In this article Pablo Moran shows us what the capabilities approach of Amartya Sen can mean for research into social exclusion. He does this by looking into the cases of changes to the transport systems of Santiago and Amsterdam.
Behind the fascinating topic of self-driving cars that has been announced recently through various media channels, transport beholds a less glamorous yet crucial topic of discussion: planning. Yes, the very same models and practices which build and sustain the act of physical mobility in our cities as we know it today, either by walking, biking, driving or using the public transport, among other options.
The present article discusses the way in which transport planning practices are responsible for our daily mobility options and experiences, by looking into a very specific concept: social exclusion. The focus is on what transport planning practices are nowadays able to observe and assess with regards to this phenomenon, presenting some reflections and observations from my current thesis research project, which compares the cases of Amsterdam and Santiago. Although these cases may be distinct in many respects (if not almost all of them), there are reasons to believe their transport planning regimes may not be fundamentally different, in terms of how social assessment practices take place, and how this influences the results within their own contexts. The point is not to compare the levels of social exclusion of each city, but instead observing how both construct their own exclusionary processes driven by transport planning. And although there are many aspects that still need to be highlighted in such perspective, I would like to invite the reader about her/his own experiences as a “transport user” and how such reflections could probably impact the way in which we conceive planning in general respects.
Systematizing the concept of social exclusion
Social exclusion is a concept which has been covered extensively in the social science literature. Yet its definition is far from an established convention. The multidimensional nature of this phenomenon has demanded simultaneous attention to various fronts, under various perspectives and disciplinary approaches. Yet what we see is often the face of a process portrayed almost solely by extreme poverty – probably the worst manifestation of social exclusion – but we fail to see the process in other hidden corners of our daily living experience – the multiple faces of social exclusion that take place in silence. We could agree that social exclusion should be addressed as a process and not as a mere outcome or inherent condition. However, setting this north embraces us to a set of challenges of enormous complexities. This venture is, for sure, no one-man´s task.
Despite its complexity – or probably motivated by this very same challenge – social exclusion as a concept has opened its way through multiple professional and academic platforms. One of such fields where more awareness to this phenomenon has been brought is urban transport planning. Perhaps the most concrete example is that of the Social Exclusion Unit in the UK, in 2003, which systematically addressed the need for connecting the phenomenon to mobility and accessibility issues. Even with such experience, which had the support of a solid institutional background, problems for systematizing such a concept were far from solved, as highlighted by the scientific community and a growing body of academic literature over the last decade. However, up to the present day, more development of assessment practices capable of linking transport planning to its effects in terms of social exclusion is still necessary. But what does it mean to think of social exclusion in a systematic way and what can we really gain from such insight? And more specifically, what could transport planning get from this? We’ll get back to these questions further on.
Amartya Sen’s capability approach
In an attempt to conduct a systematic analysis of the multiple dimensions of social exclusion, the Nobel Prize economist Amartya Sen proposes a stimulating way of confronting such matters. His capability approach is a theoretical framework which allows researchers and professionals to “rethink” the process of exclusion in a rather different way: focusing primarily on the experiences of individuals, prior to construct any indicators system (as in the tradition of poverty measures based on income indicators). Sen brings into focus the relation between human actions and people’s environment conditions, paying attention to the needs and desires an individual has to reach (or wants) in order to achieve an improvement in her/his quality of life. These relations are observed through three main theoretical categories: functionings, capabilities, and value-objects. The first term represents the very basic actions that we might be able to conduct in our quality of human beings (walking, talking and socially interact, for instance), whereas capabilities stand for more complex relations among these actions, which are necessary for achieving a specific value-object (as getting properly nourished, being able to access education, health assistance, and so on). He thereafter considers freedom to be the condition of a person’s own capabilities (what he is able to do with regard to her/his own arrangement of functionings and environment conditions) and the actual value-objects that she or he can reach (what is actually reachable with such capabilities).
