People’s Climate March: 6 Weeks Later

In September, I joined 400,000 others in New York for the People’s Climate March. It was a joyous convocation of people of color, people of faith, old people, and young people, all demanding action to address climate change and expressing shared hope for a just transition.

A month and a half later, I’m trying to reconcile the march’s magnitude and passion for action with what the US midterm election results mean, especially for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The probable new chair of that committee, which oversees the Environmental Protection Agency, has compared the EPA to the Gestapo and authored a book entitled “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”

The hundreds of thousands who marched in New York, and the millions around the world whom they marched to represent, see clearly that the conspiracy threatening their future is not a hoax, but politicians representing corporate money.

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Privatization and the Crisis of Bus Drivers in Santiago

Early in the morning of June 2nd, 2014, Marco Antonio Cuadra walked into a bus depot as he had done for his preceding 25 years as a bus driver in Chile’s sprawling capital city. This morning, however, instead of setting out to cover his routes across Santiago, he doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire, shouting, “This is for the workers! Let it mark a precedent!”  By the time his coworkers grabbed fire extinguishers from their buses and doused the flames, 90% of his body had been severely burned. Waiting for an ambulance to arrive, one of the drivers asked Cuadra why he taken such drastic action. The pained response (as seen in an extremely graphic video uploaded to Youtube): “For our coworkers – because of how [corporate managers] abuse us, how they don’t pay our wages, and how they fire union leaders, but nobody complains. ¿Hasta cuándo?”

Two weeks earlier, Veolia, through its Transdev branch and Chilean subsidiary Redbus, had initiated the firing of Cuadra, a leader of Redbus Union 2. The company claimed he and the treasurer of the Union failed to fulfill “the obligations expressly indicated in their work contract.” Other employees dispute this claim and note that Veolia/Redbus, a private operator for the public Transantiago/Metropolitan Public Transport Directorate, initiated the firing three days before employees were set to present a new collective bargaining plan.

The ambulance took Cuadra to Santiago’s main hospital where he underwent a series of amputations and surgeries as his organs progressively failed over the coming weeks. His wife shared her thoughts in an interview:

A memorial for Marco Cuadra in Central Santiago (picture from Laurel Paget-Seekins)

A memorial for Marco Cuadra in Central Santiago (picture from Laurel Paget-Seekins)

He was distraught because of all the injustice. He was enraged when he saw how [Veolia/Redbus] made the older drivers, and the workers in general, work very late, how the company didn’t respect them, and how they had to use diapers because of the lack of bathrooms and the length of the routes… I pray to God that he’ll come through this so he can tell me what really happened. What I think now, based on what I saw and what his coworkers have told me, is that it was a result of utter frustration, the most extreme frustration that a human being can take.

On June 27, twenty-five days after his act of desperation, Cuadra died from his injuries.
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September 11, Santiago, Sarin, and Syria

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What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas, and we choose to look the other way? – President Obama

If only this rhetorical question were truly a contrafactual. In fact, not only do we know a world in which the US government looks the other way from dictators using chemical weapons, we live in a world shaped partly by the US government’s long history of actively supporting such dictators. For President Obama to make some of these claims about the exceptional moral authority of the United States on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the coup against President Allende in Chile struck me as especially hypocritical.

More thoughts on President Obama’s take on Syria from an article entitled “Hypocrite in Chief:”

Of the numberless hypocrisies of the administration, this one is particularly crude. The White House claims to need to punish Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime for the unproven use of chemical weapons (sarin) in Ghouta. Not only does this atrocity, committed by unidentified actors in a civil, ethnic, sectarian, and proxy conflict within Syria, somehow make Syria a national security threat to the United States, but it also suggests we deplore the use of chemical weapons. Neither is remotely true.

During the Pinochet Dictatorship in Chile, paid CIA contacts and graduates of the School of the Americas led DINA, the Chilean National Intelligence Directorate notorious for kidnapping and torture. In my trips to Chile, I have visited a number of the secret detention centers where DINA tortured and killed thousands during the dictatorship. In addition to perpetrating gruesome acts of torture, DINA agents also oversaw the manufacture and use of sarin, botulism, and other chemical agents.
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Reflections on Violence

My blog usually features pictures of buses, not long rants. But I hope you’ll take some time to read this post and follow some of the links (which themselves could take hours)

MIT's Green Building with a black ribbon

MIT’s Green Building with a black ribbon

“When children are terrorists, we are all terrorists.”

