Advancing Inclusive City Design in Transportation

By Lily Song

Lily Song is a Lecturer in Urban Planning and Senior Research Associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Her teaching, international research, and scholarship explore issues of inclusion and equity in urban governance through the lens of infrastructure, including transport and mobility, food systems, and energy efficiency. She was previously a Provost Fellow with University College London’s Department of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Public Policy and holds a PhD in Urban and Regional Planning from MIT, Master’s in Urban Planning from UCLA, and BA in Ethnic Studies from UC Berkeley.

Two weeks ago — June 26th to 28th, 2018 —  urban transport and development practitioners, activists, and researchers from cities around the world convened in Dar es Salaam for the 3rd annual ITDP Mobilize summit. Themed “Making space for mobility in booming cities,” the event offered attendees a chance to directly experience the new Bus Rapid Transit system along with walking and cycling improvements that made Dar es Salaam the first African city to win the prestigious Sustainable Transport Award in its 14-year history.  The conference program included several plenaries, conversations with change leaders, and break-out sessions that explored a wealth of timely and critical topics from informality to gender, child health, and new mobility innovations in the context of sub-Saharan Africa.

The final day of Mobilize Dar es Salaam, June 28th, 2018, began with the plenary, “Advancing Inclusive City Design from Fringe to Mainstream.” On the premise that an equitable city takes into account the needs of everyone— including women, children, elderly people, and people with disabilities—in transport planning, the session explored ideas and dilemmas of designing inclusive transit systems.

The moderator, Cecilia Vaca Jones from the Bernard van Leer Foundation, set the framework for the panel. She referred to the Foundation’s half century of work in early child development and its recent decision to work in cities to harness the unique opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives, reduce development gaps, and promote equity.

Healthy brain development requires not simply access to good nutrition but also a stimulating life along with a loving and caring family. Brain plasticity, or the ability to adapt through exposure to experiences, is highest at earlier stages of life. Therefore the opportunity to intervene in human development is largest at younger ages.

BVLF’s Urban95 agenda prioritizes the needs and experiences of young children—babies and toddlers— in urban planning and development (95cm is the height of a healthy 3-year old). Instead of intervening separately on key variables and determinants of health, social welfare, education, and nutrition, it wholly addresses them at the city or urban scale.

Cities can be challenging environments for young children and other vulnerable populations to navigate, but also pose difficulties for caregivers to be loving. Therefore planning and designing urban environments with young children in mind also means thinking about safety issues and amenities for caretakers. If the needs of small children and caregivers are met, it is a good indicator that the needs of most urban residents are, too.

Next up was Bright Oywaya, Executive Director of the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT-Kenya), a not-for-profit organization that promotes road safety through education, awareness creation, and advocacy in Kenya. She described the highly urbanized and population dense context of Nairobi, Kenya, inhabited by 4 million persons, many of them children. With rapid motorization,  high numbers of children are losing their lives and sustain major injuries from traffic crashes, often on the way to and from schools, many of which are located alongside highways and railroads.

ASIRT-Kenya has facilitated mobilizations by students and parents to lower driving speeds near schools and advocated for zebra crossings and signs. Beyond bottom-up organizing and pursuing case by case negotiations, it also ran a national campaign for the reduction of speed limits around schools. Presented to the Kenyan parliament and interacting with various committees— education, human rights, transport, health—it defined walkability beyond sidewalks, as encompassing a whole system of design and infrastructure around schools. The Traffic Amendment Act passed through parliament and the NMT Policy was adopted in Nairobi in July 2017.

Such issues and gains are highly relevant to people with disabilities, who not only need safer street infrastructure and roadside conditions but also require unobstructed access to transit services and facilities. The speaker shared her personal experience of enduring a crash as a pedestrian and becoming dependent on a wheelchair, which inspired her activism around collecting data on how people with disabilities move from one point to another to overhaul the traffic act in Kenya. In closing, she exclaimed that people with disabilities deserve and have a right to use roads and that infrastructure must support their mobility and accessibility. If roads are made for people with disability and children in mind, they will be friendly to every other person.

Sonal Shah, Senior Program Manager at ITDP India, then followed with a presentation entitled, “Women and Transport in Indian Cities.” It referenced the December 2012 rape and subsequent death of a young woman traveling on public transport in India as a catalyst for national protests. The event also helped shift public discourse on women’s safety and rights in public transport and space, which women’s groups had advocated for decades, from a focus on personal responsibility to broader environmental and societal factors.

At ITDP, Shah’s work entails integrating gender into mobility plans along with transport budgets and allocations in more fundamental ways. This means reframing safety from a focus on road safety to women’s lack of safety and security on public transport and in public spaces, which inhibit access and mobility options, as well as creating gender-based mobility indicators that are outcome and output- oriented.

