How Would MLK, Jesus or Che Plan?

Todd Litman's picture

I spent last week at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) headquarters in Manila, in the Philippines, where we are starting on an exciting but humbling project: developing a more comprehensive framework for transport project evaluation. Among other factors, this project will develop better methods for incorporating social equity impacts into transport planning. This is important in any community, and particularly in developing countries where many people are extremely poor. What transport policies and planning practices respond to their needs?

Let me rephrase the question. What transportation planning practices would be supported by social justice advocates such as Martin Luther King (MLK), Jesus Christ, Che Guevara, Mother Teresa, Gandhi or John Rawls? This question is particularly appropriate now since it is Martin Luther King Day.

We need new approaches to these issues. In the past, radical social activists tended to assume that poor people are peasant farmers and so advocated rural land reform. This may be appropriate for some, but is often an economic trap because small farms tend to be isolated and unprofitable. Others assumed that disadvantaged people are factory workers and so need labor organizing, but now most entry-level jobs are with small businesses or informal sectors such as personal services or street vending. In a modern economy, economic opportunities tend to be in urban areas, which is why so many poor people move to cities even if they must live in shanty towns often several kilometers from services and jobs. The best way to increase these people's economic opportunity is to provide more affordable housing in accessible urban locations and to improve affordable transport modes.

One of the most effective ways to help disadvantaged residents is to improve non-motorized travel conditions. Walking and cycling are the most basic forms of transport but tend to be undervalued by in conventional planning because conventional travel surveys tend to overlookshort trips, non-commute trips, travel by children, and non-motorized links of trips that involve motorized modes. In addition, conventional planning evaluates transport system performance based on mobility, which assumes that faster modes are more important than slower modes. As a result, non-motorized travel is more important than generally recognized, particularly for people who are physically,economically and socially disadvantaged.

Conventional planning tends to favor automobile traffic in roadway design, leaving little space for pedestrians and cyclists, and resulting in high vehicle traffic speeds which createsa Barrier to non-motorized travel. A key strategy for helping disadvantaged people is to redesign roads so they are safer for walking and cycling. Several recent documents provide practical guidance for better including walking and cycling in developing country roadway design: 


It is important to apply Universal Design, which means that sidewalks, transportation terminals and public transport vehicles accommodate all users, including people with disabilities. A wonderful organization called Access Exchange International provides practical guidance for applying universal design to public transit systems in developing countries. Another organization named Samarthyam  ("access for all") provides excellent information on universal roadway design.

Another important way of help poor people is to improve public transit service quality, for example, with Bus Rapid Transit Systems, nicer Stops and Stations, and Transit Oriented Development. Also important is to encourage more compact and mixed land use development, which reduces travel distances. This means developing communities that include housing and businesses, and that accommodate both wealthy and poor households. This type of mixing has deeper benefits than just economic opportunity; it also supports community cohesion, which refers to the quantity and quality of interactions among neighbors, and so helps build community and mutual respect. Many developing countries have started to adopt Western-style zoning codes and development practices that separate uses and people.

There is a counter-argument which says that affordable modes are inferior to automobile travel, so efforts to improve walking, cycling and public transport constrain economic progress. I believe that this argument is mostly wrong. Wealthy countries are now trying to diversify their transport systems, so residents can drive less and rely more on alternative modes because they often more enjoyable and efficient. In fact, my work with the Asian Development Bank results, in part, from the Bank's commitment to more efficient transport policies intended to help achieve economic, social and environmental objectives. Efforts to improve transport system equity need not reduce efficiency: many win-win strategies can help achieve both. 

There is an extensive literature concerning transportation equity but most focuses on a single facet of these complex issues, such as accommodating people with disabilities, making prices progressive with respect to income, addressing a particular external impact (sometimes called environmental justice), or providing mobility for a particular group such as seniors. Some of this is misguided. For example, I was recently invited to support a program to develop special mobility services for seniors – which is well intended, but I pointed out that seniors have about half the poverty rate (about 5%) as children (about 9%), so it is unfair to provide special transport services and discounts for seniors while the people who most need support are lower-income families with children.

We need a more comprehensive framework for transportation equity evaluation which takes into account various types and degrees of mobility disadvantage and inequity, and various factors that affect accessibility. This should recognize, for example, that physically-able, low-income people may have adequate accessibility if they live and work in areas with good walking, cycling and public transit service, but the same people would face significant transport problems if their community becomes automobile-dependent. It should also consider factors such as the stigma associated with alternative modes in automobile-dependent societies, and therefore the equity benefits provided by mobility management marketing which raises the social status of walking, cycling and public transport.