These are the words of a Yemeni man from al-Majalah in the documentary Dirty Wars (trailer below).

The words struck a chord, especially given the highly publicized string of violent acts that erupted in Boston two weeks ago. For me, his statement evokes three themes:
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Secretary LaHood's Dour Outlook on Transportation Reauthorization

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (front), expresses his gloomy sentiments about the possibility of a comprehensive transportation bill passing Congress

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (front) and three former Secretaries of Transportation express their sentiments about the likelihood of a comprehensive transportation bill passing Congress this year

Last week at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, the current and former Secretaries of Transportation were asked whether they were optimistic or pessimistic about a federal transportation reauthorization bill finally passing Congress this year.  Current Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood gave a fairly pessimistic response:

Given the politics, the number of days that remain, the differences between what the Senate and House are looking at — I think its very unlikely we will have a surface transportation bill during this year of Congress.

The last surface transportation act expired in 2009 (see the counter below). Continued political posturing, like Speaker Boehner’s weekend announcement that he will try to force the Keystone Pipeline as a rider to the highway bill, has kept transportation funding up in the air, inhibiting rational transportation planning and employment gains through meaningful infrastructure investment. Similarly, failure to reauthorize the FAA over the last four years has exacerbated the consequences of the nation’s aging air traffic control infrastructure, as detailed in this New York Observer article:

The most frequent complaint heard from carriers to air traffic controllers is that Congress must act. It must implement the NextGen air traffic control system, a GPS-driven system in the works since the 1980s and still not due for full implementation until 2025. In the meantime, most cellphones now come equipped with the technology, and it will probably be implanted into our brains by the time NextGen is realized. This is the same Congress that has refused to fully reauthorize the FAA since 2007, passing 22 short-term extensions instead.

The nation’s infrastructure is failing while Congress continues its myopic maneuvering. The Secretary’s doleful expression seems justified indeed.

Student Protests in Chile

Students, many wearing signs displaying the debt they are incurring to pursue higher education, dance to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’

Demonstrations earlier this year against HidroAysén piqued youth discontent about the Chilean government’s trending towards increased privatization. As winter approached in May and June, this discontent exploded into massive sit-ins and creative protests against profiteering in Chilean secondary and post-secondary education. Especially egregious were then Education Minister Joaquín Lavín’s attempts to funnel more government funds to his private universities. In three months of continuing demonstrations, charismatic young leaders have put forward a cogent critique of neoliberalism and the widening income gap in the country, and this critique has resonated widely with educators, healthcare workers, and labor unions. Students have been marching with many of these allies, and I found their creative messaging to be quite impressive. In late August, a national labor federation called a general strike, and 600,000 people are estimated to have participated in demonstrations during the two day strike. Even though national media has been working to turn public opinion against the demonstrators by focusing on the actions of a small contingent of violent troublemakers, President Piñera has felt widespread public pressure. He has made some significant concessions, but more seem inevitable as the popular movement continues to grow and he is forced to negotiate further with students.

Education Cartoon

Cartoon about educational privatization produced by architecture students from the Catholic University in Valparaíso (click on the image for an English translation)

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Rea Vaya – BRT in Johannesburg

Rea Vaya, Africa’s first true BRT system, commenced operations in Johannesburg on August 31, 2009 (see a video of the first day of operations here). Phase 1A includes the T1 trunk line, which uses articulated buses to convey 30,000 daily passengers through the 21 enclosed stations between Thokoza Park in Soweto to Ellis Park via the Central Business District. It also includes circulatory buses in the CBD and neighborhood feeder routes in Soweto (see route maps here). Construction of additional phases is ongoing; the system will eventually criss-cross the city, with a corridor running north through Sandton to Sunninghill. Rea Vaya faced violent opposition from some sectors of the preexisting minibus taxi industry. Strong municipal leadership and a focus on building meaningful relationships between stakeholders has enabled the system’s success, not only as a transportation corridor, but also as a tool to realize higher aspirations for Joburg’s urban space.

