What do we really mean when we talk about “access” in cities?
True access in the urban context — the ability to physically reach jobs, education, health care, recreational areas, cultural institutions — depends on transportation that is affordable, safe and convenient. The creation of a transportation network that affords such access across social divisions and geography is a mind-bogglingly complex problem.
What role do policymakers play? The private market? Planners? What kind of input should users have? How can governments create systemic change in dysfunctional transportation networks? And in urban centers with huge gaps in wealth and privilege, how can transport build connections that span class?
“In my city and in other cities in Latin America, we have not only a very unequal society, but also very segregated,” said Chilean transport expert Juan Carlos Muñoz. Muñoz, who is based in Santiago, was speaking this week at “Transforming Access, Mobility and Delivery in Cities,” hosted by the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations at the Ford Foundation in New York.
“Wealthy people live with wealthy people, poor people live in poor neighborhoods,” Muñoz continued. “That is one part of the problem. On the other hand, what is happening is the wealthier people, once the city starts growing and growing, tend to attract downtown activities toward them. It’s not just that the city is uneven — it’s also that the center of gravity is moving towards the wealthier neighborhoods. In some way, the richest parts of the city are taking the downtown to their living room, and requesting the other parts of the city to make longer and longer trips. And that makes a lot of problems for the public transport system.”
Muñoz and his fellow panelists, all of whom have grappled with these issues in places around the world, discussed the myriad challenges and opportunities facing cities that want to improve access for their citizens. Some common threads emerged.
Paratransit, or informal transit networks, like those provided by privately owned minibuses, are used by millions of riders around the world to gain access to their daily destinations, filling in the gaps in more formal systems. Informal transit can have many benefits for users, such as more direct routes and relatively low fares.
But Aimée Gauthier, chief program officer for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) spoke of the drawbacks for those who ride it, drawing on her own experience in Dar es Salaam. “From a passenger perspective, there are safety problems, there’s a lack of reliability,” she said. “There are a lot of pros to paratransit, but as soon as you can afford to not take paratransit you move up to the next option.”
That option is usually a private car — a mode the panelists agreed was the principal hindrance to other forms of transport, as it takes up street space and siphons off more affluent users. “The status issue with paratransit needs to be addressed,” Gauthier said. “It’s captive people who ride, but it doesn’t keep people who have other choices.”
Herrie Schalekamp, of the African Centre of Excellence for Studies in Public and Non-motorised Transport, spoke of the situation in South Africa, where the government is seeking to further regulate paratransit. “We want to move all our informal operators toward being formalized, to corporatize them,” he said. “Two cities have made big progress. It’s very easy to say we want to move from informality to formality.” That decision at the top doesn’t necessarily address the needs and concerns of users and providers, however. “We can say, ‘Informality is bad, formality is good,’” Schalekamp said. “But we need to understand what motivations of individuals have been.”
All the panelists cited issues of governance, political will and coordination between different elements of the transport system as prime concerns. “It’s better for the user if the system is integrated in all its dimensions: fare, operations, information,” said Muñoz. “But it’s really hard to achieve.”
Muñoz said that in Santiago, the move to integrate the system’s bus and metro operations, including radical route changes, was done almost in a single day — and that was too abrupt. He said the difficulties were caused by a number of complicated factors, but the result was stark. “Change was very, very poorly received by the users because the supply was not where it was needed,” he said. “In Chile, in Santiago, it was considered the worst public policy ever implemented.”
Since then, he added, the system has been steadily improving as the city addresses the problems that emerged in the transition. “We are now on the other side of the Rubicon, we already have a fully integrated city where you can move between buses and metro with a single fare,” he said, adding that cities choosing to integrate more slowly, on a corridor-by-corridor basis, might never get to the other side.
Creating more equitable access, said Muñoz, is not something that can easily be done piecemeal. “I don’t see a strong answer to this problem other than really having what in many Latin American cities we lack, which is a metropolitan authority,” he said. “A transport authority that could take the decisions that are better for the whole city.”
The structure of the city as a whole, not just its transportation system, is implicated in questions of access. Gauthier talked about how affordable housing policies often locate poorer residents far from the urban core, leaving them stranded. Safety concerns cause social stratification as wealthy residents retreat to gated enclaves. Infrastructure deficiencies in nations such as India catalyze the construction of satellite cities where water and electricity are taken care of privately. “There’s an issue of security and safety and reliability and trust in the government,” Gauthier said.
Ultimately, the conversation implied, a paradigm shift will need to take place if accessibility is ever going to move to the forefront of the conversation.
“If we look at developing countries … when we evaluate transportation proposals, we still largely use traditional mobility-based analysis,” said Bob Cervero, professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley. He added that travel speeds and efficiency dominate that framework — not access.
“We talk a lot about access, but it’s very rhetorical,” said Cervero. “We don’t have institutionalized metrics to elevate that as a factor in whether we are going to invest in this BRT system, or pursue this land-use strategy. So I would look at this a little more systemically. We need to turn our planning processes on their head and really elevate accessibility as a metric.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including CityLab, Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.