Review forum: How Cities Learn

Review forum: How Cities Learn


Reviewed by Anders Kirstein Moeller

First Published:

07 Jul 2023, 4:10 am


Review forum: How Cities Learn

Astrid Wood, How Cities Learn: Tracing Bus Rapid Transit in South Africa, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2022; 208 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-119-79428-8, £24.99 (pbk).



Of the first eight words of How Cities Learn four are cities of the Global South as diverse as Ahmedabad, Bogota, Curitiba and Beijing, in a perfect embodiment of the amazing travels on which Astrid Wood takes us, with a focus on South Africa, in this novel text on policy mobilities. This brief book review forum, comprising two reviews by Anders Kirstein Moeller and Gaurav Mittal, and an author reply Wood, seeks to capture this scholarly adventure with an eye at the achievements and pathways How Cities Learn sets us on. In the book, Wood presents a varied palimpsest of complexities through which policy models travel, focusing on one of her specialties and one of the most well-known models of such mobility, that of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems. Chief amidst the contributions of the book is a call for nuance and for seeing policy mobility from within the policy process, telling stories of travelling ideas through ‘sites of learning’ and leveraging diverse urban contexts as steppingstones for common-but-differentiated stories. This is a set of ‘tracing’ processes that Wood has long argued for and that present us with additional empirical and methodological fodder for further theorising in urban studies, and a contribution that is forum-worthy in itself. Alongside a refined treatise of tracing, Wood also sketches compelling vignettes as to why south–south exchanges (as between Colombia and South Africa) need to be read within the unevenness of the Global South and Southern relationships, not disjointed from an always present ‘North’ peppering these stories, and nuanced by an appreciation for diversity of contextual conditions. Wood’s continuity and persistency with her ‘sites’ of study and engagement, fittingly put at the end of the book, and indeed the author responses here as an open-ended story of connection between scholar and ‘field’ calling her back to the travels of BRTs, are a fitting reminded of the unfinished nature of urban scholarship and its productive potential. Moeller and Mittal do a great job at giving us two precis of what the book is about, and Wood steps in thereafter, kindly acknowledging these engagements and opening up her book as a springboard for further discussions in urban studies. We hope you will enjoy the discussion at hand here, and that it will encourage you to dive into How Cities Learn too.


Commentary I

Reviewed by: Anders Kirstein Moeller, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Cities around the world are relationally connected with one another through various networks, spaces and processes (McCann and Ward, 2010). In addition to material exchanges, the burgeoning field of policy mobilities has paid close attention to how policy practices and ideas move between different urban localities, be it through, for example, conferences (e.g. Temenos, 2016), study tours (Montero, 2016) or consulting companies (Rapoport and Hult, 2017). The policy mobilities scholarship has been very productive for urban scholars seeking to understand more about how such ideals – often referred to as policy models – move, mutate and become embedded in new social milieu (McCann, 2011; McCann and Ward, 2013). However, the vast majority of existing scholarship has focused on leading cities in the so-called Global North. Furthermore, as pointed out by Robinson (2015a), it is at least as important – if not more – to understand the cross-scalar politics of how cities themselves ‘arrive at’ the decision to implement a given policy.

How Cities Learn seeks to fill this gap by providing an in-depth study of how globally circulating policy models are adopted in cities in the Global South. Deviating from the common assumption that best-practices are hegemonically reproduced across the world, the author shows that the adoption of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) model by South African cities is an inherently localised process that is subject to complex socio-economic conditions, local politics and historical contingencies. As such, implementing new policies is a gradual and iterative process which depends strongly on various local, translocal and transnational relationships, as emphasised throughout the book. Based on rich empirical research in over half a dozen cities in South Africa, this book expands the boundaries of urban studies and policy mobilities by theorising from new contexts outside the theoretical ‘hot spots’ in the Global North, thus contributing to new and innovative thinking about how cities learn from one another.

