Tim Schwanen
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Denver V. Nixon
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Understanding the relationships between wellbeing and mobility in the unequal city
The case of community initiatives promoting cycling and walking in São Paulo and London

Recent years have seen extensive interest in the relationships between urbanisation and city living and wellbeing as a subjectively experienced state. This chapter proposes firstly that for cities characterised by trenchant socio-spatial inequalities, wellbeing is best conceptualised in terms of capabilities, and secondly that capabilities need to be understood in a more dynamic and process-oriented manner and with greater consideration for experience than is common in most research on capabilities. The arguments are first elaborated in conceptual terms for the case of people’s everyday mobility in the city and then illustrated empirically, using a study about how community-led initiatives to support walking and cycling contribute to the wellbeing of marginalised social groups in São Paulo and London. The findings show the importance of focusing attention on the ongoing and dynamic interweaving of capabilities, practices and experiences in research that seeks to understand the relationships between wellbeing and mobility in highly unequal cities.

Whether city living contributes to people’s wellbeing is a question that both is topical and, in the Western tradition, goes back to at least Ancient Greece. It is topical because of the broader happiness turn (Ahmed, 2010) and the steady increases in urbanisation on the planetary scale (Satterthwaite, 2007). The question can be answered in many different ways, although quantitative analysis regressing one or more indicators of subjectively experienced wellbeing onto a host of measures of opulence, social networks, the built environment, population composition and so on tends to prevail in the recent academic literature (Ballas, 2013; Okuliz-Kozaryn, 2015; Winters and Li, 2017). Other research has considered how everyday time use in the city, including transport, shapes wellbeing (De Vos et al., 2013; Schwanen and Wang, 2014; Birenboim, 2018). Work along these lines typically understands wellbeing as a subjective state that inheres in individuals and can be measured quantitatively (Atkinson, 2013).

This mode of analysis is in keeping with the neoliberal governmental regimes under which wellbeing has become a major object of intervention (Binkley, 2014). Questions can nevertheless be raised about its usefulness in situations of extreme inequality between people in terms of wealth, health, resources and entitlements as they exist – and, if anything, seem to be increasing – in many cities across the world. This is not least because adaptive preferences may make poor and other disadvantaged people inclined to accept situations and inequalities that can be argued to be objectively unjust or oppressive (Sen, 2008). It is also not clear whether prevailing modes of quantitative analysis of subjectively experienced wellbeing can offer adequate insight into the collective dimensions of wellbeing in the city, and into the ways in which differences in wellbeing between people in a city or between different moments in a given person’s life emerge and unfold.

In this chapter, we therefore engage with different traditions of conceptualising and examining wellbeing to understand some of the relationships between everyday mobility and wellbeing in deeply unequal cities with a specific focus on disadvantaged social groups. A version of the Capabilities Approaches (CAs) originally developed by Amartya Sen and colleagues (Sen, 1999; Robeyns, 2017) plays a prominent role in our analysis. That version is, however, extended and amalgamated with insights from relational, process-based perspectives on wellbeing from Human Geography (Smith and Reid, 2018) according to which wellbeing can be understood as emerging from practices and relations in particular time-spaces and referring to closely interrelated, individualised experiences and capabilities to be and become otherwise. Since forms of mobility often play a central part in those experiences and capabilities, sociological thinking on motility – potential mobility (Kaufmann, 2002; see below) – is also used. We thus begin to elaborate a revised approach to capabilities in an attempt to shed light on how wellbeing is generated in time-spaces that are always differentiated and differentiating.

