Five ‘take-homes’ from a Masterclass on Transport Justice

Karel Marten’s recent University of Cape Town Masterclass  on Transport Justice was full of worthwhile justice philosophy fodder. However, the five significant ‘take-homes’ asked for something closer to home – a revolution in transport planning methods.

  1. Congestion is a problem of privilege.

The existence of traffic congestion is essentially a sign that road infrastructure is a success. The road network provides a far better service to travellers than any other transport system. To try and improve roads is to try and improve an already superior service further and so to favour those who are already far better served than travellers on other system.

  1. Reducing congestion/ improving road traffic speeds can show no direct link to improving the macro economy.

It just doesn’t.

We have relied on the idea that reducing traffic congestion is somehow a magic cure for an ailing economy. We have imagined that all we need to do is move things and people along a bit faster and – hey presto – the economy revives. This argument contains all sorts of assumptions which are, at best, contested and at worst, false hopes.

  1. Travel demand management is tinkering and, in the long-term, trivial

While travel demand management (TDM) can result in marginal reductions in travel demand, the suppressed demand for road space in urban areas is so great that any improvements to congestion due to TDM will be eroded by the release of suppressed demand for road space.

At best, TDM is a short term fix. At worst, it is a waste of money.

Travel demand management has a role to play, though, in improving the energy efficiency, and so reducing the environmental costs, of road traffic. Increasing the numbers of people in vehicles, for example, has substantial energy and costs savings for users

  1. Solving congestion is possible but politically unpalatable.

Even if traffic congestion is considered the problem, the only real solutions – congestion pricing and vehicle-use rationing – are deeply politically unpalatable. The real challenge for the transport planning profession is to acknowledge this and not shy away from telling the unpalatable truths to politicians and the public.

  1. Traditional transport planning processes are deeply problematic

Traditional transport planning is trying to solve the transport problem as if it is an urban utility systems problem, like water provision. This wouldn’t be so bad if people behaved like water molecules. But they don’t. If we are concerned about justice and fairness then we face a different set of questions from the ones which drove the traditional transport planning methods.

Indicators like ‘Level of Service’, congestion/capacity ratios, delay measures or cost-benefit analyses focus our attention on the speeds of vehicles, when the key issues that we need to address are about human access to opportunities.

Thinking about human beings first means thinking more about the ability of all kinds of people to travel (by whatever means). It broadens our possible toolkit beyond infrastructure and vehicles and traditional transport planning.

Thinking transport justice is not about a focus on people as an add-on or as an after-thought, says Karel Martens, it’s about completely new methodologies. We need transport planning processes which intentionally focus on those we serve, and this means starting afresh from the ground up.

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