Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dialogue: Who is going to take the lead?

Who are going to be the main actors leading the transition to sustainable transportation in and around our cities?

This is not entirely self-evident since there are a fair range of what would seem to be possible candidates. However in order to sort this out, it will be important that we first have a realistic understanding of what has been going on up to now. And to say the least, the news is not good.

When it comes to "sustainable transportation" there is out there a rich world of rhetoric, claims, advertisements, notices, media pieces, announcements of projects and events, that taken together can give one the impression that something important, something even transformative is going on. But when you get down to the harsh reality of what is going on at the level of the street, a very different picture emerges.

The sad fact is that after twenty years of talk, and, it has to be said, a rising crescendo of messages and even actions, the sad news is that every day in just about every city on this planet, traffic is getting worse, the amount of scarce resources consumed continues to escalate, the injustices extended, the basic economics ever less viable, and the environmental cost steadily mounting and edging toward climate meltdown. We are failing to meet the challenge. It would be exceptionally weak-headed of us to be optimistic under these circumstances.

We all know that something must be done and that it should be done without further delay. However it is far less clear who is going to do what under these circumstances. The fact is that despite all of the conferences, reports, talk about treaties, and even pioneering projects and accomplishments here and there, there is a continuing leadership vacuum. Who is going to fill it?

The goal of this week’s open dialogue is to ask you for your views on this. Later we can build on your feedback and ideas in older to develop a broader analysis, but what better way to start than to ask the hundreds of knowledgeable people who check into World Streets every day for their own views.

To get us started on this, you will find your left a small reader poll asking for your views on this. In addition, you will find is always that there is space for comments right below here, and we invite your contributions with real interest.

Here are our candidates. If we missed anyone important, please let us know.

* International organizations
* NGOs
* Scientific/academic community
* National governments
* Industry and private sector
* Cities and local government
* Local associations/transport, environment, etc activists/groups
* The media
* Children, schools
* Foundations
* World Streets
* You – as a citizen, parent

The word is now to you.

The editor

Print this article


  1. This is a big issue in my experience. Dialogue implies that we need lots of players participating, but which ones should lead and also which ones shouldn't lead?

    Some answers might come out of work on other issues. For example in New Zealand the Bioethics council (http://www.bioethics.org.nz/)(now disestablished) was charged with fostering dialogue about such things as the use of human genes in other organisms, xenotransplantation etc. They learned an tremendous amount about dialogue and used a range of techniques to foster it but as they went through the various dialogues they learned a tremendous amount. It was important that they were an independent body - ie not scientists interested in furthering their science or practitioners interested in extending their practice. They engaged a wide range of players very successfully but still they had trouble getting traction from government departments and policy makers who make decisions about the use of these things.

    I guess my point is that it needs not to be decision makers who run dialogues but they do need to be strongly engaged and participating in the process. without this all the dialogue in the world makes little difference to the actual outcomes. Dialogue then is really about fostering social learning across a wide range of perspectives. It is best if those making decisions are not facilitating the processes because this is a difficult situation for them to manage (it may not be seen as fair by other stakeholders).

    They can of course appoint a facilitating body as long as that body sees itself as NOT part of the discussion. Ie that body can only be involved in facilitating the process and recording the outcomes. It cannot have an agenda of its own with regard to the issue.

  2. I thank Eric Britton for structuring this question and inviting comment. It leads to a question: how to engage non-transport oriented actors to be champions of sustainable transportation? Can we bring the agenda of sustainable transport -- promoting walking, cycling, and good public transit -- on the agendas of the major political leaders, the major knowledge producers (univs, media), etc.? If so, with what arguments, what evidence, what benefits for them?

  3. I would like to respond to Eric's excellent formulation of the question, "Who are going to be the main actors leading the transition to sustainable transportation in and around our cities? at World Streets." http://newmobilityagenda.blogspot.com/2009/06/dialogue-who-is-going-to-take-lead.html

    What if we took a 6-sigma approach, and look for the bottlenecks preventing an efficient transition to sustainable transport? I think we would see that there are a group of economic actors who hold the bottleneck. Followed by a gigantic amount of drivers in the world who are very tied to their cars (geographically, psychologically, etc.).

    Neoclassical economics points out that when a new arrangement is more efficient, there are resources available to compensate the groups losing out in that new arrangement. Is that possible here? (Companies and drivers have a -- at least minimally --- reasonable argument that they've taken investment decisions legally toward a car-centric world.) Are there economic efficiencies of a car-few or car-free world that would create possibilities to compensate these "most interested" groups, and so clear the bottlenecks?

    Wouldn't the shareholders of the car-centric companies be interested to hear about these?
    Wouldn't the drivers facing rising fuel and road taxes also be interested?

    Aaron Thomas


Thank you for your comment. You may wish to check back to the original entry from time to time to see if there are reactions to this. If you have questions, send an email to: editor@worldstreets.org