Changing Routes

Last week, my husband Christian and I received a piece of mail that we had been eagerly anticipating for weeks…a map of Luxembourg City’s public transit network beginning on December 13th. As those who live in Luxembourg likely know, this is the date that the new tram line will finally connect the historic city center with the central train station, capping years of construction in the capital city. For most of the three years that I have lived in Luxembourg, this swathe of the city has been in a near-constant state of infrastructural transformation, requiring me to frequently adapt my own everyday movements accordingly. After living through the inconveniences of this process, I have a funny sense of having somehow earned the increased ease of mobility that these changes purport to bring.

Though my own excitement about receiving the new transit map is undoubtedly in part an occupational hazard, I’ve also perceived echoes of this sentiment in recent conversations with friends and family members who live in the city. Starting in just over a week, everyday mobility will likely be at least a little different for all who live and/or work in Luxembourg City, whether they use public transportation or not. The inauguration of the new section of the tram line will be accompanied by significant changes to the city’s bus network (and changes in access for cars, pedestrians, and cyclists, too). 

And so it came to be that Christian and I spent nearly half an hour one evening poring over the new transit map at our kitchen table, tracing our usual trajectories and imagining how the upcoming changes will affect our own everyday movements. For the past three years we have taken the #2 bus to and from our home in Gasperich on an almost daily basis. Starting in just over a week, however, the 2 will no longer come to our neighborhood, this part of its route being replaced by the #13. Though not superstitious, I initially felt a twinge of disappointment upon seeing this. After years of watching for the #2 day and night, in rain, snow, and the occasional heatwave, it seems that I’d developed a strange affection for the number, associating it with the way home.

By and large, however, this new line will still get us where we most often need and want to go. Like the #2 before it, the #13 will connect our neighborhood with the train station and city center. It won’t go all the way to Limpertsberg anymore, but if ever we want to go there, we can easily switch to the tram, which is frequent enough that our journey shouldn’t be prolonged much, if at all. The new 13 line also has the added bonus of an extra bus per hour, and it will provide us access without transferring to family and friends who live in the Belair and Merl neighborhoods.

Thinking about these route changes, it occurred to me that adapting to the ongoing transformations of transit systems is not unlike the experience of conducting field research – and more than ever during a global pandemic. The perpetual shifting of the public health situation has necessitated a perpetual shifting of research methods and, to an extent, of research questions and themes. It’s not clear whether the new routes I pursue will take me to similar places via a different trajectory, but they certainly offer the possibility to see some different landscapes along the way.

Drawing from the anthropological concept of liminality,[1] I recognize that such times (and spaces) of upheaval and in-betweenness bear great potential for transformation – not just for me and my research, but for all of us. Alongside the effects of the pandemic, 2020 has been marked by massive infrastructural transitions in Luxembourg, from the abolition of transit fares in March to the upcoming network changes in December. All of these transitions bring opportunities to change our own routes in more than a literal sense. 

The past several months have provoked many people around the world to (re)consider their mobility patterns, both on an everyday level and in terms of work travel and tourism. Whether or not these changes “stick,” the process of reckoning with how we move is and will continue to be a crucial step in addressing climate change. Similarly, there has been an increased attention to what Biao Xiang in his keynote at the 2020 IMISCOE conference,[2] refers to as an unequal distribution of mobilities, in which both mobility and immobility can become commodities to be bought and sold. For many of us, our ability to be alternately mobile and immobile depends on the mobility of others (think transit personnel and taxi/ride-sharing drivers as well as delivery workers whose movements allow others to stay home). It’s important to be cognizant of these dynamics and actively work against the exploitive potential they often contain. 

While each of us is capable of considering and addressing these issues on a personal level, I find myself wondering about the possibility for more collective movement. According to David Harvey, “Public spaces and goods in the city” – including transportation infrastructure and services – “do not necessarily a commons make.” Rather “it takes political action on the part of citizens and the people to appropriate them or to make them so.”[3] What might such an appropriation or reclaiming of the commons of (free) public transportation look like here in Luxembourg? What are ways in which you are changing your own routes, individually or collectively in response to the pandemic or infrastructural changes? As always, I’m curious to hear from you, so feel free to leave a comment or send me a message

[1] For a classic intro to the concept of liminality, see: Turner, Victor. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. For a more contemporary application of the concept in the context of urban mobilities, see: Ghannam, Farha. 2011. “Mobility, Liminality, and Embodiment in Urban Egypt.” American Ethnologist 38 (4): 790–800.

[2] The 2020 IMISCOE (International Migration, Integration and Social Cohesion in Europe) conference was scheduled to be held in Luxembourg but instead took place virtually due to the pandemic.  

[3] Harvey, David. 2013. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London and New York: Verso. pp. 72-73.

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