Paving the way towards mobility justice in Amsterdam

Published: 9 July 2024

Written by Bárbara Oliveira Soares

Amsterdam is renowned for its high cycling rates, with around 35% of all journeys made by bicycle (Gemeente Amsterdam, 2019). Decades of policy and investment have prioritized cycling as a daily mode of travel. Despite its cycling-friendly infrastructure, however, certain groups face barriers that limit their participation in cycling. Disparities in cycling rates are evident across neighbourhoods and socio-demographic groups, including lower rates in districts like Noord, West, and Zuidoost, as well as historically marginalized and vulnerable populations in the city. Some would point to the different spatial and land use characteristics of the neighbourhoods, arguing that residents are farther from their work or school. While this might be true for some households, land use is not the only determinant of cycling rates.

A significant challenge lies in the lack of data on disparities of cycling rates. This absence of detailed data hampers efforts to more fully grasp current obstacles. However, upstream, are the decisions that govern what kind of data to gather, how, when, why, etc. These decisions are rooted in traditions of traffic planning, which are mostly guided by technocratic forms of knowledge production. The type of knowledge that is deemed ‘important’ for transport systems is uneven, spotty, and based on the conventions of commuting, cars, and efficiency. With these guiding principles, the data results in ‘users’ rather than ‘mothers’ and ‘route choice’ rather than ‘route failure.’ To change the way data is gathered, we need to fundamentally address the power relations and decisions being made in the first place. This is an exercise of justice.

There are some efforts to encourage cycling amongst vulnerable populations, such as social programs. At the same time, the city has continued to promote active mobility through initiatives like ‘Amsterdam maakt ruimte’ (Amsterdam Makes Space), which aims to address urban space inequalities by reimagining street design, designating more space for active mobility, and fostering “inclusive” mobility (Gemeente Amsterdam, 2023). 

However, reallocating more space to cycling does not automatically create more inclusive transport systems. This is not enough to more deeply understand the barriers faced by underserved communities and to develop targeted policies and programs to meet the needs of underrepresented, minoritized groups. There is a need for local efforts to be bridged with comprehensive academic insights to ensure that policy interventions are informed by both practical implementation and rigorous research and academic discussions on transportation equity.

Academic discussions on transport equity and mobility justice

Theories on transport justice argue that accessibility, mobility, and transport are not goals in themselves but tools that facilitate activities across various places and times. Simultaneously, they emphasize that there are disparities in access to transportation and the ability to effectively translate that access into actual movement. To comprehend more fully the needs of underrepresented, minoritized groups, academic research on inclusion in transportation suggests that there is a critical need to grasp the exclusionary realities shaped by our current transport systems (Lucas, 2019).

The mobility justice framework provides a lens to understand the complex intersection of mobility, power dynamics, and inequality within transportation systems. It goes beyond mere physical movement, aiming to uncover and address the governance and decision-making dynamics that restrict transportation access for marginalized groups (Sheller, 2018). By identifying these underlying disparities, mobility justice seeks to foster inclusive transportation solutions that benefit all members of society equitably.

Mobility justice integrates several perspectives on justice within mobility (Sheller, 2019):

  • Distributive Justice as an approach to transportation justice aims to make transportation systems accessible to everyone by contributing to the fair and equal allocation of resources which will in turn advance equality and justice.  However, transport planning is typically male-dominated often from the dominant ethnic group. 
  • Deliberative Justice ensures decision-making includes diverse perspectives, promoting active participation and dialogue. Here, the question of who is involved in the planning, design, and decision-making of our transportation and urban infrastructure is addressed. It aims to diversify the deliberation process by expanding participation. However, this approach is constrained by disparities in opportunity to participate. Some individuals have more influence and power, whereas others may feel uncomfortable being involved in the process.
  • Procedural Justice emphasizes the importance of making processes fairer for involving people in deliberation and decision-making. However, it also has limitations, as not all forms of self-expression and communication are equally appreciated.
  • Epistemic Justice seeks to ensure all individuals can access and contribute to knowledge, recognizing diverse worldviews and cultural systems since some cultural perspectives are currently not represented in traditional transportation planning. Take Indigenous worldviews, for example—they often see humans and nature as deeply intertwined. This perspective contrasts with Western views that separate humanity from the environment, hindering efforts to integrate spiritual or future-oriented environmental protection into planning practices.
  • Restorative Justice addresses historical injustices, such as colonization in the Global South which has exacerbated mobility crises. It advocates for reparations in historically exploited and underserved communities to rectify past harms.

