perspective. (1) The first scale of analysis would be that of the individual. For instance, the model could used to compare two individuals. These individuals may live close to each other or in opposite parts of the same city. (2) The second scale of analysis would be that of the district (or borough, or other such administrative divisions). By making an average of different sustainable motilities of two or more districts, possibly sampling the scores of circa ten individuals that live spread out across each one of them, comparisons between the potentials for sustainable mobility of these districts could be made, highlighting areas that should be prioritised and others that already have satisfactory results. (3) A third scale of analysis would be that of the city. The sustainable motility of a given city could be attained by making a weighted average of the city’s districts combined motility results. Comparisons between several cities could, then, be made.

But there is a second reason why I consider a model based on sustainable motility to be valuable. We now walk into a much more subjective realm. Such a reason is underpinned by the following question: what to do after the results? I believe that we should delve into understanding the social and cultural dimensions of mobility transitions. In fact, the question above unfolds into many others. Who is capitalising their potentials? Who is not? Why is a certain individual capitalising, or not capitalising, his or her sustainable motility? How is this being achieved? In answering these questions, the social and cultural dimensions of mobility transitions, and as a consequence of mobility regimes, need to be considered. It is a much more subjective realm, wherein dimensions of affection, cultural attachments, symbolic value of practices, representations, and so forth, come at stake.

Allow me to illustrate. Consider two women. The first is a middle-aged woman who works as a maid in a given middle to high-class suburbia. A new Bus Rapid Transit was built connecting her house to her job in less than 30 minutes. She could also take the train, but it would take much longer (walking distances are longer), even though it would be slightly cheaper. Her potential to sustainable mobility is quite significant and she does make use of it with the BRT service. She is, thus, capitalising her potential to move in terms of time efficiency (rather than money efficiency with the train system). Now, consider the woman for whom the maid works for. This woman, who works as an executive in a tech company, also has access to the BRT system and the train. Both would take longer than a car to take her to the company, although not significantly, and it would be much more affordable. Let us assume, then, that her sustainable motility would be comparable to that of the maid. However, this woman decides to maintain the practice of using the car to work, thus making very little use of her potential. This practice would probably be underpinned by the fact that the car is a source of symbolic value, whilst the BRT is seen as a service that is mainly used to transport low-class people. To this extent then, it is a cultural attribution of value that is hindering the second woman to putting her motility to use for her daily activities, namely the practice of commuting. Naturally, this is a very simplistic and caricatural example. It is just meant to provide an example of the types of analysis that could be drawn.

So, in the end, why use the concept of sustainable motility? For two major reasons, I suggest. In the first place, because it could force policy-makers and analysts to consider not the actual mobility of people, but rather the potential for mobility, centring the debate more on people and less on the numbers of targets and goals to be achieved. In a way, it opens the door for a less econometric perspective on mobility transitions. This could be of paramount importance to recast policy-making in this realm. Focusing attention not on individuals’ mobility, but rather on bestowing individuals with the capacity to be sustainably mobile, regardless of whether they use it or not, could implicate new directions in policy-making, much more focused on people’s expectations and behaviours, and less on the immediate impact of infrastructures and regulations. Furthermore, it would probably mean that dimensions of a cultural and social nature were to be reconsidered in policy-making, something that is frequently excluded from the equation.

The second reason has to do with putting themes of social justice and equality on the spotlight. Sustainable motility might offer a door into understanding who are the individuals who have the most potential for sustainable mobility and where these potentials are the most concentrated in. That is, an analysis based on sustainable motility could allow for the grasping of the distribution of capitals of mobility. How are these capitals being physically and geographically distributed? Who are the social classes where these are most visible? What social groups have the most potential? Examining the distribution of capitals could then lead to understand the processes of accumulation and capitalisation of such potentials, that is, understanding how a symbolic value is appropriate by some, but not others, and how individuals are capable to accumulating these potentials, regardless of whether they are using them or not. This special emphasis on justice is something often marginalised in “mobility transitions’” debates. Sustainable motility, as a concept and a tool of analysis, might prove itself useful in this regard.

