Blog post

Moving Towards Justice

With increasing right-wing fervor over the caravan of Central American migrants headed for the USA’s southern border, we need more than ever to articulate a theory of mobility justice. Here, we present an excerpt from the first chapter of Mimi Sheller’s Mobility Justice, outlining the need for a conception of movement that is focused not only on accessibility, but also equity.

Mimi Sheller31 October 2018

Source: United Nations Photo

The following is an excerpt from Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes by Mimi Sheller, now on sale for 30% off.

What Is Mobility Justice?

Freedom of mobility may be considered a universal human right, yet in practice it exists in relation to class, race, sexuality, gender, and ability exclusions from public space, from national citizenship, from access to resources, and from the means of mobility at all scales. In many ways mobility justice is itself a mobile concept, insofar as it treats justice as an unstable configuration that moves across scales and realms. In this chapter I introduce various theorists of justice who can help us to develop a comprehensive approach to mobility justice. I trace discussions of several philosophical approaches to justice as they relate to transportation (e.g., utilitarian, libertarian, egalitarian, and capabilities approaches); elaborate on various understandings of how justice is put into practice (deliberative, procedural, participatory, etc.); and bring into the conversation the contexts in which these theories and practices of justice have been applied with a special emphasis on transport justice and spatial justice.

However, I argue that most theories of justice have been sedentary, meaning that they treat their object as an ontologically stable or pre-existing thing, which stands still before it is put into motion. In contrast, the new mobilities paradigm enables the development of a mobile ontology which not only tracks the effects of inequalities in mobility across various connected sites and scales, but also shows how justice itself is a mobile assemblage of contingent subjects, enacted contexts, and fleeting moments of practice and political engagement. Justice is not a once-and-for-all state or a series of abstract conditions that must be met, but is a process of emergent relationships in which the interplay of diverse (im)mobilities forms a foundational part. Most importantly, I argue that we cannot look at a single phenomenon like “transportation justice” in isolation. Nor is the concept of “spatial justice” sufficient to encompass all the concerns with mobility that are animating current political struggles.

Instead, we must consider how to combine the struggles for accessibility and bodily freedom of movement, for equitable infrastructures and spatial designs that support rights to movement, for fair and just forms of sustainable transport and ecological urbanism that reduce environmental harms and burdens, and for the equitable global distribution of natural resources and rights to move or dwell. Mobility (in)justices move across all of these fields of action, flowing from one into another, and often folding them all together or ricocheting across them all. Indeed, mobility injustices are not an occurrence that happens after entities “enter” a space (i.e., after travelers get into a vehicle, or people gather on a city street, or migrants enter a new country) but are the process through which unequal spatial conditions and differential subjects are made.

Philosophically, mobility justice is best approached through a mobile ontology that connects multiple scales and performative sites of interaction. Like many theories of justice, it is based upon an egalitarian frame concerned with fairness, equity, and inclusion, but I argue that we must also: a) extend the concept of mobility justice beyond a focus on transportation and beyond a spatial imaginary of the city scale; b) supplement it with feminist, critical race, disabilities, and queer theory perspectives on corporeality, relationality, materiality, and accessibility; and c) also bring in historical time horizons drawing on global Indigenous, non-Western, and postcolonial experiences and theoretical perspectives.

Sedentary theories of justice have not kept pace with social movements that are already cognizant of these kinds of connected scale-jumping relations and more flexible conceptual frameworks. Indigenous people’s recent mobilizations against mega-infrastructure projects such as dams and pipelines across their protected lands, the international Occupy movements against social and economic inequality that began in 2011, the Black Lives Matter movement that began in 2013 against systemic racism (sparked by violence against Black Americans and especially police shootings), the ongoing transnational feminist movements for the rights of women, and earlier mobilizations like the Zapatista movement in Mexico have all demonstrated a rhizomatic form that is both locally rooted and globally mobile. Mobility justice is a way to theorize why such kinopolitical moves are necessary, how they are made, and the ways in which they might be sustained and extended in the face of entrenched neoliberal and neoimperial regimes of racialized mobility management, securitization, and territorialized injustice (e.g., extraction, exclusion, eviction, incarceration, and expulsion).