After the introductory chapter, the author lays out her theoretical framework in chapter 2 which informs her investigation in the ensuing four empirical chapters. Wood primarily operationalises her research by building on the comparative tactic of ‘tracing’, first outlined by Robinson (2015b) but further developed in Wood (2020) as both a method and a lens for understanding contemporary urban phenomena. In the simplest terms, tracing refers to following and comparing different types of connections between cities, thus enabling us to ‘see the urban realm as an assemblage of the here-and-there’ while supporting deeper analysis of cities’ interrelatedness (p. 17). Wood chooses to focus on four types of connections, namely the BRT model, actors and associations, local politics and the variegated temporalities of public transport in South Africa, each of which is traced in a subsequent chapter. Although people unfamiliar with the literature on policy mobilities may prefer to skip this brief but dense chapter, Wood succeeds in making a significant contribution to postcolonial urban scholarship by advancing an innovative methodological approach.

Chapter 3 traces the model of BRT itself, in all its tangible and intangible features, as it circulates and mutates ‘from the site of assembly to place of adoption’ in South African cities (p. 28). Although the contemporary form of BRT has its origins in Curitiba in Brazil, Wood focuses her analysis on the more popular example of the TransMilenio system in Bogotá, Colombia. Phase one of the TransMilenio network was completed in June 2002, and only a few months later the outgoing mayor Enrique Penalosa began extensively promoting the Bogotá model as a mobility-led urban revival solution through oversea tours, including in South Africa (p. 33). These marketing efforts helped establish Bogotá as a sustainable transportation poster child (Montero, 2020), and as noted by Wood, ‘inspired future thinking about urban development and transport planning’ in South African policy circles (p. 34). Wood notes that the way the TransMilenio model was packaged resonated with South African policymakers because of similar local conditions, including a long history of spatial inequality and a large unregulated taxi-bus industry. Through this, she develops two important arguments: firstly, that BRT was seen as fitting for South African cities not because of its technical merits but because of its representative power as a suitable (and hence translatable) form of urban development (pp. 28–34). Second, and following from this, the adoption of a given policy model is fundamentally a function of the local socio-economic context. Although Wood is not the only urban scholar to assert this (see for example Ward, 2018), her tracing approach inverses our conceptual scales to ‘localise’ the global process of circulating policies from the perspective of South African cities.

Chapter 4 extends the analysis in the preceding chapter by tracing actors and associations involved with the circulation of BRT in South Africa. This section unpacks the question of agency by ‘exposing the specific chains of actors and associations spreading BRT’ (p. 70), thus showing that policy adoption is, more specifically, a function of how local actors engage with a model. Taking a networked approach, Wood develops a typology of different kinds of policy actors involved in the adoption process (mobilisers, intermediaries and local pioneers), demonstrating that ‘no single individual can be attributed with responsibility for moving BRT policy across South African cities’ (p. 96). Rather, it is ‘action networks’ of formal and informal relations which facilitate learning and eventual movement of policy, to paraphrase one of her informants (pp. 85–86). Although the emphasis in this chapter is on cross-scalar connections in South Africa, the analysis is framed in the context of the international actors and organisations that promoted BRT in South Africa in a way that clearly shows the influence – and limitations – of each type of policy actor.

Chapter 5 further emphasises the importance of relationships by tracing connection between different cities, or ‘sites of learning’ (p. 98), and how those relations are influenced by political considerations at various scales. At the national and international level, Wood argues that many South African policy actors found the Bogotá model attractive due to the allure of ‘south–south cooperation’ with cities in Latin America. However, one might note that this discourse was selectively applied, as evidenced by how other potential learning sites in Sub-Saharan Africa and India were ignored. The case of Lagos, Nigeria stands out, whose BRT-lite strategy was cheaper to both develop and operate compared to South American models but was nonetheless disregarded by South Africans who preferred the perceived superiority of ‘full BRT’ (p. 104). Importantly, this illustrates the uneven geographies of south–south knowledge exchange (p. 107) which are strongly influenced by aspirational politics as well as existing inter-urban relations. At the regional and local level, this chapter also demonstrates that inter-urban relations in South Africa are more often than not shaped by competition due to limited financial and technical resources. Nevertheless, some forms of inter-regional knowledge exchange also took place, especially amongst later adopters like Rustenburg and Tshwane which sought to learn from Cape Town and Johannesburg and avoid potentially reproducing earlier mistakes (p. 113). Taken as a whole, chapter 5 shows that the process of knowledge exchange between cities is always asymmetrical and influenced by competing (and at times contradictory) aspirations.