Enhancing Participatory Methods in Transport Planning

In the realm of equity planning, the focus has historically been on distributive justice—investing in infrastructure in underserved communities and providing resources like cycling lessons and subsidized bicycles. However, there remains a significant gap in procedural, deliberative, and epistemic justice within current transportation planning frameworks. This gap often excludes marginalized communities from meaningful participation, denying them a voice in decision-making processes and overlooking critical insights derived from their everyday experiences.

Looking ahead, academic research must develop methodologies that actively engage with diverse and vulnerable groups, recognizing their pivotal role in uncovering barriers and exclusionary practices in mobility planning. Participatory action research stands out as a powerful approach, empowering participants not only to share their insights but also to drive tangible change and illuminate the intricacies of mobility issues.

This collaborative method fosters more equitable relationships between researchers and participants, moving beyond traditional hierarchical research models. By embracing these innovative approaches, we can anticipate deeper insights and more impactful outcomes that resonate throughout society. This shift promises to transform how we understand and address mobility challenges, whereby change can occur and be embedded within the communities who historically experience the most challenges within mobility systems.

Expanding Epistemic Justice Through Diverse Knowledge

This demands a broader perspective than what has historically been adopted in transport planning. A fundamental shift in mobility policy is needed, placing social equity at the core. Marginalized individuals should transition from being seen as exceptions to becoming integral starting points in planning processes. To achieve this, it is crucial to engage with diverse communities and gather input directly, to diversify knowledge from those who are most affected by transportation inequities.

At the same time, a study we conducted across 4 different dutch cities on inclusion in cycling, based on interviews with civil servants from four cities, reveals that civil servants struggle to define inclusion, equity, and mobility justice. These terms often remain abstract, requiring more knowledge and clarity for effective implementation. Strategies to address this include enhancing training on inclusion, establishing clearer definitions, hiring diverse staff with lived experiences, and publishing on inclusion and social equity.

Practicing epistemic justice may also include redesigning data collection to better capture the experiences of diverse groups. Opportunities for cross-learning through seminars, symposia, working groups, and excursions are beneficial, but solutions must be tailored to each city’s unique circumstances.

Traditional interest groups, such as the Cyclists’ Union, no longer fully capture the diverse range of experiences related to cycling. To address this, local municipalities must actively seek broader representation in policy and planning initiatives by engaging with a variety of local organizations both within and beyond cycling communities. This includes partnering with groups that represent the diverse populations of the city, particularly those facing significant mobility challenges. By doing so, municipalities can challenge entrenched norms and assumptions about who should participate in shaping transportation policies and infrastructure. 

References:

Gemeente Amsterdam. (2019). Amsterdamse Thermometer van de Bereikbaarheid 2019. In Openresearch.Amsterdam. https://openresearch.amsterdam/nl/page/87828/amsterdamse-thermometer-van-de-bereikbaarheid-2019

Gemeente Amsterdam (2023) Amsterdam maakt ruimte. Geemente Amsterdam. https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/amsterdam-maakt-ruimte/.

Lucas, K. (2019). A new evolution for transport-related social exclusion research? Journal of Transport Geography, 81, 102529. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtrangeo.2019.102529

Sheller, M. (2018). Mobility justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes. Verso Books.

Sheller, M. (2019). From the street to the planet: can mobility justice unite our diverse struggles? [Video]. Mobile Lives Forum. https://forumviesmobiles.org/en/videos/13110/street-planet-can-mobility-justice-unite-our-diverse-struggles

Scroll to Top