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Transforming Urban Transport- The Role of Political Leadership

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Unequal Mobility

For a recent online issue of Politico Magazine, leading mayors, urbanists, and other thinkers were asked to name the biggest threats that American cities currently face. Among the contributors, TUT-POL Project Director Diane Davis and Senior Researcher Lily Song reflect on issues of unequal mobility.

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STORY BY Politico Magazine

PUBLISHED ON June 30, 2017

Unequal Mobility

Diane E. Davis and Lily Song, professor and lecturer, respectively, at the Harvard Graduate School of Design

A growing number of U.S. cities are joining the ranks of their European counterparts by promoting walking, cycling, public transit and public spaces. These new urban transport investments largely depart from the expansive, public-subsidy intensive, auto-centric and environmentally destructive patterns of urban development that prevailed during the past century. Yet they also risk compounding, if not intensifying, existing socio-spatial inequalities in cities.

In research conducted at the Harvard Graduate School of Design—looking at case studies in Los Angeles, Mexico City, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Seoul, Stockholm and Vienna—we have found that urban transport policies and programs trying to improve mobility can inadvertently worsen segregation and inequality. For instance, the rise of bike-share and ride-sharing services has addressed public demand for alternative forms of transportation, but often at the cost of neglecting high-need areas and socioeconomically vulnerable populations. As affluent, educated and socially privileged groups descend on the urban core and take advantage of proliferating amenities, those areas face escalating property values. Rising values entail added costs of living that especially burden low-income residents and racialized minorities, who are being pushed out to the suburbs despite having the least access to private cars and alternative transport options. Individuals with the means can pay for private ride-sharing services, but mass transit connections remain lacking, especially in lower income suburbs.

It is time to think long and hard about what types of cities we are producing with the latest generation of mobility innovations. Only a few cities (for example, Vienna) have successfully used transportation investments and services to promote mixed-income, transit-oriented, higher-density urban development in ways that advance inclusion and equity. Such cities succeed by combining innovative transport programs with strong political leadership. Programs can take many forms, but they must integrate public transit goals with alternative urban land uses geared toward the public good. Otherwise, new mobility and accessibility services will continue to be scarce commodities, all too readily offered by private firms and distributed through a competitive consumer market.

In the United States, we must move beyond old servicing paradigms and imagine new ones. Our future cities must be greater than the sum of recent individual technological and program innovations, however appealing these may at first appear. We must reverse the order of change, first articulating our visions for a more socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable city and then pursuing the complementary mix of urban policies and technological innovations that achieve these aims. Without such a framework, innovations that hover on the horizon, including autonomous vehicles, will likely do little to address the bigger picture of growing socio-spatial inequality. And although their involvement may be necessary to jump-start innovation, deferring to private-sector investment and leadership in transport will not necessarily help realize future visions of a more equitable and just city. Instead, politicians, planners, and the public, as well as the private sector, will all have to rise to the occasion, collectively providing and coordinating transport innovations that intersect with urban land use policies, so as to address mobility inequalities while also producing ever more livable cities that we all can be proud of.

Lily SongComment