Participatory Infrastructures: The Politics of Mobility Platforms

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-7635

Article | Open Access

Participatory Infrastructures: The Politics of Mobility Platforms


  • Peter T. Dunn Department of Urban Design and Planning, University of Washington, Seattle, USA


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Abstract:  Much of everyday life in cities is now mediated by digital platforms, a mode of organization in which control is both distributed widely among participants and sharply delimited by the platform’s constraints. This article uses examples of smartphone-based platforms for urban mobility to argue that platforms create new political arrangements of the city, intermediating the social processes of management and movement that characterize urban life. Its empirical basis is a study of user interfaces, data specifications, and algorithms used in the operation and regulation of ride-hailing services and bike-share systems. I focus on three aspects of urban politics affected by platforms: its location, its participants, and the types of conflict it addresses. First, the programming forums in which decisions are encoded in and distributed through platforms’ core digital architecture are new sites of policy deliberation outside the more familiar arenas of city politics. Second, travelers have new opportunities to use platforms for travel on their own terms, but this expanded participation is circumscribed by interfaces that presuppose individual, transactional engagement rather than a participation attentive to a broader social and environmental context. Finally, digital systems show themselves to be well suited to enforcing quantifiable distributional goals, but struggle to resolve the more nuanced relational matters that constitute the politics of everyday city life. These illustrations suggest that digital tools for managing transportation are not only political products, but also reset the stage on which urban encounters play out.

Keywords:  digital geographies; infrastructure; participation; platform urbanism; shared-use mobility

Published:   15 December 2020


DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/up.v5i4.3483


© Peter T. Dunn. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.