Chapter 6 traces the genealogy of urban transportation systems in South Africa, thus showing that the general idea of BRT was neither new nor unfamiliar amongst South African policy agents once the Bogotá model began circulating in the 2000s. From a historiographical perspective then, BRT adoption in South Africa has actually been less-than-fast, thus contradicting the commonly held view in urban geography that ‘fast policy’ circulates globally at increasing speeds and intensity (Peck, 2002; Peck and Theodore, 2015). Instead, Wood finds that policy adoption has multiple temporalities of mobility that are ‘gradual, repetitive and delayed’ (p. 126) and subject to a multitude of historical developments. Moreover, the fact that BRT had to be repeatedly (re)introduced and modified before taking root in South Africa shows that ‘learning experiences are cumulative’ (pp. 126, 137–139) and must always contend with competing ideas.

Policy is constantly mutating, constantly adapting and always on the move. How Cities Learn has managed the difficult task of capturing in rich detail how a particular model of BRT was mobilised from its origins in Latin America and modified to suit the variegated socio-political needs of South African cities, moving through multi-scalar relations between different people, associations and political groups. Indeed, focusing on relationships is one of the greatest strengths of this book, which helps pry open the ‘black box’ of both individual and networked agency in mobile policies (p. 70), about which relatively little has been written hitherto, at least explicitly so. Another strong feature of the book is that it theorises from within the policy process itself, thus avoiding the somewhat polemical stance of similar literature in the Neomarxist vein and creating more opportunity for constructive critique of the policy learning process. One area where the book unfortunately falls short is the relatively weak theorisation of power. Chapter 4, for example, attempts to build a theory of power relations that can account for the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of BRT uptake in South Africa (pp. 71, 94–95). Although this chapter succeeds at challenging the perceived power of international actors that push for specific policy models, there is scant discussion of local power relations or account for the ‘why’ of different actors’ motives and agendas. Another gap is the lack of ontological grounding and a somewhat unclear use of assemblage theory, which the book makes intermittent references to throughout (such as on pp. 17 and 94). Lastly, the author appears to imply an evolutionary argument about learning and policy adoption, particularly in chapter 6, although this is never discussed explicitly. This is arguably a missed opportunity given that recent work on policy failure (Baker and McCann, 2018; Colven, 2020; and Temenos and Lauermann, 2020) has already laid the ground for exploring the relational dualities of why some policies succeed while others fail. Exploring the theoretical and methodological implications of an evolutionary take on the urban learning process could be a productive endeavour for future research.


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Commentary II

Reviewed by: Gaurav Mittal, University of Toronto, Canada

In How Cities Learn, Astrid Wood explores the world of policy mobilities through the lens of various Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects in different cities of South Africa in the last 15 years. She explains that contrary to popular understandings of the cities in the Global South being the importers of fast policy through a global system of power relations, policy moves in these cities in a gradual, repetitive, and delayed manner. In doing so, the policy sheds many of its global characteristics and localises itself to the requirements of individual cities. The book contributes to the policy mobilities scholarship, challenges the dominant transport geography knowledge systems, and sheds light on modalities of south–south collaborations.

