Right to the city: Accessible, effective and fair public transportation


Per usual, I have to start my article with answering the typical question when it comes to my research: How is public transportation and its consequences related to philosophy?

The best explanation I can offer is mentioning the roots of my interest in public transportation systems. The first influence is philosophy of urbanism (you can find my other articles about this topic) and its effects on moral behavior and political stands.

In this article, I will argue that public transportation is very important part of philosophy of urbanism.

The bridge between philosophy of urbanism and public transportation I see in LeFebvre’s theory “la droite a la ville” - right to the city. Let me shortly explain this theory and my usage of this theory towards public transportation in the next section.

Fair and accessible public transportation

At the beginning of the 1960s, with the rapid rise of motorism, Western cities (to a certain extent also the eastern but not so fast) began to change under the pressure of the car lobby and the car users themselves, for which the car became an integral part of everyday life.

The city's waterfront, formerly used for rest and meeting place, turned into four-lane arteries, parks and other places were transformed into a parking lot - the city itself was not  a lively social connection but rather a large parking lot. Likewise, this automobile boom had a certain degree of alienation, because everyone was shut down in their car and did not have to be in contact with other residents of the city. This moment is a favorite critique of leftist philosophers who see the ultimate theft of the city and interpersonal relationships by technology and progress.

Interesting in this context is, for example, Jan Gehl, the famous Danish architect and town planner, who commented on the radical insist of the people in the Eastern Bloc (commenting the situation in Czech republic) on the parking places for their car just next to his house, even in the city center. Gehl calls it "socialistic spoiling," in which people in the past regime have falsely got the impression that there is something like a human right to a parking space.

During the 1960s, a resistance movement began to emerge in France, today we would call these movements a green parties. These movements have consistently blocked the main roads, organized happenings, and at the level of some cities they managed to process the city's automobiles boom to stop or to slow it down at least.

In this cultural and social context Henri Lefebvre wrote his book "Right to the City".

This book has become very famous, and Lefebvre happened to become very present in public debate. As it is the case in France, as a philosopher, he received a great deal of space in the media and other places where social discussions took place.

Lefebvre's prime motivation was not to act against cars, it is the conclusion I draw from his work personally. Lefebvre was thinking of the feeling when your city is changing before your eyes, and you are realize more and more that it is no longer your city.

The tremendous pace of building a low-cost collective home has overwhelmed the mental map of the urban population. They lived in apartments in the suburbs, from where they mostly moved to work - grocery stores and tobacco were, of course, in every housing estate presented.

At the same time, city centers began to become ghettos for rich - overpriced rents, lucrative addresses with overpriced boutiques, and the absence of public transport, causing the average citizen to stay away from the center. So as result people lived in the same city, but every person had a different territory and everyday customs.

There existed some extremes, as some neighborhoods that had their own security and only residents could step in. It all caused Lefebvre and others to have a legitimate feeling that they had lost their right to their own city, the right to move freely, to change it, and the right to be a natural part of it without any restrictions.

In my words, Lefebvre wanted to say that we have a de jure right to the city, but de facto it is fading away from our eyes.

For this reason, my question is as following: Can we really have the right to a city if we do not have accessible and fair public transport?

To answer this question, we can use the example of large North American cities. Public transport (at least until recently) was rather an emergency solution that was highly unpopular and the social status of the service was at a very low level. This has resulted in permanent financial under-estimation, fleet obsolescence and considerable inefficiencies, including senseless route planning. For these reasons, the operation of public transport has always been poorly received by the public, resulting in the financial loss of transport companies. Public transport has even been canceled in some cities.

The proportion of the car-owned population is enormous in these cities, and the cities are well-tailored: motorways spanning city centers, giant parking and shopping centers outside city centers are clear evidence. Because almost everyone owns a car, it does not matter to them whether they live in the suburbs where only the motorways run, or in the wider city center. For this reason, the city centers began to be depopulated and the purchasing power moved to the suburbs. This problem is called center-suburb problem. In the larger North American city, it is a huge difference if you live in its suburbs or in its center. Metaphorically, if you live in the outskirts of some abstract City, you are as far away from the city center as people from other cities - you may even visit the center less.

I claim that without accessible and fair urban transport you can never have the right to your city de facto.

The right to the city also means free decision making on the city without any positive or negative actions by officials. If the city is planned as a US city, people will move to the suburbs. But if they live in the suburbs, they can not take advantage of the city as someone who lives in the central district. People living in the suburbs must take their car to get to the commercial and "lively" part of the city.