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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

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Upcoming Events 2015: RGS-IBG Annual International Conference & The Future of Mobilities Conference

We have organized panels at two conferences in September in which we will present the emerging empirical, theoretical and methodological aspects of our project. Please follow our sessions at these two upcoming conferences:

(1) RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, Sept 1-4, 2015, University of Exeter 

Link to Conference Website

Session Title: Living in the Mobility Transition

Session Abstract:

This session addresses the future of mobilities taking place around the world. Rather than merely retelling stories of a low-carbon future facilitated by motorized and non-motorized transit systems, the papers envision a more dynamic future comprised not only of bicycles and buses but also of airships and electric vehicles. The papers focus on the national policy context but maintain a scalar approach that avoids methodological nationalism by also honing in on the details that enable a more mobile future. Many policies and initiatives that envision a mobility transition represent a diverse collection of explicit national and grass roots responses to global environmental change and demands for low-carbon living. A closer investigation further reveals that reducing CO2 emissions is not necessarily the primary or the only goal of related policies and projects. Mobility transitions envisioned by governmental agencies, local authorities, think tanks, businesses and activists may be embedded within other kinds of issues and categories of social and political change (e.g. social justice and equality, urban conviviality, resilience, security, aging societies and access). As such, some visions and policies are highly contested while others coalesce from competing interests and imperatives. The papers in this session argue that failing to grasp the entanglement of mobility transition policies into other issues and neglecting the processes of contestation and negotiation will lead to a very limited understanding of the dynamics of development and implementation of policies.

This session welcomes papers that consider the following key questions:

  • How are mobility transitions represented? How are envisioned mobility transitions mobilized in particular representations of the future? In what ways are mobility transitions commodified and aestheticized?

How is the idea of transition articulated in different contexts? Can “transition” always serve as a suitable umbrella term for a variety of conceptualizations of change occurring in thinking about/planning/practicing mobilities?

  • What is the correlation between the interests of stakeholders and the representations of mobility transition/future mobility that they produce?
  • What is the role of supposed successes and failures in envisioning future mobilities? What models of success and failure have become influential? How are “successful models” exported and imported? How are success and failure understood in different contexts?



(2) The Future of Mobilities: Flows, Transport and Communication, Sept 14-17, 2015, Second University of Naples

Session title: Researching the Futures of Mobilities Across the World: A Workshop

Session Abstract:

It is a very interesting moment in history for mobility scholars: the attention to the influence of CO2 emissions on climate change grows across the world and “greener” ways of moving around are being investigated by engineers and think tanks. Yet this only makes a part of processes whereby interacting, conflicting and overlapping agendas, interests and meanings shape and will continue to shape our mobile lives. Who pushes mobilities transition agendas and for what reasons? Why telework, cycling policies or bus rapid transit schemes succeed or fail in different contexts? What kind of world on the move are key stakeholders across the globe envisioning, developing or resisting and how do we study that: at what scales should we look at, which phenomena should we trace, what kind of pitfalls should we be alert to? How mobility futures are imagined and planned in fourteen countries at this moment in time is the focus of the ongoing project “Living in the Mobility Transition”, carried out by two groups of researchers at Northeastern University, Boston, and Royal Holloway, University of London led by Tim Cresswell and Peter Adey.

The goal of the workshop, organized by the members of the research team is to have a debate on the key themes of the conference through the discussion of the insights from this ongoing research project, to reflect upon the challenges and opportunities that such project entails and exchange ideas with the other researchers in the field who are tackling similar issues.

The interactive workshop consists of two parts. During the first half an hour the chair will briefly introduce the project and five researchers will present snapshots of their work in different parts of the world. These five minute presentations will discuss how mobilities and immobilities are envisioned and governed in a variety of contexts, pose methodological questions and offer reflections on theoretical challenges of studying mobility transitions across the world. Following the round of presentations and questions from the audience, the team will provide questions for discussion that will bridge the project themes with some of the key themes of the conference. Depending on the size of the audience, groups may be organized with presenters acting as discussion moderators. In that case after half an hour discussion, groups will be gathered together and common themes will be distilled.