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Joburg’s MMC (Member of the Mayoral Committee) for Transport, Rehana Moosajee, has been one of the driving forces behind Rea Vaya. She graciously shared with me her perspectives on the system’s development and arranged for me to take guided tours of the its routes and central control center. In 2006, Joburg’s newly elected mayor decided to elevate transport to a stand-alone portfolio within the city’s government. This act underscored the importance of public transportation, and it was with a clear mandate that MMC Moosajee and others in the government began exploring options to transform the city’s mobility options. They invited leading BRT proponents to give a presentation, which included a showing of Making Things Happen with BRT. This short film promises numerous benefits for the urban environment (and politicians’ careers) from a high quality, world-class, subsidy-free transport mode. Leaders simply need to have the “guts,” “bite the bullet,” and take the first steps towards building a BRT system.

Determined to move forward with BRT, the city began laying the groundwork for Rea Vaya. They anticipated strong resistance from existing minibus taxi operators, whose industry and self-governance evolved on the margins of apartheid governmentality. The informal transit sector simultaneously contested and enabled apartheid practices, and in today’s Rainbow Nation, their market niche continues to be “the preservation of apartheid spatiality,” as South Africa’s Deputy Minister for Transport Jeremy Cronin put it. Given the minibus industry’s historically complicated relationship with government, the city government knew that building trust would be vital, and they accordingly employed a number of key tactics:

  • Giving taxi industry leaders “exposure to comparable informal operators.” When touring other cities that had also formalized previously informal systems, minibus industry leaders sensed an “element of resonance.” Realizing that informal operators in South Africa were not unique, and that others were better off for having embraced change, helped motivate industry leaders to move forward in cooperation with the city.
  • Using city money to hire technical advisors of the industry’s choosing, thereby enhancing the industry’s trust in government
  • Building strong, trusting relationships before beginning independently-moderated, formal negotiations
  • Seeking out visionary leadership in the minibus industry
  • Highlighting growing public pressure on the industry

Thus, more important to the project’s success than the hard infrastructure of dedicated lanes or stations were what MMC Moosajee called the “softer, silent issues behind enabling transformation.” Attending courses on “change management” with taxi industry leaders helped them understand, “If you don’t make a transformation, it’s to your own detriment.” For such an intense focus on relationship-building, “political involvement and will in driving the initial phases are key.” In Johannesburg, these “softer issues” were not for the faint of heart. MMC Moosajee’s house was attacked in the middle of the night, and she now has two bodyguards. As she told me, “I don’t think people realize how much guts you need…maybe it’s better you don’t know up front.”

Such courageous and visionary leadership, both on the part of the city government and the minibus operators who formed PioTrans, enabled the inauguration of Rea Vaya within three years of its proposal. Though other African cities, like Dar es Salaam, resolved to implement BRT years before, Joburg was the first city on the continent to successfully implement a full BRT system.

I talked with a number of Sowetans about their opinions on Rea Vaya. A vendor in the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication told me she still prefers minibus taxis, since they tend to pick passengers up closer to their homes and people are used to the way they work. In contrast, a university student I talked to on the inbound T1 shared that she loved the new service and used it often; her only complaint was that at peak periods, the buses are too crowded.

With approximately one million boardings per month, Rea Vaya has indeed been successful in terms of carrying passengers. It has also helped improve a number of larger urban issues: improving environmental quality, overcoming the legacy of apartheid spatial planning, bettering communities, and instilling a sense of decency in people’s daily commute. In short, MMC Moosajee believes that Rea Vaya has “changed peoples’ perspective on their own space.” When the system is complete, a station in Soweto will look the same as a station in Sandton; Rea Vaya is a world class transport system in the heart of a township. Earlier this year, New York City’s planning and transportation commissioners made their own visit to Soweto and shared how impressed they were with the Rea Vaya. Indeed, delegations of transport planners from around the world have toured Rea Vaya to learn more about successful BRT implementation.

Making Things Happen with BRT

Part 1:

Part 2: