Cities today are dynamic urban ecosystems with evolving physical, social and technological infrastructures facilitating, regulating and often constraining the free movement of its inhabitants in crucial ways; how urban mobility is managed can both sustain and transform a city’s socio-economic and cultural capital. Individuals residing or working in these metropolitan contexts increasingly rely on acquired movement sensibilities and accessible choices for urban mobility to regulate and enrich their own livelihoods and quality of life, including access to resources and services, everyday safety, exposure to pollution, and civic agency. This is particularly crucial for marginalized and vulnerable populations including children, elderly, disabled, and lower-income communities as well as women, ethnic minorities, and migrants who are often at greater social risk in particular locales or times of day.
Urban Mobility as a Right to the City
Walking, cycling, commuting, ride-sharing and other forms of urban (micro-) mobility can make cities livable and thrive culturally and economically, however I believe that unconstrained, unmanipulated, and affordable mobility, what I characterize here as “free movement” (not unlike the political ethos of Free Software), is crucial to recognize within the notion of “right to the city”. The concept was first proposed by Henri Lefebvre in his book Le Droit à la ville (1968), to reclaim the city as a co-created space and mediate its socio-economic and spatial inequities. Lefebvre bemoaned the effects of capitalism in commodifying urban life, shared governance, and social interactions in the city (Lefebvre 1996, Purcell 2002). David Harvey (2008) has since argued that the right to the city is far more than an individual liberty to access urban resources, but a means for citizens to exercise collective agency in transforming urban space and the processes of urbanization. Harvey suggests that “the freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”
While many social movements in Europe and Latin America have undertaken this concept of right to the city for social justice struggles, they have primarily focused on squatter rights, housing equity, and inclusive use of public spaces. Extending this notion to free movement in the city provides a powerful argument for broader notions of spatial justice, mobility, and renewed access to urban life. Framed within a “right to the city” it can be forcefully leveraged to advocate for fair and affordable access to transportation amenities and mobility alternatives. However, this presumes that citizens have the means (and incentive) to access meaningful information about evolving transportation infrastructure and mobility services, operating scope and costs, and actual patterns of provision and usage across the city. I believe such information access, while nontrivial to provide easily, should be constituted as part of a citizen’s “Digital Rights to the City” (Foth et al. 2015, Shaw & Graham, 2017). How should such digital rights be recognized by cities as forms of public good and leveraged by citizens for civic advocacy? This research project seeks to examine such questions in the context of everyday urban mobilities.
Mediating Digital Rights to the City through Open Data Policies and Platforms
While municipal governments have been slow to adopt digital infrastructure and make their data accessible to citizens, some cities have begun to develop open data initiatives to recast urban data as a public asset in the spirit of transparency and accountability, but more often to incentivize companies to develop technology-based services leveraging such data. On the other hand, municipal authorities have struggled to get tech companies (like AirBnB and Uber) to share data openly with them; a few have begun to create their own data standards or “mobility data specifications” as a way for city governments and companies to share knowledge. For example, the Los Angeles’ Department of Transportation (LADOT) is currently developing its own data standards for “new mobility” options allowing two-way sharingof vehicle mobility in city streets (Marshall 2018).
Several tech start-up companies are trying to address gaps in IT capacity among municipal agencies by developing software platforms for cities to manage and share urban mobility data, such as Remix for New Mobility offered by Remix based in San Francisco and Mobility Manager offered by Populus. The nonprofit initiative SharedStreets, emerging from the World Bank’s Open Transport Partnership, seeks to support public-private collaborations around transport to combine technology, policy and governance standards to help solve issues like street safety, curb use, and congestion. While these platforms have laudable aspirations, they are not designed to directly engage citizens in these urban policy questions; in some cases, selective data from these systems can be exposed through APIs (application programming interfaces) created for specific purposes (like access to traffic or bike sharing data), but still require a great deal of technical proficiency to use. Hence, such urban digital rights are not easily obtained or usable by citizens themselves let alone serve as tools for civic advocacy, co-design or urban transformation, as Lefebvre and Harvey would insist.