In empirical terms, our discussion draws on research conducted in the deeply unequal cities of São Paulo and London and concentrating on the role of citizen-led initiatives to support cycling and walking among people in poor or otherwise deprived neighbourhoods of both cities. This focus may seem unduly narrow, but we argue that the initiatives’ practices have an infrastructural relationship to wellbeing as relationally generated experience and capabilities. This is because, in all their heterogeneity, the initiatives seek to actively overcome transport disadvantage – lack of access, knowledge, skills, aspiration, autonomy and/or influence over institutionalised policy and governance with regard to transport and everyday mobility – of specific social groups and broader socio-spatial inequalities in the neoliberalised city, often through prefigurative politics (Yates, 2015). Moreover, walking and cycling are, on balance, the most just forms of everyday urban mobility. Even if both are increasingly co-opted by entrepreneurial and speculative urban regeneration efforts, restrictions on access to them and their imprints on cities (air pollution, greenhouse gases, noise, congestion, differentiation between haves and have-nots, evictions and displacement) tend to be considerably lower for them than for public transport and private automobiles.

The remainder of this chapter is in four parts. We begin with a brief discussion of wellbeing and mobility as concepts before summarising our understanding of their interrelationships. This is followed by a summary description of the empirical research, after which we critically explore how citizen-led initiatives to promote cycling and walking contribute to wellbeing in deprived urban communities. The chapter ends with some propositions.

Core concepts and analytical framework


The term ‘wellbeing’ is easily used but often poorly defined, and conceptualisations abound in both popular discourse and the academic literature. There is evidence to suggest that, at least in the Western world, understandings of wellbeing have become increasingly centred on the individual under the influence of neoliberalism and the rise of the ‘psy-sciences’ (Ahmed, 2010; Binkley, 2014). Much contemporary research and policy discourse therefore understands wellbeing as a subjective and hedonic state that inheres in individuals (Atkinson, 2013). On this account, wellbeing is about what individuals feel: how satisfied, happy, free from pain and so forth they are in general or at a specific point in time. This is the kind of wellbeing that is imagined, measured and analysed by the ‘science’ of wellbeing (Diener, 2000) and increasingly dominant in transport and urban studies research.

The science of wellbeing is, however, not restricted to hedonic understandings of wellbeing as eudaimonic conceptions have steadily gained ground over the past decades. Drawing on Aristotle’s writings, psychologists have argued that wellbeing is not about the maximisation of pleasure but about flourishing – the realisation of one’s daimon or true potential, as well as fulfilment and meaning in life. Wellbeing, in this imagination, still inheres in individuals as a state (Ryan and Deci, 2001; Ryff and Singer, 2008). The most widely considered states in this context relate to personal growth, autonomy, social relationships and relatedness, competence, environmental mastery and self-acceptance. While offering a more textured and complex understanding of wellbeing than most hedonic approaches, the thinking by eudaimonic psychologists has been criticised for its paternalism, ethnocentric universalisation of Euro-American conceptions of human subjectivity and experience, and reduction of wellbeing to quantifiable and discrete components (Atkinson, 2013; Smith and Reid, 2018).

Many other conceptualisations of wellbeing exist, and a full overview is beyond this chapter. Two, however, deserve special mention. Linked to the above eudaimonic perspective are the CAs that have emerged in the wake of Amartya Sen’s work on development and freedom (Sen, 1999; Robeyns, 2017). Different CAs come with markedly different ontological assumptions, for instance in terms of commitment to individualism and universalism, and ethical implications (Robeyns, 2017). Sen’s own version is adamant in its rejection of conceptualising wellbeing in terms of resources (including wealth) and happiness or other subjective experiences. Wellbeing is rather about the capabilities available to individuals: the positive freedom to achieve certain activities and states of being. He distinguishes between functionings – actually achieved activities and states of being – and capabilities, which represent real opportunities or potentials. When discussing wellbeing, Sen tends to privilege capabilities over functionings, stressing that the conversion of capabilities into actual functionings is mediated by all kinds of personal and social factors, from previous functionings such as acquired skills and remembered experiences to policy outcomes, economic structures and discourses (Sen, 1999; Clark, 2005; Robeyns, 2017). Thus having a bicycle available (resource) is not enough to contribute to an individual’s wellbeing and freedom to engage in functionings elsewhere in physical space if they have not learnt how to cycle (skill) or are discouraged by first-hand experience of traffic accidents (functioning), by road designs privileging motorised vehicles, or discourses equating cycling with backwardness (social factors).

