Silence on Social Justice?

Bristol was chosen for our case study city for three reasons.

First, in practical terms, we needed a medium-sized British city that would allow comparison with our partner cities across Europe – Oslo, Poznan and Utrecht.

Second, it needed to be somewhere with electric mobility policies and projects to study for social justice implications. Bristol has won a number of UK and European bids funding electric mobility infrastructure and services, either specifically or as part of larger transport packages.

Finally, we thought it might be a positive critical case study – somewhere more likely to be an exemplar of social justice in policy making.

Bristol has a history of civic activism and concern for equity and inclusion. It was home not only to the most significant Black Lives Matter protests in the UK, but also the Bristol bus boycott in 1963, when protesters forced the local bus company to change their discriminatory employment policies. It was not only the first local government authority in the UK to declare a climate emergency, but also the first place women were ordained into the Church of England.

In the transport domain, Sustrans, the charity which created and maintains the National Cycle Network and advocates for walking and cycling was founded in Bristol in 1977. More recently, parents in Bristol who wanted to see their children play in the streets in front of their homes without fear of traffic started the charity Playing Out, which helps residents apply for temporary, but regular road closures.

Could we find evidence of that sort of civic spirit in the transition to electric mobility and the policies designed to support it?

Ten recent, urban policy documents were analysed to find out, including transport and climate strategies and a few UK funding bids with electric mobility elements.

We did not find a suitable document specifically covering the successful European bid that funded the REPLICATE project, but thought the social outcomes of that project would surely be mentioned in policy documents that did make our list. REPLICATE included an e-bike loan scheme and new electric car club bays and was specifically targeted at neighbourhoods with more minority groups and less housing or transport capital.

REPLICATE was mentioned in three of our analysed documents, but as an example of successful delivery, without reference to social outcomes or equity nor if local residents were involved in choosing the bay locations or gave their views on driving the shared electric cars.

My analysis of data provided by Co-Wheels, the car club operator that participated in the project, showed that the e-car club bays installed during the project were located in significantly more deprived areas than other car club bays and used by residents of more deprived areas. An academic involved in the project confirmed to me that the locations were purposefully chosen to increase access to shared electric vehicles among low income residents.

Yet whilst the potential of increased access through EV car clubs is highlighted in the UK Go Ultra Low bid (see page 17), the bid cited REPLICATE only for its synergy with the proposed scheme, not for its inclusivity. All three documents mentioning REPLICATE are strangely silent on the project’s social justice implications.

We found a similar silence on another social justice initiative described in just one document: the One City Plan proposes to apply the recommendations of the citizens’ assembly that was just finishing its deliberations as the Plan was published in March 2021. Yet the two documents we could find published after the One City Plan do not mention the citizen’s assembly at all. Will others yet to be published do more?

Meanwhile, as mentioned in my blog, the Future Mobility Zone bid promises co-production and user-centred design, but there is no knowing from the document itself whether the e-mobility aspects of the bid have been or will be implemented in such a socially just way. We have to use other sources to find out.

Thus, whilst Bristol may still be an exemplar of social justice in terms of civic activism and opportunities for genuine participation, potentially even in ways that relate to electric mobility policy, relevant policy documents are strangely silent on the subject and evidence is thus far missing, particularly of recognition justice and the incorporation of diverse knowledge, values, and practices in the transition to electric mobility.

Interviews with stakeholders come next as our search for evidence of Bristol as a positive critical case study in the inclusive transition to electric mobility (ITEM) continues.

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