List of presenters:

  • Cristina Temenos, Northeastern University, Boston. Researching moving targets: Methodological questions on studying transition in action
  • Astrid Wood, Royal Holloway University of London. Thinking about East London Transit
  • Anna Nikolaeva, Royal Holloway University of London. Unpacking the “Happily Ever After” of Cycling Futures
  • Andre Novoa, Northeastern University, Boston. Mobility transitions to a low-carbon society: the Brazilian case
  • Jane Yeonjae Lee, Northeastern University, Boston. Why isn’t Telework working?


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Future London: Sustaining the Unsustainable? A Book Review

By Anna Nikolaeva

Sustainable LondonIn November 2014 I visited the launch of the book “Sustainable London? The Future of a Global City” co-edited by Loretta Lees (University of Leicester) and Rob Imrie (Goldsmiths, University of London). One thought was repeated by most speakers: “sustainable development” discourse in London on closer examination turns out to be about “sustaining the unsustainable”. Interested in what questions about mobility transitions in London and more generally such a perspective can provoke, I purchased the book and in this short review I will summarize some of the key arguments of the collection and relate them to research on mobility transitions.

In the Preface Imrie and Lees notice that the collection does not provide a comprehensive review of sustainable development discourse and policies in London, but rather seeks to highlight some tensions and contradictions of current policies and projects promoted as part of the sustainable development agenda. This promise is fulfilled as the chapters critically examine the implications of sustainable development discourse in various policy fields from housing and transport to healthcare and education.

The two chapters written by the editors – the opening chapter London’s Future and Sustainable City Building and the closing Postscript – present a critical examination of the politics of sustainable development in London. Lees and Imrie argue against understanding of sustainable development as post-political and consensual. They maintain that “the allocative and distributional logic of the market as the basis for securing London’s socio-economic and ecological future” is anything but “post-political” (p.14), and that the presentation of sustainable development policies as naturally “good for all” is deeply problematic. Instead, a sustainable future London should be seen as an object of contestation. The chapter Sustainable Governance and Planning in London by Emma Street provides further discussion of the framing of sustainable development policies as post-political and brings to our attention an example of such contestation in the case of London’s South Bank area.

Concerned with the social dimension of sustainability, Lees and Imrie argue that developments that are presented by policy-makers and private organizations as “sustainable” may lead to the “creation of new social inequalities and extending and deepening existing ones” (p. xv). The chapter by Lees The Death of Sustainable Communities in London examines exactly that problem through a study of a mixed communities policy and regeneration in London. The interview with Anna Minton featured in the book also raises a number of related critical points and the chapter by James Fournière offers an interesting take on social sustainability and the future of public space in London.

Examining the impact of the financial crisis on sustainable development policies in London, Imrie and Lees highlight two tendencies. One is the priority of the “growth agenda” above others and the related focus on welcoming international investment. The second one is the delegation of responsibility to individuals when it comes to environmental sustainability: the future of London is presented as dependent on citizens’ choices and behavioural change. The latter trend towards individualising policy programmes is again anything but post-political, Imrie and Lees argue, as the negative impact on the environment resulting from state policies or corporate activities is obscured.

Sustainable development policies in London, Imrie and Lees further maintain, are based not on envisioning a fundamental change in the way the society works but on seeing problems as resolvable through the use of technology and management. This point is further elaborated in the chapter by Mike Raco Privatisation, Managerialism and the Changing Politics of Sustainability Planning in London. Raco demonstrates how this “output-centred approach” leads to privatization of public infrastructure, delegating responsibility to private actors in a variety of policy areas and as result prioritizing short-term deliverables over a long-term vision.