While Sen’s CA is, for some, ‘broad enough to capture all aspects of human wellbeing’ (Clark, 2005: 1340), questions can be raised over its marginalisation of experience, its account of how capabilities come into existence and its individualism. For Clark (2005), hedonic and eudaimonic experiences should be given more credit as valuable functionings than Sen tends to grant them. This is because such experiences are not only a means to an end, facilitating the achievement of other functionings – as Sen has recognised – but also intrinsically valuable constituents of a good life and thus ends in themselves. The argument implies that capabilities, practices and experiences are closely interrelated and need to be understood as co-constitutive of wellbeing.

Sen’s texts can induce rather mechanistic accounts of how capabilities come into existence and differ across populations, using econometrics to correlate static indicators of resources, personal and social factors, and capabilities. However, more relational accounts avoiding the specification of a priori factors or processes that generate capabilities and their conversion into functionings are also possible. The latter insist on the need to engage with and explore specific situations in particular times and places (Smith and Reid, 2018; White, 2017).

Such accounts can also throw into question the idea that capabilities are ultimately situated at the level of the individual, even if ‘their realisation [requires] action by a group or a collectivity’ (Robeyns, 2017: 117). This is because relational accounts recognise that capabilities and functionings may be individually experienced but produced by, and emerging from, assemblages of practices, technological artefacts, materiality, discourse and atmospheres (see also Smith and Reid, 2018; White, 2017). Those accounts can foreground that wellbeing, and thus capabilities, happen as events produced and experienced as part of specific times and spaces – time-spaces.

The final conceptualisation of wellbeing discussed in this chapter, then, gathers together a range of process-based, relational accounts of wellbeing as the emergent, space- and time-specific outcome of relations between not only people but also objects, material landscapes, values, discourses and atmospheres as active agents (Smith and Reid, 2018). One of the most helpful outcomes of this style of thinking about wellbeing and its generation is a heuristic classification of how spatial, or rather tempo-spatial, and dynamic constellations of heterogeneous elements – assemblages (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987) – in cities and beyond can enhance wellbeing (Fleuret and Atkinson, 2007):

  1. Time-spaces of capability that cultivate the capabilities of interest to Sen, particularly for those who suffer comparative disadvantages, such as the stigmatised or disabled;
  2. Time-spaces of social integration that harness opportunities for people to form networks and relationships with human and non-human others;
  3. Time-spaces of security that reduce all kinds of risk relating to, for example, traffic injury, violence and other forms of oppression; and
  4. Therapeutic time-spaces that promote healing, restoration and recuperation, for instance from stress, air pollution and obesogenic and car-dominated environments.


As a concept, mobility is as polysemous as wellbeing is (Kaufmann, Bergman and Joye, 2004; Urry, 2007). Most definitions refer to realised or actual movement in social or physical space, such as upward social mobility, migration, residential relocation, tourism and daily commuting or trips for shopping, care or leisure. Yet for authors like Hägerstrand (1970) and Kaufmann (2002), a focus on actual movement is inadequate for an understanding of either how the urban fabric and societal processes enable and constrain mobility, or what the wider consequences of mobility are. Kaufmann and colleagues instead advocate an orientation towards motility: ‘the capacity of entities (e.g. goods, information or persons) to be mobile in social and geographic space, or as the way in which entities access and appropriate the capacity for socio-spatial mobility according to their circumstances’ (Kaufmann, Bergman and Joye, 2004: 750).

There are parallels here with the concept of accessibility, which is widely used in geography, transport and urban planning literatures to denote ‘the potential of opportunities for interaction’ (Hansen, 1959: 73) or the ‘ease of reaching goods, services, activities and destinations’ (Litman, 2017: 6). Nevertheless, for Flamm and Kaufmann (2006), the relationship between individuals or social groups and space is different in both concepts: in accessibility the emphasis is on the opportunities a given spatial configuration offers to individuals, whereas in motility the relation is more two-sided, and individuals or social groups are more active agents.

