4/12/2019 Peter Durantine

2019 Spring Research Fair: Ethical Implications of Public Transportation

(A featured story from the April 12 Spring Research Fair)

Once an old German university town, the medieval city of Freiburg on the western edge of the Black Forest was a Franklin & Marshall College senior’s inspiration for her research on the ethical implications of public transportation. 

A native of Houston, a sprawling metropolis where a car is necessary to get most places (the city opened a 13-mile light rail line in 2004 and efforts to expand it are underway), Bonnie Sullivan spent her spring semester as a junior studying abroad in Freiburg.

“I was just enamored by their public transportation system and how easy it was to move about a city, an entire country, and really all of Europe without ever having to step foot in a car,” Sullivan said. “That really got me interested in public transportation and mobility.”

  • A native of Houston, a sprawling metropolis where a car is necessary to get most places, Sullivan spent her spring semester as a junior abroad, studying the mass transit systems in Freiburg, Germany. A native of Houston, a sprawling metropolis where a car is necessary to get most places, Sullivan spent her spring semester as a junior abroad, studying the mass transit systems in Freiburg, Germany. Image Credit: Deb Grove

In the United States, the government major and environmental studies minor used the subway and bus systems when she visited Washington, D.C. and New York City, but in Germany she relied on trams and trains that were most people’s chief mode of getting around. 

“My research focuses on the ethics of public transportation, specifically through trying to understand how markets and morality intersect,” said Sullivan. “Looking at it solely through an economic lens and with economic consequences is leaving out a certain crucial part of what public transportation is.”

That crucial part is people, she said. “Transportation is tied to every aspect of life—your social mobility as well as your economic mobility, getting to the grocery store, getting to see your friends and your family. Everything is related to mobility.”

Because public transportation addresses issues of accessibility, economics and freedom, “it’s more than just something that should be defined in the market context,” Sullivan said.

With an eye to a career in urban studies, Sullivan examines such issues as how public transportation reduces pollution, where it falls in supply-and-demand patterns when innovations like Uber are created, and the effects of political opposition such as the national anti-transit movement, backed by wealthy industrialists Charles and David Koch.

“Realizing that public transportation is more complex than it seems invites room for discussion of ethical factors outside of the market, like questions about fairness, mobility, and accessibility,” Sullivan said. “Viewing transportation as related to these moral questions can help understand what its status in the market should be.”

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