These are interesting, important and timely issues. Please share your thoughts.


For more information

Qureshi Intikhab Ahmed, Huapu Lu and Shi Ye (2008), "Urban Transportation and Equity: A Case Study of Beijing and Karachi," Transportation Research A, Vol. 42,Issue 1 (, January,pp. 125-139.

Baltimore Region Environmental Justice in Transportation Project ( is developing a better process for systematically integrating environmental justice into the regional transportation planning and decision-making.

Daniel Carlson and Zachary Howard (2010), Impacts Of VMT Reduction Strategies On Selected Areas and Groups,Washington State Department of Transportation (;at

Robert Cervero (2005), "ProgressiveTransportation and the Poor: Bogota's Bold Steps Forward," ACCESS,Number 27 (,Fall 2005, pp. 24-30.

CSE (2009), Footfalls: Obstacle Course To Livable Cities, Right To Clean AirCampaign, Centre For Science And Environment (;at

Graham Currie and Alexa Delbose(2010), Modelling the Social and Psychological Impacts of Transport Disadvantaged," Transportation, Vol.37, No. 6, pp. 953-966; abstract at

DFID (2003), Social Benefits in Transport Planning, UK Department for International Development (;at (

DFID (2010), Children, Transport and Mobility in Sub-Saharan Africa: Developing a Child-Centred Evidence Base to Improve Policy and Change Thinking Across Africa,Department of International Development (

FHWA and FTA (2002), Transportation & Environmental Justice: Effective Practices, Federal Highway Administration, Federal TransitAdministration, FHWA-EP-02-016 (

Todd Litman (2002), "Evaluating Transportation Equity," World Transport Policy & Practice (, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, pp. 50-65; revised version at

Todd Litman and Tom Rickert (2005),Evaluating Public Transit Accessibility: ‘Inclusive Design' Performance Indicators For Public Transportation InDeveloping Countries, Victoria Transport Policy Institute (; at

Karen Lucas (2004), Running on Empty: Transport, Social Exclusion and Environmental Justice, Policy Press (

Clarissa Penfold, N. Cleghorn, C. Creegan, H. Neil and S Webster(2008), Travel Behaviour, Experiences And Aspirations Of Disabled People, produced for the Department of Transport, United Kingdom by The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), Social Research in Transport Clearinghouse (; at

Tom Rickert (1998 and 2002), Mobility for All; Accessible Transportation Around the World, and Making Access Happen: Promoting and Planning Transport For All, Access Exchange International (, and the Swedish Institute On Independent Living (

Glenn Robinson, et al. (2010), Building on the Strength of Environmental Justice in Transportation: Environmental Justice and Transportation Toolkit, Baltimore Region Environmental Justice in Transportation Project ( and the Office of Civil Rights, Federal Transit Administration.

Caroline Rodier, John E. Abraham, Brenda N. Dix and John D.Hunt (2010), Equity Analysis of Land Use and Transport Plans Using an Integrated Spatial Model, Report 09-08, Mineta Transportation Institute (; at

K.H. Schaeffer and Elliot Sclar (1980), Access for All, Columbia University Press (New York).

Ian Taylor and Lynn Sloman (2008), Towards Transport Justice: Transport and Social Justice in an Oil-Scarce Future, Sustrans (; at

UTTIPEC (2009), Pedestrian Design Guidelines: Don't Drive Walk, Delhi Development Authority, New Delhi (; at

Eduardo Alcântara Vasconcellos (2001), Urban Transport, Environment And Equity -The Case For Developing Countries, Earthscan (
Todd Litman is the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.




As I read your article, one thing kept running through my head, a little song called 'One of these things is not like the others!'

You seriously put Che Guevara in the same category as MLK, Jesus Christ, Mother Theresa, and Ghandi? You've got to be kidding me! One was a Marxist revolutionary not above putting a bullet into an alleged traitor's brain ( while the others were actual peaceful social activitists.

I know Che is all the rage among the socially enlightened crowd and rehabilitating his image is the popular thing to do but seriously, he doesn't belong with the others you mention in your article...

Todd Litman's picture


Dear Choltkamp

Thank you for your comments. Yes, like anybody who uses violence to impose political change, I'm sure Che Guevara did nasty things. However, with regard to this blog, all that matters is that he was motivated by a desire to help disenfranchised people.