For Kaufman and colleagues, motility has three interdependent constituents (Kaufmann, Bergman and Joye, 2004):

  1. Access – the portfolio of mobilities rendered possible by place-specific and time-varying conditions created by transport and communication networks and services, the built environment and urban planning, socio-economic processes, discourses and cultural values, and so on;
  2. Competencies – the embodied operational (i.e. how things work), navigational (i.e. where things are), temporal (i.e. scheduling) and kinaesthetic (i.e. motor skills) abilities that make particular mobilities using specific technologies and infrastructures possible; and
  3. Cognitive appropriation – how individuals or social groups consider, deem appropriate and select certain possibilities on the basis of needs, aspirations, motives, values, understandings and habits. The term refers to how individuals and groups act upon access and competencies.

Kaufmann and colleagues use the adjective ‘cognitive’ consistently in relation to appropriation but this seems unnecessarily restrictive, especially when insights from scholarship on affect are considered according to which non-conscious sensation and embodied perception are much faster and condition conscious thought and experience (Thrift, 2008). Since cognitive appropriation is only one type of appropriation by individuals, we prefer to refer to appropriation in the remainder of this chapter.

The wellbeing-mobility nexus

Relational, process-based perspectives on wellbeing extend and refract Sen’s version of the CA. Not only can they foreground the entwined, rather than separated, nature of capabilities and experiences; they can also understand wellbeing ‘as happening, as always becoming, and so always incomplete’ (White, 2017: 124; emphasis in original). Hedonic and eudaimonic experiences and capabilities may be individualised into a specific human body and mind, but they are collectively and continuously generated in wider assemblages, from which individuals cannot easily be abstracted in thought and research practices, if dynamics and changes in wellbeing are to be understood. Experiences and capabilities emerge from practices involving interactions with heterogeneous elements – human and non-human – in particular time-spaces. Those time-spaces stand in an infrastructural relationship to experiences and capabilities: they harness and cultivate certain experiences, practices and capabilities, while at the same time making others less likely, sometimes excluding those others altogether and thus producing ambiguous outcomes (as illustrated below).

Mobility is often key to the experiences and capabilities cultivated in time-spaces of wellbeing, particularly in cities where everyday practices are spatially and temporally sorted and inequalities in resources, functionings and capabilities are often rampant. As discussed above, mobility as actual movement is a functioning and a capability that opens up and facilitates the achievement of other functionings. Yet exactly how mobility operates as both functioning and capability remains opaque in CAs, even when amplified by relational and process-based perspectives on wellbeing as an entwined becoming of experience and capability. This is where the thinking on motility is useful. It can highlight how access, competencies and appropriation – themselves continuously and relationally generated in and through interactions and relations within assemblages – are important to the formation of capabilities and their conversion into actual acts and experiences of movement and thus particular functionings and further capabilities. Exactly how access, competences and appropriation emerge, interact and open up functionings and capabilities is an empirical question to which we turn now.

Research in São Paulo and London

The empirical research used for this chapter seeks to address questions about the extent to which citizen-led (rather than state-led) initiatives to promote cycling and walking can accelerate a transition towards more sustainable and just urban mobility systems in unequal cities in the Majority and Minority Worlds. São Paulo and London are the respective cases. Both cities are fast growing in terms of population and dominant in their national economies yet characterised by deep inequalities. São Paulo is the world’s ninth most unequal city when the Palma Ratio, the richest 10 per cent’s share of income divided by the share of the poorest 40 per cent, is considered (Razvadauskas, 2017). With 1.7 in London (Tinson et al., 2017) that ratio is much lower than São Paulo’s 4.8 but still large, particularly for a Minority World context. For some time now, both cities have also been national and continental leaders in pro-cycling policies (segregated bicycle infrastructure, bicycle-sharing schemes and promotional campaigns) advocated by mayoral governments. However, whereas car ownership and use has peaked in London (Metz, 2015), it continues to grow in São Paulo (SINDIPEÇAS and ABIPEÇAS, 2017). It also seems that government policies to encourage cycling and walking are not effectively reaching out to all social groups in both cities. Patterns of social and spatial differentiation in this regard differ between the cities because of their respective historical evolution, physical layout and distribution of social privilege.

