Academic Reflection

Why is efficiency more important to us than justice?

In the not so very distant past, streets were seen differently than nowadays. Motorized transportation changed our streets, our language and created different type of jobs. All for the benefit to move people and goods fast from A to B, while in the meantime forgetting what we used the streets for in the first place. It is time to shift focus and challenge the dominant mobility narrative.

a person walking in a foggy area

100 years ago, our streets were places where a large variety of different activities took place. Until the early 1920s, streets were seen as ‘the remaining spaces between buildings’ and as such developed together our cities. A complex interplay of balancing feedback loops resulted in all kinds of different usage that differed over time and across space: trading, meeting, playing and mobility all mixed. But when the mass-produced motorized automobile entered these streets in the 1920s, this collided -literally- with the existing users.


When in theUS large numbers of children died under the emergence of this innovation, society at large first discussed this in terms of justice. In this framing, the intrinsic innocence of children was not disputed, and their suffering was seen as unjust and therefore unacceptable. With small steps, the focus of the debate slowly shifted. When calls were made to change our cities into Modern Cities in which the personal automobile would play a central role, the frame of our streets needed to be changed. Traffic engineering was founded on the alternative frames of efficiency, control and the freedom of individual drivers. The notion that our streets needed to serve drivers in getting efficiently from A to B over time solidified into guidelines, norms, models. It solidified into institutes, rules and laws. And it solidified into concrete, asphalt and steel.


Now, we take it for granted that we hear every half an hour on every radio station that the efficiency of the system is hampered. Congestion still easily gets 350 minutes of free airtime per station per week: there is not a single problem in the world that receives as much of our attention. Large public funds are spent to ‘save travel time’ for individuals. Those time savings never materialize, because we use the increased efficiency to travel further at the same time. In this frame, traffic crashes are presented as glitches in the machine instead of human tragedies. Just like our farmland, our streets have become monocultures, and all other activities were relegated to the fringes. Children can no longer play on their streets but must go to gated playgrounds or stay inside.


What if? What if we challenge the efficiency narrative and refocus on justice? It is not easy, precisely because it has strongly solidified in the past decades. But it is possible. Maybe even necessary if we want to solve many of the manifested problems with the mobility system. But how many mobility innovations focus on justice? And how can we change that. We explore this here with Edvard Hendriksen of Over Morgen, discuss how we launched a Manifest for Just Streets and present relevant reading.


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There is an urgent need to rethink our thinking about mobility. The current expectations on mobility innovations are often rooted in the advances in digital technology and are generally greeted with eager optimism. Unfortunately what is often overlooked are the unmet needs of humans and our planet. The Lab of Thought attempts to explain mobility from this standpoint, so we as individuals and as societies lessen our impact on the planet, now and in the future.