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Popular Transportation: Where Planning For Environmental Justice Hits the Pavement

By William Boose and Benjamin de la Peña

The following piece is part of Progressive City's Planning for Environmental Justice series. Contributions reflect on this theme through a variety of lenses, such as environmental justice, combatting green gentrification, and exploring radical approaches to climate change. Read more about this series here.

Source: William Boose, taken during his work in the Independencia district of Lima.

To “plan for environmental justice” we must reckon with the historic and ongoing damage wrought by colonialism and neocolonial approaches to planning. This is especially evident in transportation planning, and it is an urgent task as we are confronted by the climate crisis and strive to decarbonize the sector.

Neocolonial approaches to planning are pervasive in the treatment of “informal transportation,” which Jacqueline Klopp more appropriately calls popular transportation. Popular or informal, these modes move hundreds of millions of people daily. Despite neglect or even active opposition from planners and officials, colectivos, matatus, tuk tuks, auto-rickshaws, trotros, trufis, robots, mototaxis and more keep the majority of the world’s cities moving. As Klopp puts it, popular transportation is “strongly present on the street, (but) is often absent from planning, policy, and projects.”

A cursory tour of even a few places gives a sense of the massive size of these systems. More than 74% of all public transport trips in Mexico City are served by colectivos. There are 8 million registered okada drivers in Nigeria, 1 million mototaxis in Perú, and 500,000 ojek drivers working for a single app in Indonesia. Uganda's boda sector employs 1.7 million people and is estimated to be the single largest sector of male employment outside agriculture. Based on these statistics, we estimate that there are hundreds of millions of popular transportation workers in the world. They in turn serve billions of commuters. Despite their crucial work, popular transportation workers and the masses who depend on them in their daily lives are mostly ignored in global and national approaches to decarbonizing transportation. Listening to their perspectives is a productive starting point for environmental justice, which must be intricately tied to mobility justice. In short, we call for more planners to hit the pavement and engage with the people at the center of this massive sector.

Source: William Boose, Iquitos, Perú in 2019.

In her foreword to Re-Thinking Mobility Poverty, edited by Tobias Kuttler and Massimo Moraglio, Mimi Sheller suggests that working towards mobility justice requires an “understanding of the historically uneven impacts of infrastructure (...) that have created contemporary splintered urbanism, racial and class segregation, lack of accessibility and automobile dependence for those who can no longer afford the right to the city.” A brief gesture to the historical trajectory of popular transportation helps illustrate why this humanistic move is so urgent.

As Robert Heinze notes in Daniel Agbiboa’s edited volume Transport, Transgression, and Politics in African Cities, colonial planners organized major African cities in ways that privileged the movement of white elites at the expense of Indigenous people, “save for the work commutes to factories and white households.” Such “masterplans” did not provide sufficient transport for the majority of people living in cities in Africa–and across most of the world.

Kenda Mutongi, in her book Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi, similarly illustrates how matatus in Nairobi provide transportation for 60% of the city’s population. Matatus are a homegrown solution that emerged without foreign aid or investment. They help the majority of people move about in a city that British colonizers wanted to be for “whites only.” Colonial planners exploited and marginalized the Black majority–so the latter made their own mobility by adapting discarded or secondhand vehicles and transforming them into de facto public transport.

Despite their fundamental contributions that respond to marginalization, popular transportation modes are often treated by planners and officials as nuisances or obstacles. Such planning approaches see “modernization” and “formalization” as necessary moves to “solve” or eradicate these vernacular transportation modes. At best, plans say something like: “we acknowledge that these modes move millions of people, but they are inefficient and they pollute, so we will replace them with more ‘modern’ transportation systems.”

People ride in a jeepney in Metro Manila. Photo by Yannes Kiefer on Unsplash.

Informed by similar logics, officials have banned or are attempting to ban popular transportation modes in many contexts: okadas in Lagos; mototaxis in Bogotá; and jeepneys in Manila. Examples abound. Such moves eliminate vital livelihood and mobility opportunities, especially for working class people. Economic impacts reverberate up the chain of businesses that support popular transportation, from mechanics, to the artists who ornament these vehicles, to the food businesses that cater to the drivers and riders. There is also a brutal irony in these bans: the authorities often fail to implement their designs for “modern” transportation even after criminalizing the popular methods.

Crucially, we do not seek to romanticize popular transportation: these systems are driven by hypercompetition. Wages are precarious, and governments omit popular sector workers from social benefit programs. Safety is fraught for drivers–traffic is their workplace–and passengers. Furthermore, like most transportation modes, popular transportation has typically run on dirty, planet-killing internal combustion engines (ICEs). And yet, even in the absence of any high-profile, global effort to drive electrification in the sector, the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Informal Transportation note that as much as 90% of electric vehicles in the world are two- and three-wheelers. Auto rickshaws and cycle rickshaws in India began electrifying though D.I.Y. technology even before the state enacted its decarbonization policies.

Scholars and activists are increasingly understanding popular transportation as a response, “from the ground up,” that meets demands for livelihood opportunities and affordable transportation in cities that were not designed for the majority of their residents. Based on our years of closely watching this sector, we believe that collaborative planning with popular transportation workers would also generate vernacular approaches to decarbonization and environmental justice. We further believe that if planners want to decarbonize transportation, they must coordinate with popular transportation workers. Leaving them out of these conversations will lead to a continued failure to decarbonize the sector with the urgency that the climate crisis demands.

Planning for environmental justice in the face of ongoing climate disaster requires that we valorize popular transportation. It requires privileging the experience and local knowledge of popular transportation workers in crafting policies and solutions. It requires decolonizing our approaches by acknowledging the histories and contexts from which these modes emerged. So yes, environmental justice means unburdening local communities from the pollution impacts of popular transportation. It also means decarbonizing the sector while securing livelihoods and mobilizing local skills and knowledge to generate climate and clean technology solutions.

William Boose is a doctoral student in anthropology at Emory University, and has researched with mototaxistas (motorcycle taxi drivers) in Iquitos and Lima, Perú since 2017.

Benjamin de la Peña is the chair of the Global Partnership for Informal Transportation, the CEO of the Shared-Use Mobility Center, and writes Makeshift Mobility, a newsletter on innovations in informal transportation.




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