Urban-tech startups such as Stae are working closely with cities to create uniform APIs, user interfaces and open data policies to help make such data more accessible and usable both for government agencies and citizen groups. Stae has begun facilitating discussions of civic issues in city neighborhoods from the usage and obstruction of shared bike lanes in New York City, to recognizing and archiving murals as public art in Detroit. Another NY-based firm Coord recently examined the nature of micro-mobility services in Washington DC, by analyzing data they gathered from different companies (Bird, Lime, Lyft, Skip and Spin) that provide electric scooters and dockless bikes for sharing across neighborhoods in DC. In their analysis Coord found that while scooters were deployed in the densest and most affluent areas of the city, including Downtown DC, Georgetown and Dupont Circle, none were available in lower-income neighborhoods on the east side of the Anacostia River (Lazo 2018). This underscores how most urban mobility services, including ride hailing and bike sharing, often bypass a city’s poorest neighborhoods with the communities continuing to be underserved until there is awareness, advocacy and intervention by citizens and city officials demanding fair and equitable access.
With digital rights comes responsibilities and ensuring that the public assets comprising citizen urban mobility data are adequately protected both by private companies and cities that serve as its caretakers. There are currently many fragmented policies emerging among cities regarding data capture, ownership, access and dissemination with little or no oversight from citizen rights groups or any nationwide standardized regulation regarding its use to safeguard privacy, government/corporate surveillance, and commercial exploitation. There are limited means to allows individuals to control the confidentiality of their own urban mobility data; a recent lapse in New York City taxi data inadvertently allowed researchers to un-anonymize data and trace the whereabouts of celebrities (Gayomali 2014). There is an immense risk that unregulated access to such data can be used by governments and companies to deny services, discriminate and in effect manipulate the free movement of citizens in their very own cities.
As part of my ongoing research, I plan to frame key policy concerns and issues regarding urban mobility data in dialogue with a diverse set of stakeholders (primarily in New York City), and through conversations with fellows and researchers at Data & Society. I plan to conduct interviews and consultations with NYCDOT, advocacy groups like Transportation Alternatives, and emerging urban-tech startups such as Stae and Coord. In parallel, I would facilitate a series of workshops (and hackathons) on urban mobilities with researchers, design practitioners, policy advocates from public/private sectors and citizens groups to examine focused case studies, say by examining micro-mobility data and patterns in neighborhoods like Midtown Manhattan. The workshops would allow participants and stakeholders with diverse interests to examine, interrogate and contest these issues to help co-design alternative tools, cooperative data platforms, and speculative policies. I plan to publish the outcomes and critical insights emerging from this research in open access public forums to continue expanding this dialogue.
Lefebvre, Henri (1968). Le droit à la ville. Paris: Anthropos.
Lefebvre, Henri (1996). “The right to the city”, in Kofman, Eleonore; Lebas, Elizabeth, Writings on cities, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 158.
Purcell, Mark (October 2002). “Excavating Lefebvre: The right to the city and its urban politics of the inhabitant”. GeoJournal, Special Issue: Social Transformation, Citizenship, and the Right to the City. Springer. 58 (2–3): 99–108.
Harvey, David (September – October 2008). “The right to the city”. New Left Review. New Left Review. II (53): 23–40.
Foth, Marcus; Brynskov, Martin; Ojala, Timo (2015). Citizen’s Right to the Digital City: Urban Interfaces, Activism, and Placemaking. Singapore: Springer.
Shaw, Joe; Graham, Mark (February 2017). “An Informational Right to the City? Code, Content, Control, and the Urbanization of Information”. Antipode. Wiley Publications.
Marshall, Aarian (September 18, 2018). “Still Smarting from Uber, Cities Wise up About Scooter Data”. Wired. Last accessed on December 17, 2018.
Lazo, Luz (December 15, 2018). “In the move toward personal mobility devices, D.C.’s poorest are left behind — again”. The Washington Post. Last accessed on December 17, 2018.
Gayomali, Chris (October 2, 2014). “NYC Taxi Data Blunder Reveals Which Celebs Don’t Tip–And Who Frequents Strip Clubs”. Fast Company. Last accessed on December 17, 2018.
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