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A course correction for transportation thinking

Time spent com­muting is usu­ally con­sid­ered time wasted. At least that’s how trans­porta­tion plan­ners think of it, and it stands true whether you’re stuck in bumper-​​to-​​bumper traffic, soaring through the skies toward a vaca­tion des­ti­na­tion, or walking to the train station and cram­ming shoulder to shoulder in a subway car as it zips across a city. Across the board, activ­i­ties like these are typ­i­cally thought of as an unproductive.

“But how do you mea­sure what’s pro­duc­tive?” asked Tim Cress­well, a pro­fessor of his­tory and inter­na­tional affairs at North­eastern Univer­sity. “Time spent trav­eling is actu­ally full of stuff—it’s full of thinking, it’s full of getting your head together for the working day, it’s full of productivity.”

Cress­well has ded­i­cated much of the past decade to cre­ating a new field called mobility theory, which takes into account new ways of under­standing and exam­ining move­ment. “I’m inter­ested in the way the body moves, as well as the way we move in mechan­i­cally assisted ways, and in the way things move,” he explained.

With $1 mil­lion in funding from the Mobile Lives Forum, a research arm of the French rail com­pany SNCF, Cresswell will build upon his creation of mobility theory. He and an inter­na­tional team of researchers, which will include post-​​doctoral fel­lows at North­eastern, will look to 14 coun­tries across the globe as they ask what is working and what is not working in cur­rent trans­porta­tion and migra­tion strategies. They will also consider what’s being planned for the next 30 years.

The goal, Creswell said, is to rethink trans­porta­tion as an arm of mobility theory, where move­ment par­a­digms such as walking and cycling are as impor­tant as high­ways and sub­ways. Putting this mobility frame on trans­porta­tion will allow for an expanded view of the latter but will also inform a larger global dis­cus­sion around mobility in areas such as policy, health, secu­rity, sus­tain­ability, and social justice.

“Mobility theory refers to ways in which mobility is inter­con­nected across scales,” Cress­well said. Trans­porta­tion plan­ners, migra­tion the­o­rists, demog­ra­phers, health sci­en­tists, and per­for­mance artists are all inter­ested in movement. “But they’re all sep­a­rate,” he said. The new field aims to take these disparate ideas that are developed in silos and bring them together under the same roof and in the same texts.

The research team will begin with Canada and the United Kingdom by studying not only the national and local policies cur­rently in place but also what social entre­pre­neurs and think tanks have in mind for the future.

They’ll also examine issues of envi­ron­mental and social jus­tice and sub­jects of contention. For instance, Cress­well will examine plans to add a second air­port out­side the city of Dakar, Senegal, which include a toll road. The development project is being touted as a boon for the city, as it will cut com­mute times from two hours to 30 minutes. But it will also elim­i­nate the highly vari­able forms of trans­port used on cur­rent roads such as bicy­cles, animals, and foot traffic and will only be available to those who can afford a car. The ques­tion, Cresswell said, requires a deep exam­i­na­tion of not just what is gained, but also what is lost through trans­port projects like this one.

Cress­well is a cul­tural geo­g­ra­pher, and his work has focused on things like place, space, ter­ri­tory, and land­scape. But as the world has become increas­ingly more con­nected and mobile, his inter­ests have also shifted focus. “Mobility hap­pens between and across and within places,” he said. “You have to think about them both together.”

– By Angela Herring

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