Crucially, this broader perspective on mobility justice requires more sustained attention to aspects of colonial history and an understanding of the historical formation of contemporary forms and patterns of global im/mobilities. This moves the theory of mobility justice far beyond current approaches to transport justice that have focused on day-to-day policy making around accessibility and infrastructure planning (important though that is), as well as beyond recent ideas of spatial justice that have focused on the city as a specific location, and delimited urban forms. Such nationally based, urban-focused politics of mobility have been too easily co-opted into projects of urban boosterism, “Smart Cities”, “connected mobility”, and gentrification through spatial fixes of the entrepreneurial city.

My hope is that a more robust, multi-dimensional, and historically embedded theory of mobility justice—drawing on deeper and more far-reaching colonial, corporeal, and planetary histories and interrelations—can help us to find ways of combining political efforts and social movements that have heretofore been separated, joining them into a more powerful unified approach. It also points the way forward for an engaged social science that can more vitally help people address current political crises.

It could be argued that mobility justice most closely resembles the concept of transportation justice. The word mobility has even been used recently to simply replace transportation (e.g., “mobility services,” “mobility on demand,” or automobile companies like Ford declaring that they are now “mobility companies”). Alternatively, it could be argued that mobility justice most closely resembles the concept of spatial justice in its breadth and all-encompassing scales. However, I will seek to show how and why mobility justice goes beyond existing ideas of both transport justice and spatial justice, as these frameworks have not developed a mobile ontology and hence are insufficient to the task.

Existing theories of justice and applications of various critical perspectives on justice suggest how we might develop a more comprehensive, supple, flexible, and mobile concept of mobility justice. Grounding my argument in a longer view of colonial, racial, and gendered histories of unequal (im)mobilities, this chapter offers a critique of liberal theories of freedom of mobility, a critical history of colonialism and the colonial management of mobilities, and a recognition of a deeper geoecological planetary perspective on uneven and differential mobilities.

Addressing a far wider range of topics than are usually found in work on either transportation justice or spatial justice, this effort seeks to mobilize theories of justice. I argue that neither a liberal theory of justice nor a distributive approach to accessibility and urban space is sufficient to ensure mobility justice across all the differential bodies, uneven spaces, and entangled scales the closer analysis of which inform the rest of the book.

Beyond Transport Justice

A robust theory of mobility justice first requires understanding the relation between various philosophical approaches to justice. Acknowledging that many arguments in this field lack solid philosophical underpinnings, Anthony Perreira, Tim Schwanen, and David Banister explore the applicability of various theories of justice for thinking about transport. They consider the limitations of utilitarian, libertarian, and intuitionist theories of justice, and then develop an approach combining Rawlsian egalitarianism, based on American philosopher John Rawls’s theory of distributive justice, and Capability Approaches (CA), based on the work of philosophers Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. While valuable in some regards (especially as pertaining to transportation), I suggest that these approaches are still too limited.

Perreira, Schwanen, and Banister draw on the work of political theorists such as Nancy Fraser, William Kymlicka, and Iris Marion Young to define justice

as a broad moral and political ideal that relates to: (1) how benefits and burdens are distributed in society (distributive justice); (2) the fairness of processes and procedures of decision and distribution (procedural justice); and (3) the rights and entitlements which should be recognized and enforced.

This is a useful starting point and can serve as an entry to begin to think about mobility justice. However, it is notable that in their review they admit that they set aside feminist theories of justice, which pay far more attention to questions of recognition, embodiment, and exclusion from deliberative processes (e.g., as found in Young’s and Fraser’s feminist philosophical approaches), and they also set aside questions of “the right to the city,” which pay far more attention to spatial processes. In other words, they narrow the focus to transport alone, and treat all individuals as more or less inhabiting the same bodies.

From a philosophical perspective, the utilitarian view of justice is the one most typically found in transport planning today, which takes the form of cost-benefit analysis (CBA) used to determine transportation investments. Built into CBA is the assumption that transport is about getting from point A to point B as efficiently as possible, and higher earners (and presumably tax payers) have higher priority. This generally leads to greater investment in automobile infrastructure and highways rather than in public transit and walkability, leading to the contemporary pattern of auto mobile dominance. “From a utilitarian perspective,” argue Perreira, Schwanen, and Banister, “the eviction of, say, hundreds of families in order to expand a road would be perfectly acceptable, even if those families were not compensated in an appropriate manner.” Eminent domain has been used for precisely such purposes in the building of urban highways in the USA, for example, which also concentrate air pollutants in poorer neighborhoods inhabited by people of color, and often bypass the transportation needs of such communities while subjecting them to more dangerous road spaces.

