Peter Cox’s book “Moving People: Sustainable Transport Development” is unusual for an academic book on transport. Cox is a social scientist with a history of cycling promotion. He does not come from the normal engineering, economics or geography backgrounds of most transport academics.

Moving People coverAlthough the book builds on a common theme in academic transport circles, it goes much further than normal in acknowledging the political nature of transport policy and decisions.

Despite Cox taking care to avoid overt political comments, the political and class aspects of transport policy are very clear themes throughout the book, which is written in a style accessible to general readers, not only for transport professionals or academics.

A significant section of transport academia (exemplified in books such as David Banister’s “Unsustainable Transport”) takes the view that developed world reliance on private cars for passenger transport is socially and environmentally damaging.

Cox takes this argument as his starting point. He adds to it, highlighting the inefficiency of using 80+ horsepower engines to transport 80kg of load. Cox explains car dependence by applying a theory of tools developed by Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich: technology enables humans to perform tasks more effectively, but some technologies enslave the user.

Users’ lives and environment are transformed by the technology and users find it difficult to live without it, even if it is counterproductive (if you include the time taken to earn the money required to buy and run a car, the average speed of a car is 3.7mph).

Cars aren’t an enabling technology as they are exclusive and actually restrict the available options, for example by making walking and cycling less safe and reducing the demand for, and therefore the supply of, public transport. Car users’ mobility is at the expense of everyone’s, particularly the poor’s, quality of life.

The costs of car dependence fall disproportionately on the poor, who benefit least from increased car use (the wealthiest 25% of the population travel four times more by car than the poorest 25%) and who are most likely to be affected by the external costs of car use.

For example, children in deprived areas are much more likely to be victims of car accidents than in other areas, residential areas blighted by busy roads (and the resulting severance, noise and air pollution) are more likely to be inhabited by poorer residents, and the 40% of poorer households without access to a car are most affected by services consolidating and dispersing further away, and the negative impact of car dependence on the modes these households depend on: public transport, walking and cycling.

Car dependence is socially regressive and applies onto society the burden of maintaining mobility benefits for the wealthy.

Cox points out that the developing world, with its low car use and relatively high levels of walking and cycling, already has the sustainable mix of transport modes that the developed world is seeking to attain. However, transport demand is traditionally linked to income, and a key challenge for the developing world is to economically improve while avoiding car dependence. Therefore, Cox focuses the main body of the book on transport in the developing world, seeking examples of how this could be achieved.

Throughout the case studies in South America, Africa and Asia, the political theme runs through the book. A “Western” conception of “development = motorised transport” causes Asian governments to restrict bicycle and rickshaw use, and bicycle use is limited in Sub-Saharan Africa due to western-imported stereotypes against bicycles.

The IMF and World Bank forced deregulation of public transport in south-east Africa, effectively destroying what planned public transport existed, leaving cities with unregulated unsafe minibuses operating in the grey economy and huge congestion problems despite low car use.

The centrepiece of the book is the radical philosophy and practice of Enrico Penalosa, mayor of Bogota, Colombia in the early 2000s. Penalosa declared that transport planning was a political act, and that a city should be designed to be fair and just for all. So transport was focused on ensuring the poor could access jobs and services and on an improved quality of urban environment.

This was achieved through a land-use programme to re-house the poor in more accessible areas of the city, restricting car use (including regular car-free day on all main roads), building dedicated cycleways and footpaths, and through a comprehensive bus rapid transit system, the Trans Mileno.

This has dedicated central bus lanes flanked by cycleways, express bus lanes for overtaking, fare payment before boarding, raised stations, and dedicated feeder bus services with charge-free transfer. Trans Mileno passenger volumes are greater than many developed world light rail systems, at a fraction of the cost.

For Cox, as well as for organisations such as the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP), a comprehensive low cost public transport system, directed at the masses, with an overtly political rationale based on fairness, is one means of achieving sustainable transport.

The other is to encourage non-motorised transport. Cox points out that limited research into bicycle design compared to car design has resulted in bicycle design hardly changing in 100 years, and there is a large untapped potential for bicycles, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cycles function as useful load-carrying vehicles (eg. rickshaws).

They do not need expensive maintenance, spares or paved roads, and can hugely improve service accessibility in remote areas (eg. for health workers to visit patients, or as bicycle ambulances). Cox also discusses the potential of technical developments, such as electric bikes in Asia, and the potential for simple load carrying technologies such as handcarts and wheelbarrows.

This is an extremely enlightening book for anyone looking to understand the politics of transport, and transport in the developing world. It also has relevance for the developed world by demonstrating how mass transport can be provided through low cost, low tech means.