For mobility and transport researchers the chapter Rhetoric in Transitioning to Sustainable Travel by Robin Hickman would be of particular interest. Hickman introduces the current policy targets in respect to cutting CO2 emissions in London and discusses why these are difficult to achieve given the current approaches to the problem. His major point of criticism is that there is too much reliance on technological solutions, such as e.g. the use of low emission vehicles and alternative fuels while a more integrated approach is needed. Such an approach would require a set of concerted measures, including more investment into public transport, providing better conditions for walking and cycling, using urban planning for mobility solutions, studying travel behaviours, promoting forms of sustainable mobility by drawing on strong evidence etc.


Barclays Cycle Hire docking station, London, 2014. Photo by the author.

The case study Hickman chooses to discuss is cycling in London. While the policy documents promise a “cycling revolution”, Hickman is not very convinced that this revolution is indeed happening, pointing to the to the low quality of existing cycling infrastructure, insufficient investment into its development and a controversial approach of Transport for London (TfL) to the issue. Despite the supportive rhetoric around cycling, TfL appears to be committed to increasing or at least maintaining traffic capacity which, according to Hickman, will limit the space available for cycling, walking and public transportation.

Towards the end of the chapter Hickman offers some interesting reflections on the role of the “interventionist” state and the perceptions thereof in a transition to low carbon travel. He argues that “interventionist” approach is presented in the debate as doomed to failure and unacceptable when it comes to developing provisions for public transport, walking and cycling “while new highway investment is seen as ‘critical for business and freight’, ‘investment for the city’ and ‘helping the majority or important interests’ ” (p. 258).

This discussion is related to the question raised in other chapters: who envisions sustainable future and how the responsibility, the costs and benefits are proposed to distributed? When applied to examining narratives on mobility transitions, this question inspires a more scrupulous examination of proposed policies that promise to benefit everyone yet might obscure some potentially contested issues. Transition to low carbon mobilities may happen in a variety of ways, yet some of them are prioritized above others, and particular deliverables may feature prominently in the debate while questions about an integrated approach towards low carbon mobility may remain unanswered. Relating the argumentation of “Sustainable London?” to research on mobility transitions, we might also find necessary a closer investigation of the role of private actors, the state and individuals in imagining future mobilities, the distribution of responsibilities, and the relationships between short-term objectives and long-term visions.



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A look at ‘Critical Geographies of Urban Infrastructure’

By: Astrid Wood

International Conference ‘Critical Geographies of Urban Infrastructure’
6 November 2014 – 7 November 2014
Urban Geography Research Group (UGRG) of the RGS-IBG
The Bartlett School of Planning, University College London (UCL), London, UK

The Urban Geography Research Group (UGRG)’s annual conference has become a fixture on the geography calendar. Every autumn, the UGRG invites academics from around the world and at any stage of their career to disseminate their findings. In November 2014, the conference was hosted at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London and focused on critical geographies of urban infrastructure.

Over the two days, we heard from speakers in sessions on critical infrastructure, liquid infrastructure, infrastructure of mass transportation, governance of infrastructure and new infrastructural assemblages. The paper sessions covered a diversity of investigations and theoretical contributions: from mega-infrastructure to ‘squat-tech’ experiments, on the architectonics of social life and cyborgs, from the Amazon rainforest to London’s parks, across elevated railways, airports, railways, and bus rapid transit as well as water infrastructure in Greece, Kenya, Mexico and Morocco.

There were three keynote speakers. Alan Latham from University College London opened the conference on the 6th of November exploring the critical geographies of urban cycling and thinking about how existing infrastructure is used and misused by cyclists in London. On the 7th of November, Erik Swyngedouw from University of Manchester spoke about his research on liquid power, based on his investigation of the construction of dams in Spain and his understanding of the coming together of heterogeneous agents to form new assemblages. Adriana Allen from University College London discussed everyday infrastructures in the urban South explaining how and why formal infrastructure and everyday planning interact, and with what consequences.

One particularly provocative question was raised following the talks by Professors Swyngedouw and Allen regarding the democratic nature of infrastructure. The participant asked if infrastructure could ever be truly democratic, and what would that look like? These questions were percolating in the minds of many of us as we heard about how almost half of Sub-Saharan households, both urban and rural, spend more than half an hour per day collecting water, or as we thought about the presence of infrastructure and its relation to service delivery and citizenship.

