Transport in Latin American Cities: Necessary, Materialized, Politicized

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On May 15, 2017, the Oxford Urbanists held a debate titled Justice, Equity, and Transportation in Latin American Cities, in partnership with the Oxford University Latin America Society. Dr. Nihan Akyelken, a participant, reflects on the discussion. 

Transport interventions are seen as vital drivers of economic development in the Global South. However, the social justice implications of transport projects are complex and often poorly understood. The panel discussion that focused on justice, equity, and transport, organised by the Oxford Urbanists and the Oxford Latin American Society, provided refreshing insights into the topic by drawing on the examples of transport projects and mobility practices in Latin American cities. The speakers - Rafael Pereira, Juan Manuel del Nido, and Jorge Perez Jaramillo - gave excellent presentations of their current work on the equity implications of transport.

Policymakers have shared a longstanding belief in a direct and casual relation between investment in transport infrastructure and economic gains through growth and employment. They have generally assumed that transport projects will have eventual ‘trickle-down’ social benefits for all social groups. Rafael offered a critical perspective on this belief through recent findings of his research on the distribution of accessibility benefits of transport investments in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He also presented an overview of different philosophical underpinnings of distributive justice and transport. If you want to know more about the theoretical basis of his work, read Rafael’s paper in the Transport Reviews!

It is generally assumed that transport projects will have eventual ‘trickle-down’ social benefits for all social groups.

Juan discussed his work on the equity implications of changing spaces of work as a result of emerging mobility innovations, such as Uber, a taxi-like ride-sharing service. He shared novel insights into informality and materiality in urban transport through the case of taxi drivers in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He also pointed out critical issues regarding fairness and rights by drawing attention to various levels of interactions within the industry.

Following the first two presentations on policy and employment perspectives, Jorge provided a narrative of his experience helping design the “City of Life” urban planning strategy for Medellín, Colombia. He shared thoughtful analysis of the interdependence of the initial conditions of the city, which is very segregated, and how controversial policies, such as metro investments, faced implementation issues when seeking to use transport as a tool for building communities.

All speakers stressed that infrastructure should not be recognized as an end in itself.

Infrastructure constituted the crosscutting theme across the three presentations. All speakers stressed that infrastructure should not be recognised as an end in itself. They all convincingly argued that the benefits of politically-popular transport projects and innovative practices are not necessarily beneficial for all segments of society and social well-being in general. The importance of the politicized nature of transport and the multi-dimensionality of justice issues it entails were also evident throughout. We closed the discussion by highlighting the importance of attention to broader and structural inequalities when identifying and addressing transport-related social justice issues.  

Dr. Nihan Akyelken joined Oxford as a Research Fellow at the Transport Studies Unit in the School of Geography and the Environment in 2008. Previously, she worked at LSE’s Public Policy Group. She is the winner of the 2015 OECD-ITF Young Researcher of the Year Award and was recognised as a World Social Science Fellow in Sustainable Urbanisation by the International Social Science Council in 2014. See her research profile here.