Critical Transport Scholarship

Critical Transport is apparently on the rise, based on sessions at AAG this month in Los Angeles, articles by transport geographers in the UK and organizing among students in New York City (an unapologetic self promotion). But what does Critical mean in relation to transport scholarship? Here are several thoughts:

Critical Moment for Transport: Critical, as used in the medical terminology, refers to patients approaching a state of crisis. With almost all transit agencies in the U.S. operating under a state of permanent funding deficits it seems that our urban transit systems are not just approaching, but have reached (some time ago) a state of perpetual crisis. Although perhaps more acute in mass transit, the funding crisis extends to highways and other transport infrastructure as well. With dwindling revenues from the national gas tax resulting in less funds for maintenance, automobile infrastructure is also in a state of crisis as evident in ASCE’s 2013 report.

Critical Orientation toward Transport: In the philosophical lingua, Critical refers to criticism or questioning the assumptions that underlie current understandings and looking for the proverbial wizard behind the curtain. In a less extreme manner, it involves using judicious evaluation, variant readings and scholarly emendations to assess reality. Some scholars have recently begun approaching transport from a position that challenges the dominance of econometric and engineering based analytic frames. The move mirrors trends that took place in urban planning during the 1970’s, as the rational comprehensive model was battered by a post-positive science movement that questioned technical neutrality, emphasized the influence of power and expanded notions of expertise. Has post-positivism finally come to transport?

Critical Mass  for Transport change: The two aspects of Critical outlined above have assisted in the emergence of a growing mass of scholars, practitioners and citizens dissatisfied with transport planning and implementation; perhaps a large and diverse enough group to sustain a chain reaction. Realizing that the transport infrastructure we have is not serving the needs of society, a movement seems afoot to produce an alternative vision and approach for the future. Dissatisfaction emanates from along the political and social spectrum, indicating a type of census in favor of change – albeit what type of change remains hotly contested.

Critical Transport Scholarship is not new. Indeed, over the past 40 years scholars in many fields have taken shots at transport planning, policies and implementation, albeit in a fractured, haphazard manner. Without a community to turn to for support, these scholars have made relatively minor dents in the veneer of the transportation-industrial complex. Is the time right to take the movement to the next level? Follow the Center for Critical Transport Studies as we advance a new agenda in transport scholarship…or at least have fun trying!