The book comprises seven chapters that present a detailed account of how knowledge travels from one geography to another over a period of time, and through different policy models, actors, institutions, and city partnerships. In the introduction, Wood sets the book’s tone by placing it within ongoing debates in transport geography, policy mobilities, and southern urban issues. The second chapter details the analytical framework of the book. It traces the movement of policies through a complex relationship between different actors, which include subject experts, intermediaries, policymakers, politicians, bureaucrats, and international institutions. Wood discusses how these networks are instrumental in celebrating certain policies while others are often overlooked. She also shows how the geographies of policy ideas matter in their adoption in different cities.

The third chapter begins with a discussion on how the particular policy of BRT, which germinated in the not-much heralded South American town of Bogotá (which is not entirely true as shown later in the book), found its way to South Africa and became such a preoccupation of many city governments in the country that they started competing with each other to be the first to implement it. The chapter then explores how different cities customised the imported BRT model from Bogotá to their requirements, leading to diverse materialities of BRT in each city. Finally, it shows the polysemic nature of policy models, which are often mutated and modified to serve the local purpose instead of being replicated mechanically from one territory to another.

The fourth chapter focuses on the roles of policy actors and networks in translating the BRT model from one city to another. Wood categorises the policy actors into three categories: policy mobilisers, intermediaries, and local pioneers. While policy mobilisers create and mobilise policy models, the intermediaries help translate them to local requirements. Local pioneers are then required to adopt these ideas and ensure they are realised on the ground. Wood shows the limitations of each of these actors in pushing an idea further than a certain point, and shows how at the same time, each of them plays, a crucial role in successful policy adoption. The interaction between these actors is facilitated through formal and informal networks that include international transport advocates who visit these cities to sell their ideas and facilitate field visits for officials to the locations where the ideas have been implemented. These networks also include the locals, who indulge in ‘policy tourism’ to garner evidence from international contexts and learn directly from those who implemented the ‘best practices’.

The fifth chapter focuses on local politics of BRT adoption, where some international learnings of BRT implementation (from South America and the Global North) were revered and encouraged, and in contrast, others (from Africa and India) were overlooked. Within South Africa, competitive political and technical relationships set in a multi-scalar frame influence the adoption of BRT. The sixth chapter situates the BRT adoption and the role of these actors in a historical frame to show the failure of previous BRT-like policy models and the reasons for their lack of success. The chapter contests the fast policy literature based on ready-to-use prefabricated best practice policies. Instead, it suggests that policies emerge and re-emerge through multiple temporalities that are often gradual, repetitive, and delayed. The concluding chapter outlines the book’s theoretical contributions and reflects on BRT implementation in South Africa. It shows how such policies fall short of the lofty claims they make at times of adoption, meaning that improvements in public transport remain a work in progress for policymakers.

The book makes three distinct contributions to urban studies literature. The most evident contribution is to the policy mobilities literature. The book shows that best practices do not travel across cities autonomously but through an often-politicised process, in which the local actors play an equally important role as their international counterparts. The book also uncovers the temporalities of policy adoption to show that policymaking is an iterative process in which learnings from past failures are central to the success of present interventions.

The second contribution of the book is to transport geography literature. It presents a decolonial approach to transport geography by producing knowledge through a southern case study. By unpacking the political economy of BRT policy implementation, the book challenges the techno-managerial foundations of urban transport scholarship that continually relies upon lab-based north-centric transport models and best practices to provide ‘solutions’ from unruly transport situations in the cities of the global south.

The third contribution of the book is to the southern urbanism literature. While southern urbanism emphasises south–south knowledge exchange, the book highlights an important role that north-based institutions play in any successful knowledge transfer between two cities of the Global South. While this finding may not be pleasing for southern urbanism scholars, it pushes them to think about how to facilitate a meaningful south–south dialogue with minimal influence from the north, or as Palat Narayanan (2021) asks, how to think of southern theory without a north?

