Public transport should be a priority of urban planning that focuses on affordable cities for all, argues Christopher Dekki.
For some time now, a variety of learned men and women, well-respected commentators on current events, have been warning us that we have entered a second Gilded Age. This description of the contemporary era is nothing short of an indictment of the trajectory of current economic and political models. This is because the first Gilded Age – a period of United States history that stretched from the late nineteenth century into the early twentieth – was characterised by intense economic growth, coupled with a high concentration of wealth that saw oligarchs rise in core US industries, like railroads, oil, and steel. Saturation of wealth at the top resulted in excessive inequality, with many in the country living in abject poverty while the oligarchy continued to expand its domination of the economy and politics. This second Gilded Age seems to have a great deal in common with the first, except, the great oligarchs of today have access to an entire planet of potential wealth and influence. No longer are they confined to the borders of single countries (and their colonies), but to an entire world, almost free of financial restraint. While the economic crashes of the 2000s laid bare the problems of neoliberal globalisation, there has been little effort to affect change. As a result, the Gilded Age continues into the 2020s – against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing environmental degradation and geopolitical conflict.
Almost on cue, the celebrities of the day recently partook in a Met Gala that celebrated the fashions of the first Gilded Age, as if to announce that history is repeating itself. And right outside that fabulous, glamourous event in New York, is a city that is drowning in increasing costs on every front, all while the rich continue to become astronomically richer. If anything, cities like New York are mannequins, symbols of where the world stands – with inequality on full display in stark hyperrealism. So, it is therefore in cities where solutions can best be crafted to begin to overcome the excesses of the Gilded Age. At their disposal, governments have a plethora of tools that support the provision of key social services and protections in a wide range of policy spheres, a central one being transport.
Transport Powering [Better] Urban Lives and Livelihoods People everywhere depend on transport and mobility systems to not only move from point A to point B, but to access economic opportunities, healthcare, food, services, and so much more. For this reason, transport systems can either make or break the liveability and affordability of cities. Governments can learn a great deal from Chile, where in 2019, a small public transport fare increase sparked nationwide protests that eventually lead to the election of a new government. While the hike in cost was simply the spark that incited a movement against wider austerity, the reverse can also be true: increased funding and support to public transport systems can be catalysts for enhanced equality and greater investments in all public services.
In so many cities, many people are forced to travel for hours to go to work (often at low-paying jobs), because living in or close to city centres is untenable and expensive. Women are especially affected by this, only further exacerbating gender inequality and poverty. While doing more on housing is an important step, efforts can also be made to increase connectivity in metropolitan areas. Transit deserts are a growing problem globally, including in developed countries like the United States, where working-class people embark on multi-modal, complex journeys of nearly two hours each way to earn, in many cases, a barely living wage.
Cities must work together with regional and national governments to expand public transport services and ensure affordability. Train and bus services, where available, should reach more communities, not only affluent ones. Where there is little to no public transport infrastructure, cities must engage informal transport providers to guarantee that services are safe and adequate, and costs are low. Very often, governments give little attention to this mode, even though in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, up to 80 per cent of the population relies exclusively on informal transport services for their mobility needs. In South Africa for example, while overall investments in transport are already low, national budgets do not give proper attention to the needs of the poor. While 66.4 per cent of riders use informal minibus taxis, the state only allocates 1 per cent of subsidies and support.
In addition, where possible, cities should also support active mobility infrastructure. Walking and cycling, while a fun and healthy choice for people of means in city centres, are often a dangerous reality for poor people throughout the world. Car-driven urban planning has resulted in road systems that give little attention to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists. For this reason, cities must ensure that when people walk or cycle, they are able to do so safely and comfortably. Sidewalks should not only exist but be well maintained and protected from motor vehicles. Trees and other forms of urban greenery should be planted for shade and to make trips even more pleasant, possibly even encouraging motorists to ditch their cars for a bike.
Making Moves Towards Increased Equity The Gilded Age is not going to end itself. If we want to usher in a new era of equity and equality, then governments must act now. Helping people get around safely, easily, and affordably can begin a wider process of meaningfully investing in public services that can alleviate poverty and overcome the ever-increasing costs of living in cities. More and more, cities seem to be becoming exclusive playgrounds for elites. If we ever hope to change this, then we are going to have to make moves – moves that prioritise the poor over the rich, marginalised groups over those with means, and the greater good over Gilded Age excess.
Article republished from Urbanet.info - by Christopher Dekki -