Moving people

Author(s) Peter Cox
Publisher Zed Books (London and New York: 2010), published in South Africa by UCT Press
Year 2010

Although published in 2010, Peter Cox’s Moving People: Sustainable Transport Development remains a useful and rewarding read in 2014, despite the rapid growth and constant evolution of sustainable transport in both the rich and the poor worlds.

The great advantage of Moving People is in single authorship, which allows for a consistency of style and a richness of cross-referencing that allows for a planet’s worth of data and case studies to coalesce into a memorable and human-scaled narrative.

And that narrative, as the title makes plain, describes the shift in thinking about transport from planning for the movement of vehicles to planning for the movement of people. Cox shows, through a shrewd selection of case studies, how the superannuated 20th-century paradigm that equates modernity with motorisation is yielding, fitfully and unevenly, to one of mixed mobilities, in which mobility itself shifts from being an individual freedom to a public good.

Through chapters with such forthright titles as ‘The problem of car dominance,’ Cox examines the legacy of the private petroleum-fuelled internal combustion engine’s displacement of all other forms of mobility as an aspiration and as the favoured mode of most governments and the policy and regulatory regimes they maintain.

Cox sheds new light on the petroleum automobile’s extensive list of consequences for the urban environment and for local movement networks. He succeeds in ‘making strange’ the levels of particulate emissions and the congestion which most people living in a modern urban environments today accept as being the nature of urbanisation itself. For Cox, congestion, pollution, exclusion and marginalisation are neither natural to the city nor acceptable tradeoffs for the opportunities of urban life. Instead, these are the outcomes of automobility as a ‘socially-constructed technology’ that connotes power and achievement for mobility elites. Cox is persuasive in his illustration of the pollution and mobility gradients that distance the rich from the poor, not only internationally but intranationally, resulting in ‘hyper- and hypomobility’ as the distortions they work on societies both rich and poor.

In a chapter titled ‘The city as a system: transport as network’ Cox lays out the alternative to petrol automobile-only thinking with concision and clarity, demonstrating the gains that stand to be made by cities that choose to contemplate the movement needs of their inhabitants as something to be managed on the demand side as well as the supply side, and as a primary driver of urban form, rather than a set of discrete solutions after the fact.

Analysis of the usual stars of transport reinvention in mid-size major cities, especially Bogotá, is complemented by a single account of the different problems experienced at the scale of the mega-city, in this case Delhi. However, in the entire chapter devoted to Delhi’s wrenching congestion challenges and its successive attempts at piecemeal solutions to these, there is not a single map. Indeed, Moving People has no images whatsoever. While this doubtless contributes to the admirable brevity and compactness of the text, this editorial decision necessarily robs Cox’s work of the force that might be gained from a visual analysis of the often very small particularities that can make the difference between success and failure in transport planning.

Nevertheless, Moving People maintains a strict discipline in scale and focus, augmenting the fact of its discussion of Delhi alone with references to other megacities, such as Lagos and Shanghai, which will likewise play a preponderant role in the mobility of the regions they dominate.

Throughout Cox’s work, he is at pains to point out that transport planning has irretrievably turned a corner from a scenario in which rich countries helped poor countries to motorise, to one in which practitioners admit that “the greatest changes in transport need to occur in the nations of the global North. The greatest changes are currently happening in the global South. Tensions arise between the desire to achieve the same status as the global North from the replication of their patterns and the desire to achieve something entirely different.”

This tension animates Moving People, and provides a valuable perspective to case studies like the remarkable expansion of cycling in sub-Saharan Africa, to which Cox devotes considerable attention. In South Africa, for example, successive post-1994 administrations have acknowledged cycling as a mobility mode capable of achieving several national objectives at once, and donors, mostly from the rich world’s leading cycling nations or regions, have been able to achieve outcomes here that would be difficult in more car-centric rich societies.

It is in these fields, however, that the age of the book begins to make itself felt. London and New York, the dominant centres of two of the most car-centric societies in the rich world, have made historically unprecedented shifts towards mixed mobility and acted in favour of non-motorised transport since Moving People appeared. Bus Rapid Transit has made huge strides. At the same time, the construction of high-speed rail lines as a serious alternative to motorway and even air travel between cities and within city-regions continues apace in China and Britain, and is under serious consideration in California. Yet within the confines of his 260 pages, Cox barely considers high-speed rail and devotes very little space to rail transit in general, while treating thoroughly the dynamics of rickshaws, bicycles, walking and BRT.

While these factors somewhat subtract from the freshness of Cox’s analysis, Moving People’s core arguments have only been proven right by subsequent events which have made the costs of oil dependence starker — we no longer speak of Peak Oil but the costs of fracking. In addition, the great rising tide of pro-NMT and public transport interventions across the world and South Africa bear out, in their respective successes and failures, much of what Cox has to say.

There can be no better blurb for Moving People than the quotation from the magisterial Ivan Illich’s Energy and Equity, with which Cox closes this book. This short, but readable and wise book ably shows that the future of transport planning presents “two roads from where we are to technological maturity: one is the road of liberation from affluence; the other is the road of liberation from dependence. Both roads have the same destination: the social restructuring of space that offers to each person the constantly renewed experience that the centre of the world is where (s)he stands, walks, lives.”

Brett studied French and Politics at Rhodes University before moving to take up Architecture. After work experience for Cape Town-based architectural practices and a London-based newspaper for expatriate South Africans, he became involved with, an urbanism think tank. Brett’s love of commuter cycling and urbanism has led him to a Master’s in City and Regional Planning at UCT, which he hopes to complete in 2015.

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