May 06, 2013

Transportation as a Social Justice Issue

On the evening of the 16th of December, 2012, a young woman and her male friend boarded a public bus in the city of Delhi, India, to go home after watching a movie at a local movie hall. The woman never returned home. She was raped and beaten to death by the driver, conductor and four other men on the bus. Her friend barely survived the beating he received. The rape and murder of this young woman has shaken Delhi and the rest of the country and has opened up the dialogue on patriarchy, violence against women, government and police apathy towards rape to a much larger audience.

A few months ago, I attended a conference in Washington DC on transportation and cities. In general, I find that these conferences focus on technical content like cost-benefit analyses, climate related issues and transportation modelling. Many of the participants at these conferences are architects, engineers, urban planners and economists and the discussion tends to veer towards econometric modelling, physical master plans and transport master plans. This, of course, seems a natural extension of the hours and hours of work spent on producing physical and economic plans of cities, defining road systems for our constantly growing cities, and the detailed work and research on more efficient and optimal transport networks for  cars, buses, trains and other modes of transport one typically sees in a city. It is, in many ways, endearing to see the passion at these conferences for transport (planes, trains and automobiles) and climate related subjects.

It is, however, very rare to hear a discussion on issues that stem from more human events such as the rape on the public bus in Delhi, like security for women and children, access for all members of society and gender that are and must be front and central to the discussion on transport and the growth of our cities. I keep hoping that I will see more work on the actual connection of public transport to human beings.

Public transportation speaks volumes about a society. It speaks about racism, economic injustice and the patterns of historical development of a nation – economic, social, cultural, political, and environmental – which are embedded in a transportation system that people take for granted. To me, public transport is a political service but at its most basic level it is a tool of independence, both in the city and in rural areas. Truly free societies see people stream through their cities with ease and freedom, using transport in all its forms, public and private, engaging in activities with an energy and verve that at some level, comes from the freedom that movement allows, and make the city or region vibrant and exciting. Another critical element of a truly free city is safety and security associated with public services, especially transport.

Twenty years ago, I took the same buses to traverse the city of Delhi. I never ever felt safe on those buses or even in the auto rickshaws (an event that was rarer as autos were more expensive and not affordable for the student that I was). For such a beautiful and well planned city that Delhi is, with many a master plan, transportation plan, BRTS, cycling plan and conservation plan that has been developed for it, somehow to me, the humanity of the city seems to be lost in the eternal cycle of technical and economic planning.

As a long term student of cities and urban planning, and as a keen proponent of the work of David Harvey, Jane Jacobs and Lefebvre on cities, I am keenly aware of the politics and power structures related to transport: the radical transformation of lifestyles that bring about new products such as two cars in every driveway, the increased consumption of oil, the suburbanization of America and the expansion of the highway system that feeds in the discussion and rhetoric of transport and climate change development. With the new infrastructure came an altered political landscape, with the segregation between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ becoming more and more distinctive, primarily with the ‘have-nots’ stuck in the city, often dependant on poor public transport options and effectively disenfranchised.

I still use public transport extensively both in Washington DC and Baltimore, and especially in Baltimore, I notice how my co-passengers in buses are very rarely middle-class white people. Mostly, they are non-white and poor. Most are incredibly dependent on an aging and inefficient bus network and the stress and tensions associated with leaving home two hours earlier to catch a bus to work is often etched on their faces.

Is there a more humanistic solution to dealing with the ugliness that befell the young woman on the public bus in Delhi and that faces the riders of buses in Baltimore? Is there a way that we can speak about transport, cities and the climate in a more humane and gender nuanced manner? I am always on the lookout for a more sensitive approach to the way we plan our cities and approach transport planning. Maybe the planners, economists and transport experts at the next conference will surprise me with the narrative, tone and scope of their work.

(Editors note: This is part of a new open-ended series on public transportation and gender. Contributions welcome and invited!)

2 comments to Transportation as a Social Justice Issue

  • Koyel Lahiri

    Hi Shreya,

    This is a topic that interests me greatly as well. Reading this article I was struck by two questions.

    One is, since you mention humanism in the context of public transport and city planning, I am curious to know of your understanding of the same vis a vis the political. More specifically, why do you choose to use the word humanistic and shun references of the political? (Especially given that you are a fan of the work of Harvey and Lefevre?:))

    The other question is about what constitutes the idea of public transport. The girl was not raped on a public bus (it was one of those Yadav chartered buses, if I’m not mistaken) but on a private bus that also functioned as a mode of public transport (as indeed many of these chartered buses do). Is public transport that which is offered and regulated by a city administration or does it also include privately owned vehicles that service the public in a variety of arrangements (ie, aside from the chartered buses which on paper are regulated by the state,I’m also thinking about private cars driven by drivers employed by owners who pick up and drop passengers when the owner has already been dropped off) ? Increasingly these days the lines between private and public blur: how then do we think about public transport and planning?

  • Shreya Pillai

    Hi Koyel,

    Thanks for your comment. Like you, I believe that the ‘humane’ and the ‘political’ are directly linked. However, in this piece, I was basically making a comment on the lack of discourse on gender (and to open a can of worms; minorities, disabled people, and the non-conventional) in the planning ‘establishment’. The discussion on the political warrants a whole other article, I think:)

    Regarding the second question, the lines between the public and the private are truly blurred. But in this case, I consider the transport on which the atrocity happened ‘public’, because it was meant to transport the ‘public’…..even though it was operated by a private vendor. At the end of the day, while it is difficult to apportion complete blame to governments/ public bodies for crimes that happen in ‘private’ settings, the facilitation of transport is a ‘public’ duty (ideally, some of our taxes are meant to pay for this service). The question about drivers of private cars extends into the realm of our own moral codes, the patriarchal structure of our society (and significantly, in Delhi)and the empowerment of women…again, hopefully another post.

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