What makes the capabilities approach an interesting (and applicable) framework for observing social exclusion is the fact that Sen does not determine the exact and precise elements that may be operationalized through these categories. Likewise, it’s not an approach relevant only to economics, providing an open theoretical framework to be used in almost any field of interest. I have conducted the experiment myself, referring to mobility capabilities as an effort to adapt Sen’s proposal to transport, mobility and accessibility matters; an effort to explore how transport planning practices, materialized through diverse implementation and operational rearrangement processes, could be linked to social exclusion.
The purpose was to unveil how we actually identify the consequences of transport planning by, first, proposing a different social assessment approach; a methodology that consisted of interviews with various subjects living in areas where transport options could be considered not ideal or even problematic (depending on the case). Thereafter, their own testimonies – their mobility experiences and the conditions of their urban surroundings – were brought together to put into focus those specific socio-spatial elements of a transport and mobility regime that meant an impediment for people to reach other areas of the city, hence meaning a limited set of mobility capabilities to fulfil their needs and desires (value-objects).
Santiago and the rise of a new mobility regime
In 2007, the citizens of Santiago experienced the introduction of a new public transport system, named Transantiago, which was supposed to bring a solution to the chaotic public bus system, which was conceived under the basis of total deregulation during the 80’s dictatorship (plus several attempts to re-regulate the system during the 90’s new democratic era). The new system combined a trunk and feeder network composed by BRT (bus rapid transit) corridors, local bus services and the updated metro network for providing metropolitan connections across Santiago. Yet the ambitious plan had several drawbacks during its first years. In parallel, the central government had a different plan in the works, stimulating the use of cars with the construction of large urban highways connecting the whole city – but not necessarily all of its citizens – as an attempt to improve the city’s diminished mobility infrastructure.
Up to the present day, the public transport system still evokes a negative perception among its users. And although many operational and infrastructural components of the system have improved, the general perception in the peripheral sectors of the city is like if nothing has really changed since the events of 2007. Moreover, the great change in the mobility landscape, brought by the construction of urban highways, adds other complex components into discussion, by fostering private mobility to the detriment of the public system. But how can we tell what is actually failing, also considering the great technical efforts that have been deployed for making both mobility systems more “competitive”?
I decided to take a look at different neighbourhoods in 4 different districts, located in the peripheral ring of Santiago: La Granja, Cerrillos, Conchalí and Peñalolén. These are all areas known to deal with transport problems and are home to large groups of people dealing with social vulnerability issues. After analysing the experiences of the residents, their complaints were not so obvious. By using Sen’s approach and identifying the different functionings – human actions – that were related to the act of mobility, I was able to observe the relations among diverse social and spatial components of the transport fabric that were highlighted by locals as issues they face. What affected people was not only a matter of financial “capabilities” (as might be expected from low-income groups), but instead a complex relations among problems generated at the physical level, in conjunction with the schedule of the available (or absent) transport options, plus their own organizational issues – adjusting their daily tasks to the availability of mobility options. Public transport users did not only have a hard time trying to re-adapt to the new system (even up to nowadays, although it has substantially improved!), but it actually altered their perception of the city, by changing their “access rules” to the city.
On the other hand, people who were able to use a car remarked on the convenience of having one. Yet the experience of owning and using a car is also highlighted as a rather imposed need, even for getting to destinations that are in the range of walking or biking distances.
What I could observe, in general respects, is that mobility conflicts were generated not so much on the larger scale of mobility (or, let’s say, the metropolitan connectivity to the rest of the city). Instead, the troubles occurred at a more local scale, starting with long walking distances and several impediments that were actually generated by the almost inexistent relations among transport interventions (both in infrastructural and operational terms), which finally undermine people’s (mobility) capabilities and their freedom to engage in diverse activities across the city. It is true that most of the interviewees found their way to get to the city’s hubs. However, these were in various cases strictly necessary actions – a limited mobility capacity and a form of social exclusion.
The case of Amsterdam: transport problems solved?