When transport is isolated as a matter of efficient movement, it becomes disconnected from the wider meanings of streets, neighborhoods, and communities and thereby ignores the valuation of diverse peoples’ livelihoods, well-being, and health. CBA also presumes that space is an empty background that transportation infrastructure simply moves through. Maximizing the utility of some and sacrificing the space of others is part of the reproduction of power through which unequally mobile subjects are made. As Reid-Musson explains,

Car ownership and lack thereof marks extant divisions of class, gender, citizen-ship, ability, and race in North America [. . .]. Other research has investigated how safe and efficient travel and communications infrastructure are devised with an eye to the security of more privileged groups, providing them with spaces of movement that bypass and bisect the often insecure places where poor and racial-ized people live.

So infrastructures for mobility that ensure the safety, security, efficiency, and comfort of the privileged may shape space in ways that not only prevent others from enjoying the same, but also actively create insecurity and discomfort by bypassing and bisecting these degraded spaces.

The distribution of mobility re-shapes space in ways that build uneven network capital such that the most powerful groups are able to occupy public space (including streets) and dominate political decision-making, while others may be marginalized, unable to assemble, or unable to stay in place because their “benefits” do not count for much and their “costs” are discounted in the aggregate analysis. When excluded and marginalized groups do enter public spaces such as sidewalks, streets, and transport corridors, they often face surveillance and suppression of their mobility, for example through policies that prevent homeless people and “vagabonds” from sitting or lying down, that force “sex workers” into delimited zones for “street-walking,” that push side-walk-vendors out of prime locations, or that empower police to “stop and frisk” people of color.

In contrast to utilitarianism, libertarian approaches to justice are based solely on individual rights and free market–based analytical frameworks. They assume that under ideal conditions, self-regulating markets lead to the most just outcomes. However, this is often found not to be the case, and is especially so in transportation infrastructure, which usually involves some kind of public subsidy, market failures, and non-market processes. Moreover, moral philosopher Michael J. Sandel (whose famous course called “Justice” I took as an undergraduate at Harvard) argues that supposedly “free” contracts may involve large power imbalances such that it is impossible to establish free consent and choice. Decisions over communal goods such as transport cannot be left to the market because those with power will utterly dominate choices, shaping the public realm in ways that prevent subordinate groups from giving free consent. The individualism of libertarian approaches may also lead to the unregulated use of public goods, “aggravating negative externalities, including congestion, air pollution, and traffic accidents,” according to Perreira, Schwanen, and Banister.

Finally, Perreira, Schwanen, and Banister also dismiss intuitionist approaches to justice, associated with the philosopher Robert Nozick. Intuitionism is understood as a pluralist moral doctrine based in relativism, involving a complex balancing between differing senses of justice, such that every decision is context-dependent and ultimately arbitrary. They argue that it is not helpful to simply depend on vaguely felt intuitions in settling transport decisions amid competing moral values, and that we should be able to reach some reasoned agreements as to what is fair.

Perreira, Schwanen, and Banister therefore develop a Rawlsian approach to justice supplemented by a Capability Approach. John Rawls’ highly influential theory of justice, first published in 1971, rests on two fundamental normative principles. First, and having priority, is the principle that “the rules defining individuals’ rights and liberties ought to apply equally to everyone and that individuals should have as much freedom as possible as long as this does not infringe the freedom of others.” Second, the distribution of social goods (such as income, wealth, opportunities, powers, and the bases of self- respect) should “simultaneously (a) derive from a situation of fair equality of opportunity, and (b) work to the benefit of the least advantaged members of society.” According to this “difference principle,” which sought to enshrine fairness, there may exist inequalities of opportunity and arbitrary effects; however, policies should rest on a distributive rule that seeks to maximize the minimum level of primary goods for the least well-off.

They also note the critique of Rawls by advocates of the Capabilities Approach (CA), such as Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. For Sen, the distribution of resources or primary goods should not be an end in itself because it is incapable of recognizing the diversity of human needs and preferences, which concern deeply valued ends and aspirations. The Capabilities Approach takes the position that people’s capacities are shaped by their opportunities, which are in turn shaped by both their internal capabilities and their external environment, including societal structures that might constrain a person’s “functionings.” Thus, CA seeks to ensure the social provision of certain basic capabilities and minimum thresholds. Freedom of movement would be one such capability.