Thus far, policy responses have tended to prioritize technological and physical solutions such as CCTV cameras and segregated facilities, buses, and rickshaws. As popular as the women-only spaces and services are, they do not meet the needs of women with male travel companions and can come at the cost of low service frequencies. In fact, as found by ITDP surveys, gender diversity mediates the perceptions and behaviors of women and girls, who indicate feeling safer when there are other women and girls in public space.

Hence ITDP India incorporates discussions and collaborations with women and girls into their work. In a June 2017 policy brief, ITDP and partners drafted key indicators to integrate gender in mobility plans. They then held discussions with over 30 women’s groups around the country, who had been historically advocating on the ground, to provide input on policy briefs. They held roundtable discussions on multiple dimensions of gender and took their feedback.

The final policy brief, which was released December 2017, covers:

  1. How to measure
  2. Set goals, plans, and design
  3. Implement
  4. Monitor and evaluate
  5. Share knowledge and inform future projects

As gains for women and children in their claims to public transport and space occur iteratively and relationally, it is critical for planners and transport experts to translate mobility needs and demands of women’s movements into practice—policy, designs, and programs— to make sure they are meaningful and impactful.

The final panel presentation by Rodrigo Diaz, Research and Development Director of ITDP Mexico, was entitled ”Safe Accessible Multi-Modal (SAM).” It began with findings from the 2017 origins destination survey in Mexico City, which were remarkably similar to those found across Latin America: Women walk more than men, bike less than men, are less dependent on cars than men, and depend more on buses than metro than men. Focusing on the significantly lower cycling rates among women, the presenter unpacked explanatory variables, including women’s perceptions of bikes as unsafe along with the difficulty of traveling with kids and carrying bags while trip-chaining  (which women disproportionately do as a result of their gendered roles and responsibilities).

Elaborating on the importance of safety in inclusive mobility and access, he continued with the example of public transport in Mexico City. There, 82 percent of women report being harassed while riding the metro, 13 percent of having seen men masturbating on public transport in the city, 42 percent of having changed their way of dress, 26 percent carry objects of personal defense, and 62 percent forgo use of the metro system at night.

The hitherto dominant response has been to provide women-only services, train cars, taxis and buses. Sharing his mixed feelings, Rodrigo Diaz pointed to the measurable impacts of declining sexual harassment on services and testaments by women of feelings of greater safety on one hand and questions of longer-term culture and behavior change on the other. But one clear lesson for him has been that transport planners must think of accessibility in a broader way. If public transport stations and modes are not safe, they are not accessible. Towards this end, ITDP Mexico City’s SAM tool (to be released in November 2018) evaluates accessibility in terms of the environment (TOD) and safety (road, personal, gender) to serve as a guideline for designing roads, streets, stations.

The main takeaways are as follows:

  1. Transport is public space in motion, where people meet, exchange goods, and socialize
  2. Public transport system is as good as its waiting times and spaces—we need to design stations to be safe and attractive
  3. Accessibility is not just about shortening distances but safety and perception of safety
  4. Segregation cannot be the new normal—segregated waiting platforms should be seen as temporary interventions
  5. Beyond accessibility, safety, and functionality, good public spaces are attractive and playful— metro stations, where thousands of people gather everyday are cultural spaces that could host libraries, museums, and bookstores (transport planners should work with artists and poets!)

This plenary on advancing inclusive city design struck a deep chord with me, both personally and professionally. It was only when I became pregnant and then started getting around with a young child that I came to comprehend the extent to which the urban built environment and mobility system tends to prioritize the travel efficiencies of able-bodied travelers, particularly motorists and male-commuters. This experience revealed for me the blindspots accompanying my personal and societal privileges, and helped me rethink gender-based needs in relation to roles and responsibilities assumed within families, households, and communities rather than in biological, binary terms (man/woman).

Basic functional shortcomings of spatial designs such as stepped curbs and entrances, narrow sidewalks along speedy thoroughfares, and shade-less playgrounds and public spaces also indicated that decision makers and designers were not necessarily regular users of the space, let alone used to moving about with young children or on wheelchairs.

Hence ITDP India’s approach of consulting and collaborating with women and other mobility-constrained groups seems highly practical for dealing with ubiquitous and pressing spatial design challenges. But it is also prescient and potentially powerful in connecting transport and mobility policies with women’s groups and other activist organizations and social movements that seek to broaden rights and access to urban transport, the public realm, and opportunity structures. As we learned from the experiences of ITDP India and Mexico, policy “successes” such as gender- segregated facilities and services may be popular with women and girls and enhance their mobility options in the short term, but deeper gender-based ideologies, perceptions, behaviors, and hierarchies largely remain in place.

As an immigrant woman and person of color in the United States who can freely use public transport and public spaces only because of the hard fought gains of the civil rights movement, I can appreciate these efforts to make public transport and public spaces more inclusive but am also aware of the tensions and tradeoffs for more fundamental, reverberating change. This left me with the question of how we, as planning and transport practitioners and researchers, could support and work together with transformative social movements that seek to disrupt and structurally transform not only transport but the profoundly unjust and unequal worlds that we live in.


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