You might consider that the situation of Santiago has nothing to do with what’s going on in Amsterdam nowadays. But what if we look at transport issues in the same manner? I focus my attention on areas of the city which also happen to be located within the peripheral ring of Amsterdam: Geuzenveld, located in the western corner, and Bijlmer in Zuidoost (southeast). In terms of infrastructure, the Amsterdam transport and mobility network is a dense and consolidated system, were the bike is the king of transport modes, both in a symbolic and functional way. However, when the latter is not an option, other issues arise. Again, Sen’s approach was my main tool for analysing people’s narratives.
The Bijlmer area has a good metro and train connectivity to the central hubs of Amsterdam, yet what happens before hopping on the wagon – mobility within the very same district – deserves some attention. The high fares for users that get no subsidy, plus the long walking distances to the metro or train stations and the time involved with waiting for the bus (an average of 10 minutes as highlighted by interviewees), may not be considered an appealing mobility option. Mobility capabilities in this case are not necessarily speaking of a condition of extreme exclusion, as in the Santiago case, but it’s still important to consider the weaknesses of the local mobility system. On the other hand, consider that Bijlmer’s answer to those gaps is known to exist: “illegal” taxi services known as Snorders – something similar to Uber, for you to have an idea – that help people to reach the main train and metro stations, in order to reach the centre of Amsterdam and other locations in the Randstad (the cluster of cities in the western part of the country). Once more, what we see is a problem of scales and unattended links.
Furthermore, the case of Geuzenveld is more explicit in showing what’s been happening lately to transport planning in Amsterdam. The new agenda for GVB – the public transport company of the metropolitan area of Amsterdam – is to become more competitive. As a result, GVB is confronting with a systematic reduction of its budget (36 million euros each year) . The eventual removal of bus line 21, plus the change of some bus stops distanced to 800m (when the average distance was 400m) has raised the attention of residents in the area, which have repeatedly claimed how such changes will affect them. The issues are a particularly sensitive matter for the elderly, one of the largest groups present in the area. Alternatives as the Go-Go cars – the local municipality’s proposal to tackle diminished mobility options within the district – also raised some doubts among the interviewees, not only in financial terms but also with regard to the perception of the service, which is not likely to become a good substitute for buses in the area. Again, the relations among different issues in temporal, organizational, financial and physical terms may result in a different perspective on what actually constitutes mobility problems in the area and the limitation of individual mobility capabilities.
The use of assessment practices as a means to re-think transport planning priorities
Santiago, an emerging transport-planning context – that has progressively consolidated a new institutional order – has the mission to contribute to the city’s rapid urban development. This scenario contrasts with what could be pictured from Amsterdam at the present stage: an already consolidated transport and mobility system. Yet when we take a closer look into the problems that could be triggered from the decisions made in these planning regimes, it is curious (to say the least) to think why these transport planning regimes fail to observe the consequences of their actions. Let’s make clear that the presented observations may not be generalizable, but my efforts to bring an individual approach to these matters is also a way of thinking of other means that have not been fully explored in transport planning practice. Individual experiences, if properly portrayed, may also speak for issues experienced by a whole community.
Urban and transport planning practices are indeed characterized by exhaustive and complex processes, where some models are simply not enough to cope with all the dimensions and consequences that may arise. But it seems we don’t really have the necessary tools for providing such diagnoses. In light of what I have presented so far, the following question arises: is the presented reflection on social exclusion enough to rethink what we may consider appropriate transport-planning practices? The answer is, of course, no. We should not expect that just bringing a systematic assessment of social exclusion should solve the existing and coming challenges of urban transport planning. Yet it is clear that what is used today as the main instruments for designing transport systems – technically oriented models based on the offer and demand of transport– may not be good enough to bring into focus the various dimensions in which transport changes could actually generate more problems than solutions. There is a need for more assessment instruments or methodologies as a means to provide concrete proposals for dealing with these issues. Nevertheless, including new social assessment practices, considering the participation of individuals and their communities, without scaring planners who might find such as “tokenistic or placatory practices”, is also a challenge itself. But, first, we need to make space for the development of these new tools. Certainly, this is no one-man’s task.