A Transdisciplinary Inquiry Into Sustainable Automobility Transitions: The Case of an Urban Enclave in Cape Town

A Transdisciplinary Inquiry Into Sustainable Automobility Transitions: The Case of an Urban Enclave in Cape Town

Elizabeth Henshilwood (University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa), Mark Swilling (University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa) and Marjorie L. Naidoo (University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 25
DOI: 10.4018/IJEPR.2019070102


The over-reliance on private cars carries significant environmental and societal costs. International accords call for low-carbon automobility transitions, particularly in cities. Understanding how, why and where this global dependency could shift is crucial for sustainability, natural resource use, and climate change. This research hones into a geographically isolated and automobile-dependent enclave in Cape Town. Various social actors and residents contributed to a collaborative transdisciplinary inquiry. The qualitative research relied on documentation, semi-structured interviews, and social media research (Facebook) as sources of evidence. The latter method enticed residents to contribute to a solution-driven online debate, thereby aiding e-participation around a pressing urban issue. True to the essence of transdisciplinary design research, science was produced with society. In terms of sustainability transition theory, it stresses the importance of contextually appropriate low-carbon transitions (science) while highlighting community interest in bottom-up solutions (society).
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A century’s reliance on the private vehicle as a dominant transport mode has led to a self-mutating ‘system of automobility’; a global socio-technical system with many interconnected components and actors (Urry, 2004, pp. 26-27). Current studies label automobility wholly complex and unsustainable given its environmental, social, economic and spatial impacts. Challenges range from motorization (increased car ownership), fossil fuel dependence, road accidents, increased air pollution, urban sprawl, loss of productive rural land, and the impact on climate change by resultant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Sims et al., 2014). On the other hand, the global automobile industry fuels economic development and sustains livelihoods through providing approximately nine million direct jobs (Organization Internationale des Constructeurs d’Automobiles, 2016). To combat these detrimental impacts, international accords on climate change and sustainable development emphasize the need for a global low-carbon mobility transition (United Nations, 2015). Many argue that such a transition is already underway, driven by path-breaking technological innovations, in particular the burgeoning electric car industry, the mass integration of autonomous vehicles, and the uptake of shared transportation in most developed nations (Arbib & Seba, 2017). Newman and Kenworthy (2015) confidently note that the world has entered a ‘peak-car’ period. Nonetheless, this optimism does not dampen the urgency to improve both the production (how transport systems are implemented) and consumption (user behavior) processes of this global socio-technical system (Guy & Marvin, 2001; Hoogma, Kemp, Schot, & Truffer, 2005; Sims et al., 2014; United Nations, 2016b).

To do so, an increasing number of researchers are employing systems theory (Capra, 2005; Holmes, 2013) and research methods traditionally belonging to social science (Geels, 2012; Hickman & Banister, 2014; Lyons, 2004, 2011) to transport studies to account for the complexity of modern life and mobility needs (Banister, 2008; Hajer, 1996 in Dimitriou, 2011; Atkins, 1986 in Newman & Kenworthy, 2015). This is in clear contrast of conventional engineering approaches (Schiller, Bruun & Kenworthy 2010). Researchers are urged to pay homage to the social element of transport systems (the consumers) (Graham & Marvin, 2001; Guy & Marvin, 2001), the ‘power of context’ (Hickman & Banister, 2014), and the importance of space and scale (Hodson & Marvin, 2010) when examining unsustainable socio-technical systems - such as automobility.

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