244 |Are transport professionals ready for a future of emergencies?


Can we acknowledge the role of transportation, mobility and access in the proliferation and resolution of a pandemic? Feels like we’re entering an existential state of awareness, where change is urgent: responding to an emerging reality. It will not be relative, or subject to age, race, wealth or creed. Instead, the fundamentals, our health and well-being.

At this point, last night’s Meeting of the Minds session pointed at a reframe: from grand challenges toward “complex emergencies” wherein local governments and city regions need to respond as quickly as they do effectively. People have to respond. 

Climate and health emergencies are becoming more frequent, and we’re in a freedom-from-freedom-to scenario. We know that cities and towns want to be more resilient, but I think many don’t know what for, and where to. 

As part of the UN Habitat Lecture Series, Ron Dembo presented an idea that citizens have a role to play in ensuring resilience—simply based on their behaviour. Oh, that’s 2014. He said: 

“There is a social side to resilience. Here is the 2003 blackout in the West Coast. It essentially brought the economy down to its knees for a few days. Toronto was completely blacked out but the kind of thing that happened, I was there during the blackout, was that we just walked downstairs and started to party with the neighbours. People just out of the blue got onto to the streets and stood at traffic lights, directing traffic. And this happens when the citizens engage. It doesn’t happen in cities where citizens aren’t feeling [that they’re] part of it.”

It is more than just about resilience, and nurturing a social culture that hosts genuine governance efforts that nurture trust, planning, coordination, compliance and cooperation. People feeling engaged, Dembo argues, is a critical part of enabling resilience: 

“…cities with an engaged population are more resilient”. 

Ron Dembo

That is the destination: “government in the drivers seat”; “new forms of democratic legitimacy”, “governance by empathy”; “truth telling and acknowledging the scale of the problem” and many other principles stood out in Phillipp Rode’s presentation.

Fragility in Rode’s mind, and volatility in Dembo’s mind. Risk, managing risk, and preparing for it while confronting the day-to-day issues caught between rising poverty, politics and transport disadvantage. Meanwhile, paratransit operators and the freight transport problems really extend the complexity of managing municipalities effectively. 

These emergencies mirror the speed of consumer demand, urgency for political reform, and economic freedom. Well, survival is equivalent to self-interest. That’s the premise—maximise that utility, not the collective benefit. 

Why 70% alcohol sanitization, social distancing, mask wearing and capacity restrictions in public places, and spaces face fatigue has to do with a life beyond “me”. 

The homoeconomicus, failing the marshmallow test at a collective cost and blissfully unaware continues to replicate the behaviour—exponentially increasing the probability that they’re spreading the virus. 

Pandemic externalities are not only hidden in the billion mask-waste found the oceans—already in June, but also in the cost of lives lost, organisations slipping into liquidation, jobs down the drain. We see unintended negative consequences live, but we do not see the complex interactions which lead to them. 

We just don’t see the industrial revolution’s tide coming to shore in the form of climate change. We don’t see, or understand the impact of microplastics in the placenta—where do they come from? Which industries? How do they get there? The ecological ceiling is upon us, but its limits were already embedded in the idea of externalities. 

As much as our interactions transmit the virus, the logistics of manufacturing and distributing the vaccine would help to mitigate the spread. Everything will be an emergency. Ecommerce will force ferocious acceleration. Mobility-As-A-Service will place upward pressure on driver reaction to passenger requests. Thus, if anything comes, we can spread it faster, and resolve it faster. At what cost? At what benefit?

But we must face it: transport is the ocean in the room. We float, drown or swim—there is no shore. 

Much worse, without a culture of resilience, the next slowly encroaching crisis will pounce on us experienced but unprepared in so many levels. 

We might have to rethink our transport plans, our governance policies and spatial development plans to build more responsive and adaptive ships to navigate the encroaching threats of calamity. This will not only require a change in municipal capacity and appetite for reform, but also a deeper effort to develop people. A step beyond devolution.

People who deliver on the transport and spatial plans, they need to have resilience-building in mind. That is a culture, a more, a habit– seldom by accident.

Thank you for reading.

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