/ 25 October 2018

Seeking mobility justice

The strike began on May 16.
While the drought was about the lack of accumulating and circulating water, the transport-related crisis is about the non-movement of humans, their goods, and their economic potential. (David Harrison/M&G)


Day Zero redux

Earlier this year, Capetonians narrowly averted the drought-induced crisis with the apocalyptic name ‘Day Zero’ when the taps would eventually run dry. After a healthy season of winter rains, water warriors rejoiced, yet transport planners, civic organisations, activists and beleaguered commuters alike are forecasting yet another null-scenario: mobility day zero. 

This is the equally apocalyptic moment when the city ceases to move. It is the day when vehicular traffic in the form of private automobiles, minibus taxis and scheduled bus services come to a standstill with gridlock, and the entire commuter rail network ceases to operate due to the persistent failure of infrastructure through both vandalism and poor maintenance. The drought-related day zero and the mobility day zero have more in common than you may think, for both highlight the city’s reliance on movement and circulation. While the drought was about the lack of accumulating and circulating water, the transport-related crisis is about the non-movement of humans, their goods, and their economic potential.

Mobilities beyond transport

Geographers, sociologists, anthropologists and historians amongst others working within the interdisciplinary field of mobilities research are not simply interested in transport, but rather in the movement and circulation of diverse constellations of people, non-human animals, capital, objects and information. Mobilities scholars like myself argue that it is the combination of these bodies, in various assemblages, engaged in multiple practices and reliant on an array of infrastructures that both create cities and enable them to function. In short, the life of cities beats through their mobility. While it is easy to conflate the idea of urban mobility under the simple rubric of transportation (public or otherwise), mobility day zero forces us to understand a wide array of movements and circulations that make urban life and livelihoods possible. 

My work in both my teaching and research at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) illustrates the role that mobility plays in our daily lives. It is because of the spatial mismatch of South African cities where the urban poor are relegated to the periphery, and thus rely on efficient, safe and affordable mobility strategies in order to engage in employment, education, and socio-cultural opportunities in the city. For the urban poor, and increasingly the strained middle-class, everyday mobility poses myriad challenges.

The current reality of apartheid’s spatial fix

In order to better understand the mobility challenges faced by many Capetonians, I have engaged with my first- and second-year students over the past four years in collecting stories of everyday mobility. We have done this through mobile diaries, digital stories, and short surveys that we use to learn more about mobility and urban life. The results exceed the simple metrics of time and distance, although the temporal and spatial scales are enormous. 

UWC draws students and staff from a large catchment area in the Western Cape. Many of those use multiple forms of transport to get to campus every day, including a combination of mini-bus taxi, train and walking in many cases. Travel times have increased over the years since I started collecting data, with the upper-end of the spectrum requiring a two and one-half hour commute each way. 

When trains operate, access to campus is presumably easy, since we have our own dedicated rail station. Yet, for many students and staff, the likelihood of being delayed at best, or robbed at worst, forces them to seek alternatives amongst a limited range of possibilities. 

Such a situation induces what transport geographers call ‘modal shifts’ where a choice is made to move to an alternative mobility strategy to compensate for failures in the alternatives. Thus, for those who can afford it, there is a move toward car use, which leads to more vehicular traffic, more congestion, and much less of the ‘public’ in our everyday mobility. The results of my work with students speak to the social and economic costs of mobility — or lack of mobility — but also to the unexpected joys in the everyday experience of moving with other bodies into and around the city.

We have taken inspiration from Zaza Hlalethwa, whose own reflections within the Mail & Guardian‘s pages illustrate the gifts that our everyday mobility can offer, and the complexities that articulate that mobility through the body, memory, language, culture and more. 

Her work has become required reading for my students. My determined choice to take the bus to campus every day has illustrated the serendipitous outcomes of being part of a micro-community that moves together through the city. I have made friends, crossed boundaries that keep race- and class-based groups locked into normative mobility channels. If the trains worked more efficiently, bus stops and taxi ranks were safer places, then perhaps more people would be willing to make modal shifts back into shared forms of mobility. That would also mean less cars on the road, lower levels of emissions, and possibility even a greater tolerance of difference across society.

Mobility justice

The current mobility crisis in Cape Town, as elsewhere in South Africa, leads me and others to consider the need for mobility justice. The question remains, what does it look like, and how do we achieve it? Better transport planning and infrastructure? More government funding? 

A mobility bill of rights? 

I don’t have the answers to these questions at the present time, but what I do know is that mobility day zero is looming, and there are no sources where mobility can be bottled and saved for another day. As was the case in the drought-induced Day Zero, the call to action was heralded on many levels, and made possible through wide consultative and results-driven processes. The same should be done in this case, where mobilities scholars, transport planners, officials from all spheres of government, civil society groups, activists and especially citizens themselves must be able to engage in the present mobility challenges. 

If we don’t, the countdown toward mobility day zero will continue, and the reservoir of the already unequal resource of mobility will be depleted for all. We live in an age where mobility is central to life as we know it. It is time that we all start moving, together, toward a more just mobile society.

Dr Bradley Rink is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography, Environmental Studies & Tourism at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). He is the principle investigator of the Mobilities in the global South project and the recipient of the 2017 CHE-HELTASA National Excellence in Teaching and Learning Award. He writes in his personal capacity.