In my research as an anthropologist and my personal experiences living and traveling in various parts of the world, I have been struck by the ways in which issues of mobility – whether seen through a social, political, economic, or environmental lens – tend to give rise to passionate and wildly diverse responses. Over and over again, I have been intrigued to find that changes to transportation systems often generate stronger public response than other infrastructural transformations, and threats to the access or affordability of means of transport frequently incite mobilization from across the political spectrum.
In my hometown of Tacoma, Washington, where I conducted research for my Master’s thesis on public transportation, a recent ballot measure to expand the region’s public transportation system was hotly contested, largely on the basis of its cost to taxpayers. There, discussions of the system expansion rapidly came to evoke much bigger philosophical questions about the role of the state, the influence of private companies on election processes, class inequality and social stratification, and the moral imperative of combatting climate change.
Since moving to Luxembourg just over two years ago, I have been curiously following the changes to public transportation in the country and the public debates that have simultaneously unfolded. Here, the transformations that the system is undergoing – the most flashy and controversial of which is certainly the upcoming transition to fare-free transit – are being vigorously debated in a dissonant chorale of diverse voices. Reading news articles, scanning social media, and chatting with my fellow Luxembourg residents, I have been struck by the fact that nearly everyone I encounter has a strong opinion on the matter. For the past months I have been mulling over why this particular issue is such an important one, for public transit users and non-users alike.
Is it because, perhaps, mobility issues have the capacity to speak to those big philosophical questions, mentioned above, of democracy, (in)equality, solidarity, sustainability? These ideological, ethical, and political concepts are undoubtedly factors in why mobility so often proves controversial, why it so easily becomes a vehicle toward loftier locales. I’d like to propose, however, another possible explanation, one which is much more down to earth, more mundane, profane.
On a very basic level, the necessity to move is in all of us – physiologically as much as socially. From the smallest of motions to the furthest migrations, mobility is one of the things that we as humans have in common, a need that cuts across barriers of geographies, gender, race, class. As universal as this need is, however, the ways in which we can and do move are wildly different. The physical capacity to move one’s body of course varies, but there are innumerable other barriers constraining people’s ability to be mobile including national borders, legal and administrative regimes, transit accessibility, costs, and many more.
The specifics of each of our everyday mobility patterns, needs, and choices also vary enormously based on our occupations, schedules, places of residence, social and familial situations, personal preferences, etc. As Michel de Certeau puts it in The Practice of Everyday Life, the everyday migrations of people moving around a city are “myriad, but do not compose a series…Their swarming mass is an innumerable collection of singularities.” Perhaps it is this very tension between the universality and the extreme variability of experiences of mobility that makes it simultaneously critical and controversial. We all experience the need to be mobile in our everyday lives, but we each live our mobility very differently.
Over the coming year, I will be carrying out ethnographic research in Luxembourg that explores questions such as this related to public transportation and mobility. Throughout this process, I’ll be sharing my research and thoughts through this blog, but I’m also interested in hearing from you, especially if you live and/or regularly move around in Luxembourg. Do you have thoughts on why mobility mobilizes? Would you like to share your own mobility experiences in Luxembourg or be a part of my research project? If so, please feel free to leave a comment or send me a message. For my next blog post (in mid-February), I’ll be exploring the history of public transportation in Luxembourg and how the future of transit is being imagined, individually and collectively. If you have thoughts or stories to share on either of these interconnected topics, please let me know!
 De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1984. p.97.