Thursday, July 23, 2009

Transport Refugees – Victims of unjust transport policies

The term “refugee” if used in the context of transportation would normally be understood to mean “the movement of refugees”. But what we fail to comprehend is that for various reasons it is our own transport systems, and the values and decisions that shape them, that are making many of us “refugees” in our own cities? It does not have to be this way.

- Sudhir Gota and Bert Fabian, Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities

The term “refugee” term if used in the context of transportation would most often be understood to mean “the movement of refugees”. But what we fail to comprehend is that it is our own transport systems which make many of us “refugees” in our own cities.

The social discrimination and exclusion of large groups of people from fair transport in many places creates an unbalance in society which leads to further victimization. The growing externalities of inadequate transport further aggravate the poor quality of life of what is in many places a very large group of people. Not some kind of marginal hence to some trivial minority.

Let us consider the following statistics from the latest report on road safety just out from the World Health Organization : "We are responsible for our future" (click here for article and details of this report on World Streets):
i) 1.27 million people are killed in traffic crashes every year.

ii) In addition, road crashes cause between 20 million and 50 million non-fatal injuries every year and are an important cause of disability.

iii) In low-income countries of South East Asia over 80% of those killed are vulnerable road users (the poor, the weak, the very young, the very old, the disabled).

iv) Outdoor air pollution alone causes an estimated 800,000 deaths each year.
v) 150,000 deaths occurring in low-income countries each year due to climate change

vi) Research on noise pollution is indicating that it causes more deaths than heart disease.

Clearly our present transport arrangements are daily becoming more and more injurious to the health of the people. However despite this visible reality, when it comes to planning transport and investing in the sector we consistently neglect the needs of such people. In fact, we manage to do worse than simply neglect.

Let's take an example: the current debate in India on an “engineering marvel” in Mumbai city – a sea bridge of 4.7Km length costing approx 366 million USD. This bridge is fully “access controlled” and prevents the movement of pedestrians, cyclists, two and three wheelers in the heart of the city.

Instead of making the systems “barrier free and accessible to all”, we in fact treat disadvantaged people as barriers to mobility and thus set out to make the system “free from such barriers”. This is our public policy.

There is something seriously wrong with a system which invests huge resources on physical infrastructure, and which isolates the victims from the beneficiaries and impoverishes them in the process.

This unfortunate trend is duplicated in many other Asian countries which prevent the growth of non motorized transport under the pretext of “fighting congestion”.

Another worrisome trend is the exploitation of land by improving its value by such infrastructure, which makes the poor citizens refugee migrants in their own cities. They are obliged continuously to migrate inside city from one place to another in search of cheaper housing, thereby imposing upon themselves sacrifices of transport , time and quality of life.

Worse, many cities in our poorer countries have transport systems which are “gender insensitive” -- which creates inequalities in the society by preventing the employment accessibility by offering them limited accessibility.

Transport Refugees constitute such people who are often made “invisible” when we plan, execute and finance transport systems.

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For more discussion of transport refugees, click here to

About the authors:
Bert Fabian has worked on transport and environmental issues in the last 10 years and has been with the CAI-Asia Center for 7 years. He enjoys the outdoors and cycling in his spare time.

Sudhir Gota – a former highway designer has abandoned designing roads to work on sustainable transportation issues. He enjoys doing research.

Both are from Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities

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