Happy New Year! How have you been? It’s been a while. I hope you didn’t miss me too much.
I certainly missed sending you this fortnightly newsletter on innovations in informal transportation. I think the last letter I sent you was dated August 9—five months ago! What a shocker.
I moved to Chicago in August, and that upturned my usual routine. Skipping a week became all too easy. And now here we are in a new year.
My sincerest apologies.
While I neglected to write you, I have been busy talking up informal transportation. I’ve listed some of those events below if you’re interested.1
It was at one of these events where I first talked about being “less colonialistic” about our transportation solutions. Since then, I’ve been seriously thinking about the idea of “decolonizing transportation.”
The majority of solutions to informal transportation I’ve seen are top-down schemes that come from above. These packaged solutions start with seeing informal transportation systems as problems-to-be-solved rather than assets-to-improve.
That means we rarely start with asking, “How does informal transportation work? How does it benefit people now?”
I have a growing awareness of how the solutions we propose for “solving” these systems rest on modernist concepts of visual order, standardized metrics of efficiency, or Fordist-Taylorist imaginations of hierarchical management.
(The signs are all there. We imagine “good” public transportation services need to look the same: same color, identical vehicles. We set goals on how public transportation should perform based on singular metrics like “travel time saved,” which we usually apply to corridors instead of whole trips. We conceive and plan for big solutions (a BRT network, a tram) rather than incremental change to informal transportation.)
So, I’ve been asking myself, what does it mean to “decolonize” our approach to informal transportation? (Or to all of mobility, for that matter.)
On the one hand, saying we need to “decolonize mobility” feels polemic. On the other, we urgently need new thinking—new approaches and new attempts—to get past the failed schemes to formalize or completely ban these homegrown emergent systems.
I don’t have answers. Yet. But I’d love to have that dialogue with you.
Here’s one of my starting points:
David de la Peña listed down five things design professionals should start thinking about if they want to help decolonize the profession. (David is co-editor of Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity. Yes. We are first cousins.)
first, acknowledging and deconstructing ideologies and practices that favor privileged groups;
second, confronting these longstanding tendencies to appropriate, control, manipulate, or change a community, whether for selfish or altruistic reasons;
third, challenging our own biases and self-interests, and seeking ways that “we, as designers, can humbly interact with and collaborate with existing communities;”
fourth, valorizing local forms of knowledge that come from experience, memory, and cultural practice; (and)
fifth, using this knowledge as the basis for action that situates local actors as decision-makers in that process.
I think we can apply these principles when we consider informal transportation. We can ask:
What are the ideologies that inhabit our urban imaginaries of how “good public transportation” is supposed to look and perform?
Who are the “privileged groups” that we consciously or unconsciously put first?
Who has the power? How will the solutions we are imagining shift power, and to whom?
What are we changing in the community? Who wants the change and why do we want the change?
What are our own unquestioned biases or assumptions about transportation systems?
How are we listening? What questions are we asking?
Who gets to sit at the table when we examine these systems or propose solutions?
These are open questions. They are a place to start.
The questions are tentative, but I believe we need to ask them before we cause more damage.
In the few hours before we dive into the regular work of 2022, I’d appreciate your thoughts.
I’m convinced that informal transportation can be the single greatest lever to decarbonize the urban transport sector, but only if we stop ignoring it and instead learn to celebrate it.
While I neglected writing you, I haven’t let up on pushing informal transportation. Here are a few of the online events I was at:
In September, I was at the Creative Bureaucracy Festival for a virtual panel on Redefining Mobility — from spatial to social
Later that month, I was part of UNDP and Hyundai’s (Dialogue) for Tomorrow: Grassroots innovation and informal transportation.
In October, I was part of MobiliseYourCity and GIZ’s Side-Event at the UN Sustainable Transport Conference. Our session was titled: Integrating informal transport for a just transition to sustainable mobility in the Global South.
Also, in October, I was at the Impact the Future for a breakout session on How to Redefine Mobility - A Driver for the SDGs
In late November, the Global Partnership for Informal Transportation (which I chair) and MobiliseYourCity held the First Informal Transportation Meet & Greet.
(I’ve included some of the available video links below in case you have time to watch a few hours of discussions.)