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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

[1] www.ciclorecreovia.cl

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