The Twitterverse has been abuzz this week with news that ITDP, well known transport US-based NGO have published BRT Standards. Generally the response has been salutory. I am less clear that this is good news.
In their book “Sorting Things Out” Star and Bowker argue that all standards are not simply technical, but are ethical and philosophical matters. They are ethical because decisions taken during the preparation of standards can have massive (unintended) downstream consequences; and philosophical since they deal at a very basic level with how we see and categorize the world, and with our very understanding of “reality”. You do not have to go very far in transport to see how this can be so. Mundane and seemingly innocuous “technical” decisions about road widths and curb radii embedded within technical design guidance such as the US “Green Book”, and translated to South Africa and across the globe during the 1960s, impacted on streetscapes. Streetscapes in turn impacted on speeds of vehicles, and so on quality of environments; on accessibilities by foot; on deaths in traffic; local economies…and so on. And on. Ultimately, seeming technical decisions in the Green Book (and elsewhere) about the infrastructure which makes up our cities were in practice decisions which valued the car over the pedestrian, speed over slow, efficiency over urban design. These guidelines embedded hierarchies of urban values, albeit disguised as technical guidance.
A standard which endorses particular ways of doing BRT, as ITDP’s does seems to me to be equally problematic. In putting themselves in the role of judge and jury ITDP are implicitly stating that (a) there is a universal best practice for BRT and (b) ITDP know what that is. So, the argument goes, Cape Town’s “best”, will be the same as Tokyo’s, Seattle’s, Caracas’s, Perth’s, Boston’s, Lagos’s, Bogota’s? Where is the local context, the deep understandings of the specifics of politics and social community. Where are the interests, wishes and desires of the local politic in all of this? It is in the assumption of knowing which is “best” in all contexts where ITDP’s standard is disappointing.
I admire ITDP. In my experience they are an energetic and well meaning group doing crucially important work in neglected settings. But this time, I think they missed the mark.