According to Nussbaum, a minimally just society requires that each individual has an entitlement to life, bodily health, bodily integrity, freedom of movement, and political and material control over one’s environment. She describes these as capabilities, and there are many others that could be added to the list. CA has informed concepts such as “occupational justice,” for example, which focuses on bodily capabilities and relates closely to feminist perspectives on justice as a bodily relation, which has often been sidelined in transport justice approaches.

Although Nussbaum’s capabilities approach includes “the capabilities of being able to effectively participate in political decisions that affect one’s life, to move freely from place to place, and having good health,” Perreira, Schwanen, and Banister suggest that when CA is applied to questions of transport justice, the next move is usually to narrow the discussion specifically to questions of “inequalities of transport-related resources, observed daily travel behavior and transport accessibility levels.” Thus, rather than dealing with the full set of human capabilities to take part in moving, assembling, and decision-making, CA is narrowed to a practical question of how transportation access is distributed.

This distracts attention away from broader capabilities associated with freedom of movement, and toward a more delimited distributive approach. When applied to transportation, the notion of distributive justice implies not only the idea of equitable distribution of the means of transport (e.g., car ownership) and equal opportunities for access to mobility (e.g., proximity to transport services), but also the equitable distribution of the risks, benefits, and possible harms associated with mobility infrastructures (e.g., pollution, crashes). From a distributive justice perspective, poor and vulnerable populations are likely to experience not only the most limitations on access to transport, but also the greatest exposure to harm, injury, and death from unjust mobility systems, i.e., negative externalities.

For example, the poor are most likely to be excluded from access to convenient and safe forms of transportation, and suffer the highest rate of pedestrian deaths from motor vehicle collisions. They are exposed to greater air pollution and health impacts of climate change. As gender, age, race, sexuality, and disability restrict movement in many ways, the least “able bodied” face major hurdles in accessing and moving through urban space, being “disabled” by built environments that prevent assisted mobility. There is also an uneven distribution of obesity and obesity-related diseases, which disproportionately affect poorer populations, including Indigenous peoples and disadvantaged immigrant populations. Thus, prevailing notions of “ability,” “fitness,” and “health” are racialized (as well as gendered), leading to accessibility problems with policies that focus only on “active transportation” such as bicycling.

However, transportation systems, and people’s mobility more generally, cannot simply be infinitely expanded. Given the resource constraints on transport (road space, traffic congestion, energy costs) and the conflict between different exercises of “ideal” mobility (safety, pollution, greenhouse gases), it is clear that an extension of maximum mobility and speed to all (i.e., more people having access to cars, airplanes, highways, etc.), would simply increase congestion, greenhouse gases, and other environmental pollution harms. “From a social justice and environmental perspective there are considerable differences between policies that increase people’s actual mobility and those that enhance people’s capability to access desired destinations if they so choose,” point out Perreira, Schwanen, and Banister.

This is why the literature on transport justice focuses instead on accessibility, which “can usefully be conceptualized as the ease with which persons can reach places and opportunities from a given location and be understood as the outcome of the interplay of characteristics of individuals, transport systems, and land use.” Focusing on accessibility helps shift attention away from the idea of simply increasing mobility for all, leading to perpetual growth in movement and the associated problems of pollution and congestion. Problematically, though, accessibility still maintains the idea of a spatial container, focusing on the start and endpoints of such access journeys, such that mobility is seen as a means to an end. In other words, it treats space as merely an empty background for mobile activities, missing out on the ways in which mobility produces space, and the ways in which mobile subjects are relationally produced through their entanglements with each other and with spatial forms. I will return below to this concept of relational movement-space, but want to note here its absence in transportation justice theories.

From Accessibility to Equity

A key example of the focus on accessibility within transportation justice is the work of Karel Martens. In his book Transport Justice: Designing Fair Transport Systems, Martens argues for moving away from the focus on efficient movement in transport planning and toward a focus on the distribution of accessibility. Unlike Perreira, Schwanen, and Banister, Martens draws on Ronald Dworkin’s liberal political theory of justice, and concludes that a basic sufficient principle of justice is that “A fair transportation system is a system that provides accessibility to (virtually) all.” Martens uses this principle to develop a measure of accessibility (based on data from Amsterdam plotting ease of movement against accessibility of jobs within thirty minutes’ travel time from home).