The conference repeated their pecha kucha method this year in which seven speakers spoke for six minutes on their research on automobility, airports, development projects and housing in Luxembourg, Milan, Turkey, India and a host of other fascinating findings. The pecha kucha is an interesting departure from the usual conference talk and provides an opportunity for researchers at all stages to share their work.

I presented my research in the final session, ‘New Infrastructural Assemblages’ on the 7th of November. My talk entitled, ‘Reinterpreting the materiality of bus rapid transit: transport system or political practice?’ examined the replication of bus rapid transit in South Africa. The research examines those features of BRT that attracted South African policymakers, and in so doing reflects theoretically on the materiality of urban infrastructure and its role in urban transformation. In the talk, I explained that the South African experience of BRT is more than just an imitation of the tubular stations in Curitiba or red busways in Bogotá, it is the story of comprehensive, locally-driven change. Concepts from policy mobilities and science and technology studies examining the role of human actors and nonhuman materials in the promotion of particular policies were used to critically unravel the application of BRT across South African cities.

For more information on the UGRG, please visit their website: and for the full conference programme, please see,


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Reflecting on Uneven Mobilities in Santiago, Chile

In early October I boarded a plane in Vancouver, British Columbia to travel to the Uneven Mobilitites Conference hosted by the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of Chile. As I walked down the jetbridge, familiar HSBC adds lined the walls. I didn’t take much notice of them and I continued on, boarded the plane, and had an uneventful flight to Toronto.

Toronto-Pearson Airport is one of the busiest in Canada, and as I disembarked to catch my connecting flight to Santiago, the familiar hurried pace of the place set in. I rushed around trying to find the international terminal in time to grab something to eat before my next flight, which I did just in time to board. After my passport and boarding pass was checked, I got a feeling of déjà vu as again, the HSBC adds accompanied me on my way to the plane. This time I noticed the ads, always based on futures, were focused specifically on mobilities futures.

As I stopped to snag a photo, I thought fleHSBCetingly – as I have before when I see these advertisements – about how most people on my flight enjoyed a relatively high degree of mobility. The people reading the ads probably worked in firms that do business with large financial institutions and in some form or another, they are contributing to developing future mobilities. And yet there are constant instances of uneven mobilities contained in the production and realization of these futures.

Mobilities scholars have already noted the privilege associated with transnational air travel. The idea isn’t novel, if anything the opposite is true. However parochial air flight may seem this privileged mobility was brought to the fore with the visual prompt of the marketing campaign. Access to mobility, and barriers to it. These notions stayed with me for the duration of my week in Santiago, a city that the World Bank has noted as having some of the largest economic and material inequalities in the world. How do we reconcile future mobilities with contemporary uneven mobilities?

This question kept arising. It remained as I arrived in Santiago on a Sunday, during their Ciclorecreovía, where every Sunday, 40 kilometers of major roadways are closed to automobiles, and opened for bicycles, with an estimated 40,000 people taking part each week[1], to promote public health and active transportation in a city known for its extreme air pollution.


The question stayed with me as I rode on the overcrowded Transantiago. A Bus Rapid Transit System rolled out to disastrous results in 2007, saw an increase in funding for infrastructure and planning between 2009-2011 and its approval ratings rose along with its funding. However, it has recently seen the effects of a stagnation of funding for infrastructural improvements, and increase in fares, an increase in wait times – especially in the poorest communities – and the system is still not fully accessible to those with physical disabilities due to recent design decisions.


