A plurality of policy processes and a pluralist perspective on social justice

Over the last five months, we have interviewed 13 policy-makers and others involved in the policy-making process in Bristol, the West of England, UK.

We have heard about the ideas, evolution and implementation of policies for not only electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, but also the e-scooter trial, e-car clubs, the Clean Air Zone and accompanying grants and incentives, and to a lesser extent the integration of electric modes into public realm and neighbourhood improvements, e-bicycles, e-freight options, and the electrification of public transport.

We have coded, analysed and summarised the interviews, identifying not only the extensive consideration given to distributional justice issues such as accessibility and affordability, but also the greater recognition of diverse needs spatially and socio-demographically. Compared to the policy documents analysed last summer, the increased prominence of recognition justice may be attributed to more participatory approaches in procedural justice terms than was apparent in the published narratives. Our interviewees could and did describe their in-depth engagement with local residents and the establishment of diverse working groups that could inform policy.

All of them, however, local and national policy-makers, shared mobility operators, civic society representatives and experts, still raised concerns about the inclusivity and fairness of electric mobility policies. They asked what policymakers could realistically do to make electric vehicles more affordable to purchase; whether the necessities of commercial viability limited their ability to provide services to certain groups in certain neighbourhoods; and whether limited local government resources and capabilities could be allocated fairly given external constraints.

However, there were clear indications that local capabilities (even if not resources) had grown over the years through learning from both other places and from local people, tapping into national and academic expertise, and gaining professional experience.

On the other hand, our interviewees who were involved in public electric vehicle charging knew little about the e-scooter trial, and those involved in administering the Clean Air Zone did not work directly with operators implementing e-car clubs or expanding other shared mobility. This siloed approach may be limiting the potential for policymakers and operators to make the transition to electric mobility more socially just. Our research suggests it is already limiting their understanding of how just (or not) the transition is in Bristol at the moment and in what ways.

By jointly considering multiple major electric mobility policies and policy processes, the ITEM project is developing a more holistic understanding of how these policies and processes involve different groups, meet diverse needs and variably affect experiences of mobility and public space in and around Bristol. In other words, the research assesses the implications of a plurality of electric mobility processes for the multiple dimensions of social justice in our pluralist perspective.

By comparing the policy approaches and the dynamics of the transition to electric mobility across our four, medium-sized, case study cities in Europe, each at different stages in that transition, the ITEM project is also investigating how real and perceived constraints to accelerating a more inclusive transition can change and be addressed over time. That, however, is a topic for another blog.

Recognising Recognition Justice

I am working on a major research project called ITEM: Inclusive Transition to Electric Mobility, where we review who uses electric mobility alongside whether the policies that are supposed to support us all to switch from fossil-fuel powered transport to electric options are socially just.

Now that we’ve had workshops with stakeholders in all four cities where we are conducting our research, it is clear that what we call the recognition aspect of social justice is the one least recognised.

In transport policy-making, distributional justice is usually part of appraising the problem and implementing solutions. Decision-makers often ask who living where suffers from local air pollution or who benefits from a new electric charging station or shared e-bike service. They might even ask whether it’s the same ‘who’.

Procedural justice is also fairly straightforward. Who participates in what gets done in a city and how meaningful is that participation? Officials working at various levels of government may not always involve other sectors and citizens as much as they could or would like to. They may not quite know how to make participation more meaningful, but they get the idea.

But recognition justice? Our participants hadn’t heard of it.

We all explained that it’s about recognising that different people need, want, value or expect different things at different times and for different purposes. And our participants understood, but rarely consider it explicitly. In fact, we could find questions about recognition justice in all our workshops – our participants just didn’t call it that.

Back in our first workshop in Bristol, there was a discussion about who used electric car clubs, for what purposes, and whether they were getting the service they actually wanted and expected. Could these shared vehicles meet the needs of both those who could not afford a car, particularly not an electric one, as well as those who could afford multiple cars, but wanted to reduce their car ownership? These are questions of recognition justice.

At the second workshop in Poznan, Poland, participants spoke not just about users of electric mobility, but also related industries. They considered how there would be automotive workers who needed re-training and other support. They asked how the experience of groups like these would fit with the promotion of environmental values and acceptance of regulations to encourage electric mobility. These are questions of recognition justice.

In Utrecht, the Netherlands, the participants wondered how to manage the rights to and use of public space when users of e-scooters or electric cars, for example, might expect to use that space differently than those on pedal bikes or parking a conventional vehicle. They asked how conflicts between users could be avoided to ensure no one felt excluded from the public spaces where they felt they had a right to be. These are questions of recognition justice.

In the Norwegian workshop, the participants noted that although electric cars are now easy to use around Oslo, that might not mean they are equally easy for everyone. They asked whether charging services, with their assorted infrastructure, pricing, and payment mechanisms (e.g. apps), were what all users might want and understand, or whether they could be seen as neither inclusive nor fair. These are questions of recognition justice.

So many questions of recognition justice, just as there are so many different needs, wants, values, rights and understandings to recognise. Our participants recognise that there are these differences, but may not yet have considered how to find out the detail of what they are and who holds them. As this project progresses, we will be seeking answers, and opening up yet another aspect of justice – ‘epistemic’ or that related to the creation and incorporation of knowledge.