My only regret with the book is its relatively less attention to the movement of capital in knowledge production and assisting policy mobilities. While the role of international financial institutions in transferring north-centric ideas through financing transportation projects in the Global South is well documented (Goldman, 2005), there has been little attention paid to monetary powers and the role of international advocacy organisations in facilitating knowledge production and transfer across the nations (and continents). While the book touches upon this issue at various points, it does not go in-depth to probe it further. I would have also liked the book to problematise the presented dichotomy between the local and global (or international). In this age of global knowledge flow, where most of the experts from the Global South are trained by the institutions in the Global North, and where the curriculums in the Global South are also highly influenced by the Global North (Sidaway and Hall, 2018), it becomes pertinent to ask, who and what constitutes the ‘local’ in a southern context. Nevertheless, the book is a significant contribution to urban studies scholarship. It would make an excellent read for anyone interested in the political economy of knowledge transfer, decolonial perspectives on urban transport, and southern urbanism.


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Author Response

Reviewed by: Astrid Wood, Newcastle University, UK

Writing How Cities Learn (2022) was an opportunity to think critically about urban development in South African cities, transport and mobilities, and knowledge management. These commentaries provide another opening to engage with these concerns. I would like to thank Michele Acuto, Anders Kirstein Moeller and Gaurav Mittal for their insightful comments. I am also grateful to Urban Studies for providing this forum through which to discuss my conceptual, methodological, and empirical contributions.

How Cities Learn considers how and why South African policy actors adopted the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. It draws on literature from urban and transport geography to make four key contributions – first by highlighting how policy models travel through a complex political economy, second, by underscoring the power of local actors and their political networks in the adoption of best practice, third, by exposing the politics of learning and south-south cooperation, and fourth, by uncovering the multiple temporalities of policy learning. While previous scholarship has touched on these debates, this is the first full-length monograph that utilises the policy mobilities framework to demonstrate how cities are constituted through their relations with elsewhere as well as the fundamental role of the local within the global.

For South African urban studies, How Cities Learn provides a critical appraisal of transport transformation. It furthers this conversation by bringing the policy mobilities scholarship into dialogue with South African urban studies. The book examines how BRT was implemented in South African cities, the policymakers involved, the local politics and decades of urban transport experimentation. It highlights the feats and faults of local actors to make substantive and significant urban change. The chapters expose not only the details of how local government works in South Africa but also how South African cities collaborate with other Global South cities. In a broader sense, understanding the decisions of South African local actors decolonises geography by unsettling the Global North as the centre of knowledge production and the power-holder over defining urban problems and assessing urban solutions.

My methodological approach to ‘tracing’ (Wood, 2020) is the product of a lengthy and recurrent engagement with city planning and transport in Cape Town, Johannesburg and elsewhere in South Africa. Between 2012 and 2020, interviews (as well as document and event analysis) were conducted with architects, city planners, consultants, donors, financial managers, (city, provincial and national) politicians, transport engineers, transport operators, and urban designers. Over such a lengthy engagement, as many of these policy actors changed positions, I continued to meet with both the original implementers and their replacements. This methodology allows for a repeated and enduring understanding of learning, and the opportunity to capture respondent reflections over time. How Cities Learn therefore serves as a history of BRT adoption in South Africa.

The commentaries by Moeller and Mittal are both generous and insightful, and they provide scope for future research. First, the commentators reflect on my analysis of local power dynamics and push me to more carefully unpack the undercurrents through which knowledge and power circulate. My focus in How Cities Learn was to understand local agency and how South Africans understood and applied BRT. For this reason, the book employs primarily the South African experience of BRT and how local actors designed and developed their systems. Elsewhere I expand on the role of international transport advocates like the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and Enrique Penalosa to package and promote BRT around the world (Wood, 2019). To more fully elaborate on the process by which Bogotano politicians and planners exported BRT I direct readers to the work of Sergio Montero (2020); and for those interested in how BRT has been interpreted in Dar es Salaam I recommend the scholarship of Malve Jacobsen (2023).