Reconciling mobile futures and unequal mobilities came up again the next day as I heard cycling activists speak about the bike-share programs which have become the new marker of cosmopolitan urbanism in places like Paris, Barcelona, Tel Aviv, Montreal, and Buenos Aries. In Santiago two neighborhoods have installed competing bike share systems. Lack of municipal planning bylaws meant that there was no regulatory framework for the systems to be compatible or comprehensive. Thus, they remain in segregated neighborhoods, and are accessible only by those who can afford to access them (Edit: In December 2014, the neighbourhood bike share systems were amalgamated into one larger system. Despite the broader scope of the system, it still only covers the wealthier eastern and central neighbourhoods in Santiago).

bikes on truck

Cycling is a growing leisure activity of the middle class. It has seen an increasing growth in infrastructure such as the above-mentioned Ciclorecreovía, and bike share systems, as well as increasing cycling lanes. Yet there are neighborhoods in the sprawling Santiago metro region of 6.3 million where people have been using bicycles as their primary form of transportation for years. Not because of perceived health benefits, but because they could not afford a car, or a transit fare. Bicycles were cheap and relatively easy to fix. These neighborhoods did not and do not have infrastructures amenable to commuter riding. In some cases, roads are not paved, or are in such states of disrepair as to make cycling conditions hazardous. These peripheral neighborhoods, according to local cycling activists, are not receiving the same consideration of increased bicycle infrastructure, and yet the day-to-day mobility of many residents is dependent on this mode of transport.

One of the ways in which we might begin to address the question of how to negotiate mobilities futures (what will they even look like?) with current uneven mobilities is through a frame of what Sociologist Mimi Sheller calls Mobilities Justice. By considering how an uneven road leads to uneven mobility – literally in the bumpy ride, and socially resulting in unequal access to economic, health, and social forms of life – how is this structurally mitigated, or facilitated through uneven planning policies? What sorts of governance strategies can, and have been put in place in order to facilitate more equitable mobility? As Sheller pointed out in her keynote address at the Uneven Mobilities/ Movilidades Desiguales Conference, ‘desiguales‘ is not just translated as ‘uneven’ but also ‘unequal’ ‘inequitable’ ‘bumpy’ or ‘different’. An understanding of uneven mobillities that allows a plurality of visions makes space for diverse perspectives on how to understand and address the injustices caused by unequal or inequitable mobility. It provides a platform to recognize that mobilities – that movement is not always smooth, but can be bumpy, jarring, or abrupt. This understanding allows room for difference in mobility. Not all mobility is good, and sometimes stillness is an asset.


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Is Cittaslow city really slow? A reflection from a visit to a Cittaslow village in South Korea

Is Cittaslow city really slow? A reflection from a visit to a Cittaslow village in South Korea

By Jane Yeonjae Lee


Cittaslow city is part of a wider slow movement that encourages slow food and life style by respecting the city’s environment and traditions to improve the quality of life in towns. Cittaslow association originated in Italy in 1999, and now there are over 100 Cittaslow towns in 11 different countries. To become a slow city, cities must accept the guidelines from the Cittaslow association and become certified through them. The cities first have to pay 600 euros to the Cittaslow and have to organize meetings, assign a leader, develop certain programs, and re-generate their cities to follow Cittaslow’s advice. Some programs that have been implemented in Cittaslow cities include “recycling projects, Presidia, after-school programs, and information for tourists that helps them have a real “local’s” experience” (Quoted from ). The term ‘slow’ can be taken from various angles, and most importantly, it is about going back to traditions and slowing down the overall pace of the city in order to be environmentally and socially friendly.

Slow movement can be considered as making a mobility transition – but is it (or is it interested in) facilitating transitions toward low carbon movements and cities? Presumably, there should be fewer cars in slow cities and encouragement of more walking and cycling. But why do cities have to join Cittaslow to make these changes? Does Cittaslow give the city an identity for its slowness and traditions? Do slow cities change the lifestyle of the locals or the tourists? Is Cittaslow just a branding strategy to encourage the tourism market? Why do cities choose to become Cittaslow and how? Whatever the social, cultural, and economic politics there may be, it is important to think through how Cittaslow is (directly/indirectly) making a sustainable transition.

As I am about to present some thoughts from my ethnographic account of a slow city in South Korea, my answer to all of the complex linkages between Cittaslow and mobility transition will not be clear, but I will end up with more questions than any concrete answers. As part of our research project, I will be conducting further document/policy analysis and interviews with the people involved to get a clearer picture of what linkages there are between Cittaslow and mobility transition.

