Moralizing Mobilities

In the “before” time (before the COVID pandemic, that is), using public transportation was often conceived and represented as a morally righteous mobility choice. Many of the people I’ve interviewed over the course of my field research in both Luxembourg and the United States (particularly those who use public transportation out of choice rather than necessity) have tended to frame their mobility decision-making in such ways. Reducing carbon emissions, saving money, resisting consumeristic car culture, alleviating traffic, prioritizing the communal over the individual, demonstrating social solidarity, supporting public infrastructures – the list of positive effects commonly attributed to public transport use goes on and on.

Yet over the past several months, this moral framework has been turned on its head. In the context of the pandemic, reducing physical contact and proximity to other people as much as possible has been constructed as a moral imperative to slow the virus’ spread. Not all types of movement are considered equal however, and we have seen a hierarchical moral-mobile regime emerge in which driving a privately-owned vehicle to perform essential errands, going to work in an essential profession, or even staying home and ordering goods and services delivered by essential workers are often framed as not only preferrable but morally superior to circulating by public transportation and/or in service of “non-essential” (and thus “selfish”) aims. Just as the health and financial effects of COVID-19 are unevenly distributed – reflecting unequal intersecting power structures of race, class, citizenship status, profession, etc. – a stratified moral legitimacy arises surrounding the right to move. 

For some, including myself, this has led to a clash of moral frameworks, and a seemingly interminable number of ethically charged decisions to navigate about where, when, and how to move. Yet I also know that I am in a very privileged position. I can continue to do my research and writing from home without losing any income and my husband and I have a car that we can use whenever we choose. Many others simply do not have the same capacity to self-isolate and insulate, either because their job or studies requires them to be out in public much more frequently, and/or because their financial situation, age, or disability prohibits them from owning or using a car. In many cases, this means not only bearing a higher health risk from spending more time in public spaces but also being excluded from a new socially recognized morality measure.

I have been discouraged over the past months to see a proliferation of mobility-related public shaming, particularly via social media. Often, those who use public transportation regularly are deemed to not be serious about COVID safety and, it seems to be implied, are somehow morally compromised. On the one hand, this construction of public transit use as a risky behavior tends to ignore the strict public health measures in place on public transportation. On the other hand, it can result in a dangerous stigmatization of public transportation and, more importantly, the people who rely on it. 

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