The problem lies in the fact that every person living in the suburbs has a de facto lower level of right to the city than any person living in the central district.
Person A (living in the suburbs) must think about using a car, paying for gas, not drinking alcohol with his/her friends at the bar, having a parking problem, and fearing of theft or damage.
On the other hand, person B (living in the city center) has to think only about  if is he/she willing to leave his/her apartment and to walk several streets.

If public transport does not allow you to use the entire area of the city in every day and night, it means that you are restricted. How can you have the right to a city if it's 22:00 and no public transport is operating in your neighborhood? At that moment, it is extremely difficult for you to leave your immediate neighborhood.
The fact that there is a new green public space in the city center and there is, for example, a free festival, does not tell you anything. It's so far for you that it can be a different city.
This situation can cause political problems such as segregation, unequal distribution of wealth or just a sense of alienation in the city, which can cause the person to be passive and not involved in the interest of the future of his city and democratic participation.

Cities with the highest living satisfaction are cities with accessible and fair public transport. Vienna is a typical example.
But what do I mean when I talk about "fair" or "accessible" public transport?

The definiton of “accessible” public transportation can be given by Karl Martens:

Transportation system is fair if, and only if, it provides a sufficient level of accessibilty to all under most circumstances.”

The best illustration of the term “fair” can be found in the legacy of Fulgen Bienvenüe. This builder, brain and "metro father" was in charge of the metro construction and planning in the French metropolis. Bienvenue, however, was not only a technocrat, but also a visionary and, in some ways, a philosopher of urbanism. According to his vision (which has not yet materialized in complete form), every citizen of Paris should be equal in the way that he/she should have nearest metro station at maximum 400 meters away from his/her place of residence. It does not matter whether you lived in a poor suburban district or in a fabulous neighborhood, everybody should be equal in this right.

Although this idea was more a social construct than a deeply thought-out strategy, research and data today shows that it is the maximal distance of 400 meters (or maximum of 5 minutes walking) to the nearest stop is perfect for the efficiency and accessibility of the public transport. The same distance, for example, is quoted by collective of  Im Sik Choa, Chye-Kiang Henga and Zdravko Trivić.
This team also confirms that if people are "close" to everywhere in their city through fair and accessible public transportation, they are much more interested in the future of the city, are more pro-social, and generally more active than passive when it comes to matters of their city .
It's simple. Why should you be interested in repairing a square in the center, if it's almost impossible for you to look at it?

If you live in the suburbs of the city with population of, let’s say, 40,000 people, it is inconceivable for you, for example, to spend 40 minutes by walking to the city center to attend a public lecture, theater performance, or any other social activity that you can imagine. If it's summer, it's easier. But if it's freezing outside, it's dark in the early afternoon, and you're a woman who wants to take part in such social activities, it will be a problem for you. It does not matter how big of a problem is it for you, but you definitely have one more problem than if you live in a city with well-thought public transportation system.

Such a way of public transport brings several benefits: whether it's a forced encounter with strangers - you see young people let you sit, students read books, strangers behave decent, and even the black man you hate from your living room helps you with your luggage. If you meet people, it forces you to overwhelm your prejudices and fears. If you see a phenomenon every day for your own experience, it's no stranger to you anymore. Then it is hard to be xenophobic.

Another consequence is that if you have the opportunity to participate in such meetings, it affects your moral decision-making, or just aesthetic feelings after visiting the gallery.
The latest hit in France is free public transport (for example, Dunkerque or Bordeaux). In addition to the above mentioned arguments, the aim is to restrict cars and protect the environment.

Interesting is the Estonian capital, Tallinn, where five years ago, the City Hall called for a referendum on whether people want public transport for free. 75% of people decided they did. Since then, this model has proved to be a good thing, the city has brought money to taxpayers (the condition of free transport is a permanent residence - similar to the principle in Brno with a refund of part of the money for the annual public transportation ticket) and rents and taxes of a revived urban center. This principle is described, for example, by Karl Martens in his book Transport Justice. Designing Fair Transportation Systems:

The concentration of persons allows the emergence of businesses, shops, hospitals, schools, and so on. Each member of society thus has some share in the production and reproduction of accessibility. Accessibility is therefore par excellence a benefit of social cooperation.”

Since the right to city means de facto the right to use it and to be an integral part of it without restrictions of accessibility.

Author: Vladan Klement

Published 20.10.2018

No Comments Yet.

Leave a reply