“Jeonju Hanok Village” is one of the 11 “Slow cities” in South Korea. South Korea was the first Asian country to achieve the slow city status. Before I even heard of the term Cittaslow, I have heard a lot of great things about “Jeonju Hanok Village” and was very excited to visit the place. “Jeonju Hanok Village” has a population of around 2200 and has 708 houses. Out of 708, over 500 are “Hanok” houses. “Hanok” means Korean traditional house – and the entire village has preserved the old houses and built new ones in the same traditional architecture. As soon as I arrived at the village, I was astonished by all the beautiful Hanok houses. The outer part of the village had residential houses and as you walked further into the center of the village, you could see that many of the houses turned into cafes, shops and restaurants (See pictures below).


hanok2 Hanok residential Housing


An American candy store in a Korean traditional house


A local artist’s gallery


A typical example of a modern style Hanok housing


A vegetarian curry restaurant

I had mixed feelings as I was walking along the village. Indeed, the entire village looked ‘old’ because of all the traditional Korean architecture, but the shops weren’t entirely local produce. For instance, Weeny Beeny is an American candy chain, and they had other cafes that were part of bigger chains owned by large companies such as Samsung. In some parts, they tried too hard to make their places look shabby and traditional. For instance, the sign of the vegetarian curry restaurant was deliberately made to look old by using colored metal materials while the door and windows were brand new. In some ways, they had to build more (new) infrastructure and use more resources to appear more traditional and bring in international and national businesses into their local village. In this sense, I was not entirely sure whether the city was making a sustainable transition to become a slow city.

Leaving aside what had initially came to my mind, the village definitely had an authentic character and it was indeed dominated by local food chains. Jeonju has always been famous for their traditional Korean food and by becoming a slow city, and through their branding and making their city more well-known, their local food became more accessible to people who were visiting the place. There were a number of food stores that became famous through media and travel blogs and you could spot them from far away because of the crowd. Below are the pictures of some of those places.


Famous Local Food Chains


Famous Local Food Chains


Famous Local Food Chains

The village was doing really well in terms of supporting the local food stores. There were lines of people to try the famous fried donuts, chocolate pie, ice creams, local beer, dumplings, and so on. These were all kinds of food that you could only buy in Jeonju Hanok Village – and nowhere else. The hype over the local food of Jeonju is so big that there are sayings such as ‘Jeonju’s food tour’ and also, there are numerous food blogs which explain and share recipes of these street foods from Jeonju. I was surprised to see that over 80% of the people that I saw on this day were in their 20s (entirely from my observation). The village was indeed a popular place to visit for the younger generation. This might become an interesting point to discuss later in our research; we could ask whether certain groups of age/class/gender/ethnicity/disability become marginalized in slow cities (and for what reasons).

As a last note, Jeonju Hanok Village was following the ‘eco-mobility’ movement. Every weekend between 10am and 6pm, they made the entire village car-free. There was not a single car in the entire village while I was there for the weekend. There were a number of speakers around the village where they were playing a recorded voice message (with peaceful background music), educating people about the Cittaslow city movement and why it was car-free zone that day.

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Living in the Mobility Transition


How will we move in ten, twenty, thirty years from now?
What forms of transport will we use?
How will our mobility choices reflect the need to combat climate change?
What impact will the decreasing availability of affordable oil have on our mobility options?

These are key questions facing governments at all levels as well as private transport providers, think tanks, innovators, social action groups and individuals. They are questions that take on different meanings and different answers across the world.

This blog accounts for a two year engagement with these issues in 10-14 countries around the world ranging from developed countries in the global north through emerging economies to the relatively impoverished and underdeveloped.

The project includes a team of six researchers including Tim Cresswell (Northeastern University, Boston), Peter Adey (Royal Holloway, University of London), Cristina Temenos (Northeastern), Jane Yeonjae Lee (Northeastern), Astrid Wood (Royal Holloway), Anna Nikolaeva (Royal Holloway) and Andre Novoa (Northeastern).

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