merging mobility and civility

Extemporaneous Postulation

Climate change and privilege

Recently in Ethiopia and Kenya, I participated in workshops where climate change was cited as a leading rationale and urgency for altering the current motorization trajectory. According to the estimates, we have until about 2050 to stem the tide of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, lest our world become untenable.[1]

In the developed world, relating climate change to the way we move about our cities is fairly straightforward: the transport sector accounts for 23 percent of GHG emissions[2], so whatever we can do to “green” the sector will help.  And, since “we” have caused most of the damage, the burden to change tack falls on us. 

In the developing world it is more problematic, not the least of which because “they” have contributed less to climate change, but may suffer greater consequences.  

The story goes like this: The way in which most cities have developed following WWII is entirely unsustainable, has contributed greatly to climate change, and is the cause of a host of societal ills from diabetes to divorce. The root causes are an undying devotion to motorization and an abdication of land use planning and urban design.  Witness the recent Brooklyn-Queens Expressway debacle where the accommodation of 153,000 daily drivers was hoisted above any other denizen concerns.[3]  Driving is truly an addition.

The developing world is following in “our” footsteps, aided by development banks, donor nations, and multi-national corporation intent on selling first-world used goods.  The amount of asphalt that is being paved in Ethiopia and Kenya is astounding – especially given that the number of people driving cars hovers around 15-20 percent.  What is truly appalling is the lack of any sort of infrastructure for people walking or waiting for the bus – which is the vast majority of the people.  

I understand that the developing world just wants to share in the quality of life that we in the developed world enjoy, but it’s a bit of a mirage.  Highways beget excessive driving.[4] Oil-rich Arab countries have a public health epidemic due to lack of physical activity (rendered possible by excessive driving and no place to walk).[5]  The traffic fatality rate in Africa is three times that of Europe.[6]

Ethiopia is a fairly unique context in which to discuss the responsibility and causality of climate change in the post-colonial world.  Except for a brief attempt by the Italians in the late 19thCentury, it was never colonized, making it a rare place in Africa.  Kenya, on the other hand, had a difficult colonial relationship with Britain, and a certain tension remains.

During the workshop in Kenya the question was raised: should we (Kenyans) not be allowed to make our own mistakes, as the developed world has done?  What is the correct answer?  Yes, but climate change is not waiting?  No, because the scientific and economic evidence suggest you will not be pleased with the result?  Does the query come from a rejection of colonialism or an embrace of the environment? Who decides, the donor nations or the recipients?

A common theme that I have encountered around the world is privilege.  Those of a certain status or class encourage motorization and privatization of the mobility network (personal vehicles, reserved parking) so they may flout their wealth.  Equality it is not, nor is there much concern for the most vulnerable among us.  Mostly it is a codification of machismo.


Addis Ababa has recently constructed 28 km of footpaths, have two new light rail lines, and are planning the first bus rapid transit system in East Africa.[7]  Mombasa has just built 9 km of footpaths, and the Nairobi-Mombasa train was upgraded in 2017.[8]










Michael King