My point is that the desire to help disadvantaged people is nearly universal, including most religions and political philosophies. It's worth noting that Adam Smith (one of the founders of the discipline of economics) advocated transport policies to favor poor people. In his famous book, 'An Inquiry into the Nature And Causes of the Wealth of Nations' he wrote that, “When the toll upon carriages of luxury coaches, post chaises, &c. is made somewhat higher in proportion to their weight than upon carriages of necessary use, such as carts, wagons, and the indolence and vanity of the rich is made to contribute in a very easy manner to the relief of the poor, by rendering cheaper the transportation of heavy goods to all the different parts of the country.”

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Really? Really?

With all due respect to your political and socio-economic beliefs, invoking Che Guevara in the same sentence as MLK and Mother Teresa makes you and your article lose credibility (that is my opinion, at least). A sensible question on planning for the disadvantaged is immediately turned into a diatribe by an idealogue radical, no matter what the article actually says.

Che Guevara was handsome and photogenic, wrote a book, spoke at the UN, used murder in attempts to carry out his means, and made a bunch of t-shirt makers rich. Again, that's just my opinion. At least everyone can agree on MLK or Mother Teresa.

Social Equity Planning

What would Scoobie do?

Social Equity Planning

It should be mentioned that social equity planning was (is) a movement from the 1960's led by City of Cleveland Planning Director Norman Krumholz, who advocated a simple methodology: How would every planning/policy decision affect the disadvantaged?

A decision was considered good if it helped the disadvantaged, particularly in terms of affordable housing and transportation.

How would MLK, Jesus, or Che Plan?

Including Che in with those other esteemed people is insulting. Che was a murderer, plain and simple. Be careful.

Transportation and Social and Economic Justice

Dear Todd – Your exciting post on Martin Luther King Day was bold in asserting the little-known truth that good planning centered around transportation would be supported by historic advocates for social justice.

Along with the other posters, I do feel Che Guevara is a bit of a stretch for me as cold eyed killers generally follow the line of the "ends justify the means," yet I admit had a poster of Guevara when I was young and romanticized gun toting authoritarians acting "in our best interest".

Yet, that does not take away from the powerful question you pose. If I were to take the names you listed in historical order we'd start with Jesus Christ, then Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and finally Mother Theresa.

The key which I think can be traced throughout history linking these great heroes is Jesus is dictum: "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's." Today, we have no Caesar's (at least we're trying to reduce the amount). Today's Caesar is actually the community, which is acting in concert by the means of government.

We all agree that the that the most energy-efficient and simple form of travel are human feet. That's why we all push for walkable communities that are built inside the urban fabric. A close second is a clean, efficient and safe mass transportation system. Wonderful designs are coming out every day. Yet, citizens often never see the outcome of wonderful plans and humanistic aspirations from planners.

Why? Lack of funding is number one. We are always told there is no money. Yet there is a revenue source right under our feet that could help fund these people centered projects without burdening those very people with higher taxes. I am referring to land value capture.

Land value capture has theoretically started its long climb into an acceptable and doable public policy that would fund just the kind of transportation systems that we want.

Mother Theresa and Gandhi would support beyond doubt not only a basic transportation infrastructure that would exist for people of limited means but could be used by people of all classes and incomes. Poverty in Indian cities still exists in staggering quantity. A working transport infrastructure would create higher land values and those land values could be used to not only build but to maintain transit in a sustainable way.

Finally, Martin Luther King in his last book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (New York: Harper & Row, 1967) quoted the Great American economic philosopher Henry George from his seminal work Progress and Poverty published in 1879:

"The fact is that the work which improves the condition of mankind, the work which extends knowledge and increases power and enriches literature, and elevates thought, is not done to secure a living. It is not the work of slaves, driven to their task either by the lash of a master or by animal necessities. It is the work of men who perform it for their own sake, and not that they may get more to eat or drink, or wear, or display. In a state of society where want is abolished, work of this sort could be enormously increased."

If that is not a clarion call for community funding of community assets to encourage those who want to work and achieve for themselves and their families I don't know what is.

Joshua Vincent, Executive Director
Center for the Study of Economics
413 South 10th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147
215.923.7800 Extension 1

adam smith and che guevara

I'm going to guess that Todd Litman's reference to Adam Smith went over the head of many who are knee-jerking at the inclusion of Che in a list of pacifists who worked for a more inclusive society. The point is, Adam Smith was a revolutionary (and therefore not squeamish about putting a bullet in someone's head) for a cause most Americans find acceptable: the U.S. war of independence. You want to look at the ideas or the person's biography? Heidegger turns out to have been a nazi. Does his work lose rank? Ezra Pound was a well known anti-semite and fan of Mussolini. What does that say about his poetry (or people who like his poetry)?

