Inclusion has always been a conscious policy choice. Christopher Dekki reveals how cities around the world are increasingly prioritising the mobility needs of a select few rather than providing safe and accessible spaces for all.
To whom does the city belong? This is a question I often ponder as I make my way through the streets of my hometown, New York City, and many other cities around the world. This question tugs at my mind when I see a posh, new, high-rise building under construction. It nags and distracts me whenever I purchase a coffee that many human beings on the planet could never afford on even a full day’s pay. And most of all, this question takes centre stage whenever I cross a massive, New York City avenue, packed with cars, trucks, and other motor vehicles – literal tanks when compared to the fragile human beings braving the roads. To whom does the city truly belong, when everywhere I look, those with means, with privilege, seem to always be prioritised?
Cars are King
Unfortunately, cities are becoming less accessible, less inclusive, and less liveable, in part due to a number of policy choices that prioritise the desires of a few over the needs of the many. This problem of exclusive cities is often most obvious when it comes to transport and mobility. The 20th century saw the training of a generation of urban planners who built and expanded cities with sprawl in mind. Coupled with an ever-growing focus on the automobile, first in the West, and later all over the world, this has created the impression that streets are not for people, but for cars.
The trend towards the coronation of cars has always been especially shocking in the Global South, where motorisation rates remain extremely low in most countries. Indeed, cities in the developing world simply do not have enough drivers to justify the central place of the automobile in planning and policy, as walking and other forms of active mobility remain central modes of transport. Public and informal transport are also essential, but only where they are readily available.
These cities, however, often lack the finance and support for the infrastructure needed to make urban mobility a pleasant and accessible experience. Inclusive cities are only possible when policymakers shift gears, opening streets to multiple modes of safe, comfortable, and accessible transport and mobility, from walking and cycling to mass transit. Dethroning the car is a critical aspect of this shift. Urban mobility will otherwise remain a key roadblock to the realisation of truly inclusive cities.
On the Other Hand…
While sprawling cities have been built around the automobile, many politicians, especially in the Global North, have been keen on finding ways to reverse the 20th-century pivot to rapid motorisation. This may include policies that charge drivers for their driving, increase fuel costs, or increase the cost of entering city centres with a vehicle. On paper, these policies make perfect sense – reversing the worst impacts of the climate crisis means we have to shift the way we move people and goods.
Still, when these policies are not formulated in ways that take into consideration the needs of the most marginalised, the results can be devastating. It was not long ago that the ‘gilets jaunes’ (the yellow vests) movement in France erupted after the government passed higher levies on diesel fuel. For further illustration of this issue, let us come back to my hometown of New York City, a city that really does belong to those with privilege.
Urban Living versus Urban Lifestyle
While New York has an excellent, sprawling public transport system, as well as an ever-growing active mobility infrastructure, the cost of living in one of its iconic five boroughs has become increasingly high for any person not in the upper echelons of society. While it was once fashionable for people with the financial means to flee the city for suburban and exurban living, the trend has reversed, and city life is now desirable for the upper class. As a result, many middle- and working-class people have looked far beyond Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens for more affordable housing. As people move farther away from the city centre, public transport becomes less and less available. These people have turned to cars to go to work or school, as well as simply move around their sprawling suburban communities.
This story can be applied to most cities in the United States, where central urban living is simply untenable for the majority of people. Thus, decarbonising transport, while extremely urgent, must be done in ways that leaves no one behind. It cannot be done on the backs of the poor and the working class, who are excluded from dense, central urban living, excluded from public transport, and therefore forced to rely on the vast array of roads already built for ‘king car’ throughout the country.
Cities and their wider metropolitan areas in countries like the United States, where cars have been king for decades, must be reimagined, but any attempt to disincentivise driving must be formulated through a systems-thinking approach. Working with communities to understand their needs and provide them with the infrastructure and services that can evolve their cities for the better – this would be the best way forward to truly make these cities as inclusive as possible.
The City Must Belong to All
While the challenges facing different regions of the world are not the same, they stem from the same source: policies and planning that did not have inclusion in mind. Cities are home to the majority of humanity, yet primarily serve a select few who can afford the pleasures of urban life. If inclusive cities are to be achieved, whole-of-society approaches must be utilised, thus shaping public policies that take the needs of all into consideration.
Continuing to build roads for cars, and promoting small-scale, individual behavioural changes, tone-deaf to the struggles and realities of workers and the poor, means that the world’s trajectory towards achieving key global frameworks like the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement, and the New Urban Agenda, is way off the mark. Cities that ignore the needs of all and provide for the transport and mobility needs of only a few, will remain exclusive cities.
So let me rephrase my initial question: To whom should the city belong?
To everyone. Inclusion is a policy choice. The time has come to make the right choice, starting with reimagining how we move people and goods in cities.