Initiatives promoting cycling and walking and specifically targeting disadvantaged individuals and social groups were identified differently in São Paulo and London because of differences in data availability. For London, we used government data on walking and cycling levels and on multiple deprivation to select specific deprived wards (the primary electoral divisions in England) with extensive cycling and/or walking across Greater London. The selected wards lie in four different boroughs (local authority districts), two in Inner London and two in Outer London Citizen-led initiatives in the identified wards were enumerated through internet searches, local key informants and multiple site visits. Twenty-six initiative leaders and staff willing to participate in the study were interviewed, alongside thirteen beneficiaries. Using snowballing techniques we recruited a further five interviewees involved in, or with knowledge of, similar initiatives across other parts of London.

Since similarly detailed, current and robust geo-spatial data on cycling and walking were unavailable for São Paulo, a list of citizen-led walking and cycling initiatives across the city was compiled using internet searches, local key informants and Como Anda’s (2017) national survey. Invited to participate in the study were organisations on this list that run initiatives focused either on deprived neighbourhoods, which were identified using local government data, or on specific disadvantaged groups, such as people with physical disabilities. Twenty-five leaders and staff, plus eight beneficiaries, of citizen-led initiatives were interviewed, as were five intermediaries and government staff members. All interviews in both cities were semi-structured in nature; most were audio-recorded and transcribed, and notes were taken in instances where recording was refused. Just over half of the interviews were conducted in Portuguese; English was used in the remainder when the participants felt comfortable communicating in that language. Resulting texts have been read repeatedly and coded thematically.

Initiatives included walking and cycling groups; bicycle repair training; bicycle riding instruction; the provision of street furniture; the provision of navigational aids; temporary street closures; and pathway, staircase and bicycle-path improvements. The initiatives tended to cater to members of specific disadvantaged social groups, such as those with disabilities, members of cultural and religious minorities, refugees and asylum seekers, women and gender-variant people, low-income residents of deprived neighbourhoods, children and older people. Despite minimal financial and human resources, most originators, leaders and staff sought to run their initiatives on the basis of visions of a more socially just and environmentally responsible society. They attempted to enact these visions, and create new collective norms, through prefiguratively ‘leading by example’ and experimental interventions in existing transport regimes and political frames (Yates, 2015). Several differences existed between initiatives in São Paulo and London, including a greater focus on walking and following of political tides (campaigning during administrations that promote cycling and walking, and a stronger do-it-yourself or do-it-together orientation at times of conflict and disagreement with local government) in the former city.

Cultivating the potential to walk or cycle

Wellbeing, mobility and space interconnected

Before considering how access, competencies and appropriation interact in the case of the citizen-led initiatives to promote cycling and walking, we begin with a more general discussion of how wellbeing as a combination of capabilities, practices and experiences is closely interconnected with mobility and space. Study participants in both São Paulo and London spoke about their interconnection in various ways and from different perspectives. For some, like Antonio below, overcoming automobility – the landscapes, materialities, practices and institutions centred on the private car – is key to the creation of a more equal and humane city, enabling greater capability sets for everybody instead of only the richer social groups. He articulates a well-rehearsed argument from mobilities scholarship across the social sciences that fast and mechanised forms of mobility, including automobility, are relational in the sense that the mobility of some is achieved through the immobilisation of others (Urry, 2007). The character that the urban fabric – the constellation of the built environment plus social relations, institutions and practices – acquires under automobility plays a key mediating role in that process of socially selective immobilisation and de-capacitation. Cycling, he argues, is more democratic as it opens up not only the capability, even the right, to move but also particular livelihoods to a wider range of people:

