Monday, March 25, 2013

Equity: A muddled discussion awaiting its first theory

Nothing is more attractive to me than a muddled discussion awaiting its first theory.

- E. O. Wilson, Biophilia, Harvard University Press, 1984

polar bears on ice floatAnd if ever there were a "muddled discussion" in the domain of public policy, just about everything we have heard and seen over the last decades under the heading  of "sustainable development" and "sustainable transportation" has to be placed firmly in this category.  Hopes, rhetoric and promises have run higher than high, while concrete achievements and realities have been tragically few and far between.  We are grievously losing the war of sustainability on just about every front you can imagine.  Something has to be very wrong, something fundamental, something structural and something which apparently is not getting the attention it requires.

Against this background the goal of this open group project  is to see if we can, together, make progress toward some kind of unified approach or theory of sustainability on the basis of  one concept which has not gotten much play in the past and which just might help us to cut through all of the confusion, all the muddle, and give us something firmer to build on.  To this end we set out on a wide-open public brainstorming expedition of the challenges of creating a better and more sustainable city transport system, working specifically through the lens of equity. (Note: The idea of equity stresses fairness and equal opportunities, not to be confused with the concept of equality.  But more on all that shortly.)

Once you have established the basic principle, the real work begins. The creation of a competitive, affordable, non-solo-car transport system - remember, we are taking about a better-than-car multi-layer, high-efficiency, high-choice mobility system -- is possible, but it requires effort, brains and fire in your belly to get there. But the final result -- equity - efficiency -- economy -- will well be worth all that hard work it takes to get there.

Over the years, I have learned that when it comes to looking at new ideas, there tend to be two kinds of cities or groups willing to give it a try.  First,  those who are already doing very well and who wish to do better.  In a phrase, cities with a culture of excellence and competence are much more open to new ideas than those who are less competitive.  At the other end of the performance spectrum we have occasion run across  other cities who are willing to break pattern and look at new ideas -- precisely because  it is so patently clear that their present arrangements are not working and need not just to be fixed but to be reinvented.  Working at both ends of the performance spectrum is gratifying.

And then one day, how do you know if you achieved your goal?

And -- this is the bottom line -- you have only to look in one place to see if you have it -- and that is on the streets of your city.  If the mayor, if all public servants, and of most of the top economic 10% of your community travel by the same means as the other 90%, you have an equitable system. If not, well then not! Sometimes life is simple.

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