Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Lisbon trams, local self-organization and national planning framework

A recent holiday in Portugal started out with a few days in Lisbon aboard one of the city’s key tourist attractions, the Lisbon trams. With a 24 hour ticket in hand we hopped on the Number 28, a tram that did a circuit of central Lisbon taking in the bohemian Alfama district, the city waterfront and then heading out to Belem and its famous monastery (Belem is also the alleged birthplace of the Portuguese breakfast staple, the pasta del nata – a flaky pastry custard tart, delicious with a milky coffee). We hopped onto the tram just after the morning rush hour and it was soon clear that these aging, wooden trams were still a major means of transport for the local population through the narrow and winding streets of the city. Clearances of less than two foot either side of the tram in some streets made for an interesting journey particularly when a white van blocked the tramlines for 15 minutes snaring up three trams, half a dozen cars and producing a cacophony of tram bells and car horns.
White van blcoking tram

The narrow trams are small by any standards of modern public transport. There is capacity, 20 seated and 38 standing, so 58 people in total. What was fascinating was how the key problem of getting off the tram was dealt with by this crush of people. I may be wrong and would be happy to be corrected by any Portuguese out there, but as an outsider it seemed to me that the locals had developed an effective way to resolve this problem. Anyone who has been on the London tube will realise the problem of having to fight your way to your exit in rush hour pass a compress of immobile bodies. The Portuguese, young and old, all progressively moved from one end of the tram to the other as their stop was approached. An old man took his seat at the start of his journey. A couple of stops later, he moved from his comfortable leather seat to a seat further up the tram or even happily stood in the middle of the tram as his stop neared. As he moved others, whose stop was further down the route, took his place in the vacant seats. A few stops later he had moved along the bus to the wooden well at the back of the tram ready to disembark. Everyone followed this pattern seats permitting, without any one asking or co-ordinating the action. In other words a locally derived system of self-organized behaviour had evolved to resolve a simple problem.


The Lisbon transport system may have provided the context but the method of ensuring that all passengers boarded and left the bus with a minimum of fuss was locally developed (unless someone knows otherwise!) Trail and error solution rapidly converged onto a context-specific but context-useful solution. Would this work on the tube? Unlikely, more people, different context, different culture, wider vehicles and so on.  The key point is that within a specific context the local actors had developed a solution to a problem imposed by that context. Taking a modern ‘bendy’ tram to Belem a day later it was clear that the system used for the small trams was still in effect but in a dissipated form. The multiple exits and the wider tram meant it was not as important for such a system to operate to ensure that people made it off the tram at their stop. 


So what has this observation got to do with environmental geography? The recent national planning framework will become a key instrument for trying to conserve and alter the environment. Imposition of a context limits actions and, planners often assume, limits them in a way that will produce a particular result. Current UK planning law has been developed to enable, enhance development. As noted in previous blogs, the policy document highlights and, potentially, enhances the ability of local authorities and developers to encourage housing development. This context and focus could have a dramatic impact upon the environment and its use within the UK as it appears to provide planners and developers with a key instrument to alter the environment to fit their vision. The planning document, however, also has provision for the environment and, although it appears to be of lesser importance, does provide for ‘local’ or ‘neighbourhood’ actions, albeit limited by the context of local authorities plans.


This provision suggests that local actors can still affect policy but these actions may not be through the expected behaviours designed for in planning policy. In other words, local self-organization may produce locally or context specific actions and responses to the new planning context that had not been planned for by the authors of the planning policy. Local actors, left to their own devices, will operate within this context and can produce a self-organized set of behaviours unpredictable by those imposing the context. These local actors may use the new context to develop alliances and behaviours that prevent the vision of the planners and developers being fulfilled. The problem is that these behaviours can not be predicted in advance – they emerge from the constraints of the context. This means that the range of local solutions to environmental can not necessarily be planned for. As long as local trail and error in responses occurs then novel local solutions to environmental issues will emerge. This will always be a problem with trying to shoehorn planning regulations to cover every context. The flexibility needed to ensure that developers and planners have scope to try to achieve their vision also potentially permits local resistance in a diverse and unpredictable myriad of forms.


A word of caution is needed though for anyone trying to plan away this local flexibility to enable the restricted view of the planners to prevail. If local flexibility is not permitted then it may be that a more radical and context changing solution will force itself to the fore.  If these old Lisbon streets were bulldozed away, for example, then that would massively alter the transport context. Small, locally derived organizational rules or actions can be a solution to a problem but then again so can massive disruptions and removal of the context within which these solutions were developed. But then again you can not predict the outcome of these massive changes either!

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