So, if people don’t have opportunities to access schools, health, activities, the streets, and leisure, this country, this city is not well developed. So, we try to use the bicycle as a tool to enlarge the opportunities and the freedom so people get this kind of thing, but indirectly. The first one is the right to go and come.1 The second is to learn a profession as a mechanic, a bicycle mechanic, or to work as a bike messenger or a cycle tourist guide, different kinds of professions to which the bicycle is related. We also hope to promote a more humane city with public space shared in a more democratic way. When the streets are made for cars, this is not democratic because they are only for people who have money to buy and use the car, and there is no space for everybody. (Antonio, initiator of a cycling promotion organisation, São Paulo)

Cycling’s indirect eudaimonic benefit of opening up particular livelihoods aligns with other research in cities across the Majority World demonstrating how transport is an important source of employment, particularly for young adult men with few educational qualifications (Schwanen, 2018).

The notion that the character of urban space is a barrier to experiences of flourishing and happiness and capability formation was a recurrent theme across interviews. Consider Phoebe and Madalena, whose experiences and positionalities are significantly different. The former comments on the privatisation and commodification of spaces in London where children can enjoy themselves, nurture relationships and learn, whereas the latter reflects on how the capability to walk is empowering and helps to mitigate the unfamiliarity and social atomisation induced by automobility and fear of crime in the north-east of São Paulo:

[The initiative provides] a common, public space. It’s really crucial. And I think there’s an understanding with all these walking projects and cycling projects and all of the wellbeing, all of the things that come under wellbeing, public space is a really big part of that. This is a public space, it’s a drop in. Do you know how many times when we first opened children would come in – and it makes me cry even thinking about it – and asking how much it was? How much to come in and play? What? Yeah. The fact that the expectation is already that they’re going to have to pay to go somewhere nice, and that’s … And free space, it’s amazing, children will go and hang out anywhere that’s free. (Phoebe, co-leader of an organisation providing youth cycling training and maintenance as well as a children’s playground, London)

[Walking] means the freedom to do my daily tasks with ease … [The initiative] is a creative, accessible, and enjoyable movement in which to participate. It showed me how important is to think about our wellbeing, and that we can overcome our difficulties … our neighbourhood, and surrounding neighbourhoods, have many stories to tell and places to explore … The friends we make on each walk, the community benefits from these connections. (Madalena, participant in an organised group walk initiative, São Paulo)

Indeed, our analysis reinforces the idea that actual and potential cycling and walking can increase wellbeing for disadvantaged individuals in highly unequal cities owing to the resulting immediate experiences and the capabilities and functionings – activities and contacts at destinations, livelihoods, and so forth – that are opened up. Also important are the indirect, higher-order and longer-term benefits: the cycling and walking by some and the urban fabrics conducive to cycling and walking multiply and extend to others opportunities to flourish and feel well. Currently highly unequal cities may through this become more liveable, equitable and enjoyable.


The quotations from Antonio, Phoebe and Madalena all point out the significance of access, mobilities on foot and by bicycle made possible for specific groups of somehow disadvantaged individuals. They refer to, respectively, inhabitants of São Paulo unable to afford or use a car, children across London and people living in a north-eastern neighbourhood of São Paulo. From Phoebe and Madalena’s comments we can also derive that access is not only shaped by large-scale structures and processes like built environments, economic developments or government investment in physical infrastructures for cycling and walking. The often small-scale actions in terms of how many persons’ access can be affected and the time-limited nature of opportunities such as walking groups or cycle training and maintenance sessions suggest a level of fluidity and socio-tempo-spatial differentiation in access that is easily abstracted in research on inequalities in mobility and wellbeing.