This accessibility plot can be marked by a threshold (which is a matter of political deliberation) showing those who are in the domain of “sufficient accessibility,” and those who are below the bar, in the domain of insufficient accessibility. Martens then argues that transport improvements within the domain of sufficiency should be self-financing, whereas in the domain of insufficiency, government subsidies and investments should be pursued to help lift people above the threshold. Thus he combines a kind of free market liberalism at the top end of the social hierarchy, and a state subsidized egalitarianism at the bottom end.

This leads Martens to declare three rules of people-centered transport planning: 1. Start from the people, not the system; 2. Do not assess transport interventions based on their efficiency, but in terms of their effectiveness in bringing people above the minimum threshold of accessibility (i.e., aiming for fairness in access rather than speed); and 3. Do not finance transport through car-based forms of taxation, but instead create income-based accessibility insurance schemes. These are valuable suggestions for guiding urban transport planning within the current system of European social democracies.

However, Martens assumes a rather benevolent, sensible, equity-promoting government; sets aside issues of participation in decision-making and the deliberative aspects of justice, which may exclude women, ethnic minorities, and the disabled; and presumes that changes in mobility systems will not change the urban spatial form itself, nor disrupt existing social hierarchies, nor transform relations to global sites of resource and energy extraction. This leads him to a rather limited focus on the role of urban design and policymaking, rather than questioning how superficially “fair” access to transport might be based on, and reproduce, unequal power, if it does not recognize the underlying wider politics of uneven mobilities.

Not only does this raise the question of the political viability of such a scheme in a less enlightened political arena (such as the United States, where automobility and the fossil fuel industry continue to dominate most transport planning), but it also leaves unanswered some basic philosophical questions about the ways in which mobility is deeply connected to ideas of freedom, individualism, and liberalism, ideas that have historically shaped and structured uneven spatial relations within a mobile ontology.

I propose that a wider lens of mobility justice calls for recognition, participation, deliberation, and procedural fairness to be up for discussion, adjustment, and repair. It also demands going beyond the sedentary ontology of most theories of justice, which take for granted space as background. Beyond access to transport, we need to understand the ways in which uneven mobilities produce differentially enabled (or disabled) subjects and differentially enabling (or disabling) spaces. We need a kinopolitical lens on the interdependent production of mobility spaces and (im)mobile subjects.

Transport justice, like other distributive theories of justice, presumes that there is a pre-existing space in which goods are distributed, or in which procedural justice occurs or entitlements are enforced, rather than presuming that space itself is up for grabs. Mobility justice, in contrast, built on a mobile ontology, suggests that political claims to access and goods (such as vehicles, transport, and accessibility) re-make spaces and subjects; it brings into play historical bodily relations, ecological relations, and wider global relations that inform the political arena.

Various scholars have deconstructed the problematic basis of liberal notions of unfettered mobility, ever-increasing speed, and, in general, the framing of movement as freedom, showing how meanings, symbols, and metaphors of movement, mobility, and travel are used in ways that obscure key differences of power between nationalities, classes, races, and genders. Critics of distributive justice note that some forms of increased mobility participation can amount to barriers to other activities—i.e., building infrastructure for efficient automobility may limit pedestrian and bicycle access. Distributive justice is therefore insufficient to address mobility injustices.

While the shift toward a focus on accessibility goes some way to addressing this problem, transport justice nevertheless also requires deliberation over substantive values to determine what activities should be protected (such as funding for widening physical access to public transport systems), which activities should be reduced (such as free parking or subsidies for automobiles and highways, or more widely questioning the use of fossil fuels), and who should decide.

Deliberation over transport justice is therefore not simply about expanding mobility or even accessibility but must also concern itself with the cultural meanings and hierarchies surrounding various means of and infrastructures for mobility, including their valuation and who determines this value. In fact, it calls into question what constitutes relevant facts and meanings—i.e., are we deliberating over mobility, or health, or racial justice, or ecological well-being, and who decides? And even more radically, it would need to take into account how (im)mobilities shape space, subjects, and bodily differences in the first place.

This has been excerpted from Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes by Mimi Sheller, now on sale for 30% off.