Most Americans are not thoughtful enough to make these distinctions. Litman, however, is Canadian and maybe that's why he's able to stir the pot a bit. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'd wager most folks who are getting their back up about the inclusion of Che are doing so without ever having read his writing. But for that matter, how many of you have ever read Adam Smith?

Todd Litman's picture

Thank You For Comments

Thanks to all who commented on this blog. There is nothing worse than spending hours writing a column and receiving no reader feedback.

However, I am a little surprized that so many of the comments focus on whether or not Che Guevara should be included in my list. It reminds me of major development hearings in which participants only comment about a projects' decorations and color, or use it as a forum to complain about some past planning decisions, rather than discussing the critical policy and design issues under consideration.

My intent was to emphasize that social justice (i.e., policies that favor disadvantaged people) is a fundamental goal for nearly all ideologies, ranging from "right wing" Christians to "left wing" revolutionaries, plus intellectual philosophers such followers of Rawls. My list of characters was simply a way to represent this range. My intent is not to endorse an ideology or offend, but to emphasize diversity. Now that there are so many comments about Dr. Guevara I am obliged to leave him in since these comments would no longer make sense if his name were deleted.

Much as I appreciate the feedback, I would prefer that it focus on ways to incorporate social equity objectives into planning. This is an important issue that affects and is affected by many day-to-day planning decisions. Social equity issues tend to be addressed individually rather than systematically, often resulting in contradictory policies, such as affordable housing in automobile-dependent locations, and public transit investments without the supportive policies (transit-oriented development, pedestrian and cycling improvements, improved user information, commute trip reduction programs, efficient road and parking pricing, etc.) which would make them efficient and functional.

Please let us know how you think social justice objectives can be better integrated into planning.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Don't worry about Che

Dear Todd -The "Che moment" was tangential to the meat of your essay, which I thought was engaging and very important. On my part, sorry if I was thrown by the reference, I ought to have stayed on subject. I am in full agreement that the needs of social and economic justice are in accordance with good planning particularly in moving people to markets and homes.

Joshua Vincent, Executive Director
Center for the Study of Economics
413 South 10th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147
215.923.7800 Extension 1


Jesus, if he is fact existed which is doubtful, was a Communist who would have been all in favour of Universal Design to "suffer the little children". If all the so-called Christians actually followed what is written in the New Testament then the USA would be at the very least be a Socialist Democracy to the left of those in Europe.

Mother Teresa is actually the odd one out in the group. She never wanted to eradicate poverty and went out of her way to make sure no-one else ruined her racket. Christopher Hitchens skewered her for what she really was - evil.

I have no real problem with including Che in this group. While he may have made some mistakes, due to him being imperfect like the rest of us, he hated injustice and died trying to end it. The truth is that the truly right ends justify any means. Unless most Americans now think that dropping A-bombs on Japan to end WW2 was "murder" and not lawful killing that saved many more lives than it took.

Todd's article is about what he thinks are the right ends and how planning can bring these about. It is the ends that humans should agree on initially and then we can move on immediately to discussing how these are to be achieved. Complaining about Che seems to be a way to ignore the thrust of Todd's articles and hence disingenously allow yourself an out to not agree with his ends, as you know that to achieve this will require a change in the American economic system. It is also just a reaction to the brainwashing you received when you were young and your minds were at their most pliable.

If my post offends you then it just means that it is time for you to grow up out of the abuse you received and start getting better, until you are functioning normally again like most adults outside the USA, Britain and Australia.

PS I'm an Aussie so my criticism applies just as much to Australia as it does to the USA...and I'm not "anti-American" whatever that means. Over here I'd be called "un-Australian". Same nonsensical insult as how can you hate a geographical entity.

We must follow the quotes of Che Guevara

Yes, if we all want to fight with poverty then we must follow one path. You have a great Idea but who will listen to this. Do you want to request this drone goverment. Which is busy in making money with huge scams. This is time when public has to take the right decision by themselves. There is no other path except following whether Che Guevara or Gandhi. Both achieved target by totally opposite path, Both lost their life to acheive this target and both were used by others because of their special talent and love for humanity. I recall one of very nice Che Guevara quotes - The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall. SO if we want a peaceful life then we have to fight our self. And the misery is this curruption is went up to the evry root of the people of this country. No one wants to loose the chance have in his hand. From a cycle rikshaw hawker to the president.

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.
Rome grey gold tie

Tie one on to celebrate your city!

Choose from over 20 styles imprinted with detailed city or transit maps.
 Blockitecture Building Block Set - Garden City Series

Just In! Get the Garden City Expansion

New from Blockitecture! Create towers, cities, and dwellings with this set of architectural building blocks.