Indeed one of my goals in studying BRT was to highlight the power of the city to drive substantive transport transformation. In South Africa, urbanists have been at the forefront of the postapartheid agenda – first by resisting apartheid laws and later by writing the national constitution, establishing municipal structures, and serving as city managers and financial administrators, all while gliding seamlessly between government and academic roles. The commentators challenge readers to reflect on the indefinability of the global and the local, and the dangerousness of suspecting that these categories are firmly fixed. Indeed in South Africa, policy actors frequently move between roles, working for local government one day, an international think tank the next day, and civil society the day after that. In many instances, consultants worked across BRT projects contributing kernels here and there, and while I tried to highlight these redeployments, sometimes they were too expeditious to unpack. At follow-up interviews, I rarely found policy actors working in the same position. These shifts are fundamental to our understanding of policy mobilities methodologies and theorizations. Chapter 4 and the discussion of policy actors and chapter 6 and the discussion of the multiple temporalities of learning were my attempts to capture these mobilities. In chapter 4, I explain how policymakers and planners shift and move, taking their learning with them, sometimes translating it into action, other times printing it in unread reports. And in chapter 6, I demonstrate the process by which policy mobility is constantly happening – touching-down and lifting-up, shifting and staying-put, sometimes those traces are obvious and other times obscured.

The commentators also prompt readers to consider processes of success and failure. Indeed failure is a powerful notion in policy mobilities. Questions of success and failure are increasingly central to my work not only conceptually, but also practically as BRT implementation has stopped and started across South African cities. In many instances, failed projects remain both portable and influential. How Cities Learn describes not only the successes but also the failures of BRT adoption. In chapter 3, I describe the process by which policy actors localise BRT to fit the South African context. And in chapter 6, I note instances when policy mobility slows and stalls, and the implications of that failure on both policy actors and the locality in which the failure takes place. Failure is not only measured by stoppages in the adoption process but also by the difficulties for BRT to transform the economic and social landscape.

How Cities Learn is perhaps even more pivotal within a landscape in which BRT has failed. The rollout of BRT was hardly linear, and since launching, cities have struggled to operate the buses and expand their systems. BRT was believed to make transport more comfortable, convenient, efficient, and reliable for riders; and it was supposed to be cheap and fast to build, operate without subsidies, and incorporate the under-regulated and often violent minibus taxi industry. Instead, BRT services are plagued by low ridership, high operational costs, ongoing resistance from competing transport operators, and a decline in financial support from national government for capital expansion. The construction of Johannesburg’s Phase 1C and Cape Town’s MyCiTi Phase 2 has stalled as a result of technical difficulties and political inertia. The operational services along Johannesburg’s Rea Vaya Phase 1A and 1B have a total distance of just 43 km, well short of the planned 93 km. Many of the politicians and planners that were once explicitly optimistic about the ensuing transport transformation are now confronted with challenges unforeseen. Under these circumstances, it is even more critical to recognise the role local actors played in the adoption of BRT. The extent to which BRT has been successful or unsuccessful in transforming transport will likely be the subject of future research in South Africa.

A project is usually done and dusted once the book is published. In this instance however the research is far from over. In 2020, I returned to South Africa to interview a new cohort of BRT policy actors. Unlike the pioneering and brave adopters described in the book, this new group was either unwilling or unable to think critically about BRT. I met with BRT implementers who seemed unfamiliar with the history of the project, and therefore unable to learn from previous decisions. And I asked city officials why projects were delayed only to hear them pass responsibility to another officeholder. Meanwhile in cities that have yet to launch a BRT, policy actors remain enamored by the Bogotá model in spite of the obvious failings. For South African cities the story of BRT is only just beginning.

While this book is finished, many new questions emerge: what is next for BRT in South Africa? Will cities continue to expand their BRT systems in spite of financial and operational shortcomings? What happens to the half-planned, half-built systems? Will they become urban failures? And how will future researchers understand the history of BRT implementation? How Cities Learn begins the story but it is hardly the end. Indeed questions of local and global, success and failure remain at the forefront of any future conceptual, methodological or empirical research in urban South Africa.


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