November 18, 2021

A Q&A with Rebeca de Buen Kalman (PhD ’21)

This past summer, Rebeca de Buen Kalman completed her Ph.D. at the Evans School, where she focused on the intersections between environmental policy, climate change policy, transportation, and public health. Evans had a chance to sit down with her for a few minutes to talk about her dissertation research.

Your dissertation project is titled, “Pueblos Bicicleteros: Three Essays on Cycling Policy in Mexican Cities,” but you use the evolution of cycling policy in Mexico as a lens into contemporary urban environmental policy. Explain why cycling policy is so central to how major cities address today’s climate challenges.

Transportation is one of the largest and fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions globally and thus a critical area for climate mitigation policy. Increasing cycing commutes and trips in cities has the potential to reduce emissions and improve and health.  Cycling policy can be especially compelling when it is integrated within a larger transportation strategy combined with transit.

Safety and equity concerns, however, must be present as we rethink transit policies. In the cities I studied, most urban cyclists are low-income workers who mostly cycle out of necessity. Framing a bicycle as “one less car” erases the experiences of these cyclists who might perceive the bicycle as a marker of poverty and whose perspective and needs are usually left out of cycling plans.

Why do you think cities in Mexico, as well as in the U.S. and in other places around the globe, struggle to better incorporate cycling within urban transportation strategies?

There are many reasons why incorporating cycling into transportation can be tricky in cities where low cycling rates are the status quo. Most barriers revolve around our current model of mobility, or ‘automobility’, which is centered around the cars and car-centric culture. In most cities, public policies, public spending, and regulations related to street design have historically favored car mobility at the expense of other modes like transit, walking, and cycling, which further entrenches car-centric life-styles. In many places, like the cities I studied in Mexico, some people associate cycling with low economic status and cars with progress and social mobility. Another common cultural barrier relates to society’s tendency to consider bikes as toys or means of recreation, rather than part of the transportation system.

While there are a lot of barriers, there is also a growing appetite from some sectors of the population to move towards multimodal lifestyles that include cycling. Evidence from travel-behavior data reveals an opportunity to reduce car use and substitute cycling for short trips, especially in core urban areas. There also is mounting evidence that younger generations are more environmentally conscious and inclined toward shared and multi-modal transportation when these are available.

We also might not think of cycling policy as a critical element of tackling inequality in modern cities. How does your dissertation show this is anything but the case?

The relationship between cycling and equity is not straightforward. Cycling policy can absolutely be a tool to tackle inequality, but bicycles and cycling policy are not inherently equitable. Bikes are a low-cost and efficient form of getting around in a city. In urban areas like the ones I studied in my dissertation, roughly one-fifth of trips are done by car but the vast majority of public funds for mobility are invested in car infrastructure. Improving cycling conditions through a variety of measures can be a way to improve people’s access to services and opportunities at a very low cost. Improving cycling conditions can also have benefits to pedestrians through improved street design, with important equity implications since riders from vulnerable communities are more likely to be hit by cars as pedestrians.

Measures that are meant to improve cycling conditions, however, are often implemented in visible central city areas and not necessarily accessible to lower-income people who might benefit the most from them.  Cycling lanes are frequently implemented on sidewalks or at the expense of sidewalks, limiting pedestrian mobility and accessibility. Sometimes cycling-related policy can even further marginalize cyclists since cycling infrastructure is often determined once motor traffic needs have been prioritized, without addressing the fundamental asymmetry of power that makes cycling unattractive or unsafe.

Readers will be impressed with your research design, which involved the integration of many different data from many different parts of Mexico. How might environmental policy scholars use mixed methods designs to better inform policymaking?

The development of any project related to the built environment is situated in a complex web of actors, institutions, and social processes, where data is often scarce and disperse. I think that mixed methods are crucial for understanding these types of social phenomena. In my dissertation, I studied the trajectories of ten mid-sized and large cities who have implemented cycling infrastructure to different extents. I also took a deep dive into the local social movements that have sparked the adoption of cycling related policies. I used various qualitative and quantitative methods that leverage diverse data sources, including open source and crowdsourced transportation data on infrastructure and travel, administrative data, policy documents, and interview data.

The questions I asked in my dissertation were oriented towards onderstanding processes and mechanisms rather than questions of cause and effect. To have a full story on each of my cases and parameters that could be compared systematically in my analysis, I had to draw from a variety of sources. I also needed to be through for purposes of validation and triangulation.

Considering the bigger picture, in public policy and management, we ask cause and effect questions because we want to know how interventions impact our desired outcome. But we also need to know how to get things done, the mechanisms at play, and the nuances involved. There is an implementation process between a policy and its effect that requires organizations, institutions, and people. Policy and management are also contextual. We need to draw on various methods to situate ourselves to understand the nuances of public problems and potential policy solutions. Mixed methods are therefore a powerful tool for policy research to become more relevant to policymaking and implementation.

Tell us what you’ll be doing next for your next project at the Evans School.

I am a postdoctoral fellow for Ocean Nexus at the UW EarthLab and the Evans School. Ocean Nexus is an international network of ocean governance scholars based at the UW. Our team at the Evans School works with network members to develop applied policy analysis with an explicit focus on social equity. We are developing a framework to guide the operationalization of equity in ocean governance-related policy analysis through this process. We are also studying how policy problems are discussed in ocean governance research to identify gaps that reduce the applied impact of policy research in this field. Our ultimate goals are to help ocean governance scholars make their research more policy relevant and bring equity to the forefront of policy analysis.

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