‘Subway-free’ Buenos Aires

The cosmopolitan capital of Argentina is one of the largest cities in the world. Every day its transport system needs to cope with over 13 million people living and moving around its metropolitan area.

Even having one of the largest metros in Latin America, for years, it has failed to provide enough capacity to move all the citizens who depend on it.The subway opened in 1913, in what was the first underground system in our continent.

Today it is a vital artery for a chaotic Buenos Aires, which has traditionally glorified the private car. Besides congested second level freeways, the city also boasts a couple of unusual urban roads: the widest (‘9 de Julio’) and the longest (Rivadavia) in the world.

It is not sufficient to navigate through the traffic jams, which are so characteristic of most great cities of the world, to really understand the mobility challenge there. For the authentic ‘porteño’ commuter experience, you need to take the subway during rush hour.

As the lines of the subway system are connected with several other commuter rail lines and bus stations, carriages soon fill up during the first few stops. One must pray for a miracle to find a space starting from the third or fourth train station. The crowding is acute and the lack of lack of personal space oppressive.

However, the system works well enough. The locals, though blinded by their uncomfortable journeys, still reach their destinations. Now, imagine this great city without the metro – would it continue to function?

Since political fights have no limits in creating disruptions, the great fear of many came about during the first two weeks of August: the subway went on strike and closed down completely for 10 days! The urban mobility system collapsed (obviously).

Fortunately, since the last subway strike, a new mode of transport has been strengthened in Buenos Aires. In recent years they have built around 80 kilometres of protected bike paths (i.e. permanent structures with high kerbs to protect cyclists from traffic). These are part of an initial plan to build 100 interconnected kilometres, mainly aiming at universities and public buildings.

With the strike, many ordinary citizens decided it was the perfect excuse to dust off their bikes, or to rent one of the thousand public bicycles, with which the city complements its network of bike paths. Some local newspapers reported a doubling in demand for these public bikes during the strike; a pleasant surprise.

When the strike finally ended, having plunged the Buenos Aires streets into unprecedented chaos, no politician was left unscathed. According to a survey carried out by Opinión Autenticada, 40.3% of locals held the national government responsible for the subway strike, while 28.2% blamed the city government.

The political fight during the conflict, sustained between President Kirchner and Buenos Aires Mayor Macri (former president of Boca Juniors football club), left no one unscathed. By contrast, it only reminds us of the importance of shielding urban transport systems from the strategic interests of politicians. After all, it is only us – ordinary citizens – who lose out in these kinds of crisis.

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 27 August 2012. Images: Flickr / Michele Molinari / Eric Illuminaut. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.

He Said, She Said: Changes Ahead for Citation and Review in Research

Citation and peer review have been unchallenged central tenets of academic epistemology for at least as long as the keywords in this sentence have been around. To most in the field today, the very suggestion that they should be challenged is something akin to anathema. Yet that suggestion is on its way from a murmur to a roar. Three recent commentaries and trends undercut the importance of citation, at least as we understand it in academe.

The very concept of knowledge is changing or Flickr / Dan4th Nicholaspoised to change. In a world where it is no longer impossible for a digital encyclopaedia to contain every fact about every entity in every corner of the planet, netizens may be excused for expecting it to. Just as surely, authors may wish to add entries on subjects that no one else has ever bothered to write on.

As an instance, the New York Times article linked above mentions the Malayalam entry about an indigenous game known to ‘only’ a few million in a part of India. No published accounts of the game existed, and the authors had to improvise a new form of citation. In such a vast trove of knowledge, is the place and significance of citations of the conventional kind intact? How would we reconcile the old with the emerging forms of authority?

On the flipside, does the paramount emphasis on reviewing prior literature, given its bursting volumes and the ready access to it all stifle the rare creative spark? An educationalist at the Pope Centre argues that the customary research paper expected of students at every level does little to train them in the techniques of laying arguments and ideas of their own.

Many do a satisfactory job of reviewing existing literature, even an exhaustive one of which takes little effort online. Few ever try to expound a thesis of their own. It is not expected of them, as it was of scholars of the age when the foundations of scientific philosophy were being laid, the age of the word ‘thesis’ itself.

They leave college unable to write their mind and explore an all-new idea in the manner of the research articles that they routinely review in abundance. Should we train them at universities or leave it to the select few who will continue to age in academia to muddle through it at their own pace?

Lastly, concerns are rising over the awkward inefficiency of transacting scientific progress by way of academic journals, in a globalized, wired world. In a time of constrained budgets, universities are beginning to measure research success solely as a function of external funds brought in.

Given the skewed compulsions and perverse incentives embedded in the system, grassroots efforts have emerged to allow researchers to share negative results. It shan’t be long before some crowd-sourced authority online could tell you whether or not you should be undertaking a particular research question. And why not?

Sachin Kumar BADKAS, PhD fellow, Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. Image: Flickr / Dan4th Nicholas