The idea is to encourage the wheelchair user to leave their home and have a more active life. I don’t usually donate food staples, I don’t usually donate money; I want to encourage people to leave their homes. So, if the guy says ‘I have a wheelchair but it’s really bad and I haven’t been able to get around’, I’ll look around for a better wheelchair to give them. The objective is always for them to have a more active life. (Lucas, leader of an organisation that helps disabled people with assistive mobility devices, information provision and group trips, São Paulo)

The diverse nature of the initiatives supporting walking and cycling in São Paulo and London we studied is reinforced by organisations in both cities that help people with disabilities become more mobile. Lucas leads an organisation in São Paulo that runs a range of initiatives, including the provision to those in need of functional wheelchairs and other assistive mobility devices obtained from donors. It is evident that practices such as these can have a major impact on disabled people’s access and that a more active life can have many health, social and psychological benefits. The objective of a more active life is also promoted by numerous organisations, including the World Health Organization (WHO) (e.g. WHO, 2015). There is nonetheless an element of ambiguity: while helping to co-constitute a time-space of capability, reinforcing the global norm that people should lead active lives, the initiative also marginalises other ways of being for disabled people which are configured around staying within the home and may be desired by some. Perhaps inevitably, and despite the best of intentions, initiatives and the time-spaces of capability they help to generate can and will also produce their own exclusions.

The excerpt from the interview with Lucas illustrates another point that was also evident from other interviews. Access as defined by Kaufmanm and colleagues cannot be equated to a capability. More is required to turn the opportunities, which could be interpreted as what geographers, transport researchers and urban planners call accessibility, into a capability. This is where competencies play an important role.


Among the initiatives supporting walking and cycling in São Paulo that we engaged with during the empirical research, the cultivation of skills and abilities was a key concern and objective. Many concentrated, predictably, on the operational and kinaesthetic skills of how to cycle or walk safely and competently and on the navigational skills of how to get to places while avoiding interpersonal and traffic-related dangers. The former and the latter are exemplified by the initiatives in which Phoebe and Lucas were involved, respectively. Even the walking group in which Madalena participated cultivated operational and navigational skills and abilities, although this was not an explicit objective. All cases discussed above foreground the collective character of how skills and abilities develop, that is, how interactions between people, technological artefacts, material landscapes, discourse, atmospheres and so forth coalesce into skills and abilities that come to reside in individual body-minds.

Nonetheless, the conditions for the development and sedimentation of such skills and abilities need to be perceived and experienced as somehow right. And many of the initiatives in our research dedicated extensive efforts to the creation of those conditions, seeking to produce time-spaces that are at once secure, socially integrative, capability cultivating and even therapeutic. These points are perhaps best demonstrated through an initiative housed in a somewhat rundown space below an apartment block in London where bicycle maintenance and repair are taught to, and learnt by, cis-gendered women and gender-variant individuals. Bicycle maintenance and repair skills and abilities are very often overlooked in mainstream policy attempts to encourage cycling but nonetheless are of critical importance to longer-term uptake of this form of mobility, and therefore another key concern for many initiatives in our study.

Interviewees from those initiatives highlighted that bicycle breakdown, sometimes as easily fixable as a punctured tyre, was a key moment when poor and otherwise disadvantaged individuals abandon bicycle use and thus become more transport-disadvantaged than they frequently already were when still cycling. The monetary costs of professional maintenance and repair were a major factor in this, as was – particularly in areas further away from the city centre in São Paulo – the low accessibility to such services. For cis-women and gender-variant individuals, the hegemonic masculinities in bicycle maintenance and repair facilities can constitute extra challenges, often triggering feelings of being ill at ease. In fact, it was exactly such feelings that led to the emergence of the aforementioned London initiative for cis-women and gender-variant people, as its initiator explained when interviewed:

I went in with the idea that I wanted to do [name of a cycling initiative in London] so I needed to get skills. And whilst doing the course, I felt so, like, uncomfortable by how my tutor made me feel. And I was just generally made to feel in that environment as a woman I think, and it was to do with being a woman … But it just made me even more clear that when I met Mary, and I said to [her], ‘Oh God, I’m just having a really hard time doing my course.’ Mary knew exactly which place and why … although it was hard, it was also really good because I think it made us both like, ‘okay, this is how we want to create a space …’ (Linda, initiator of an initiative providing bicycle maintenance and repair instruction to women and gender-variant people, London)

The cultivation of bicycle maintenance and repair skills and abilities as a distinct set of functionings and capabilities not only resulted in the fixing of bicycles already owned or used by workshop or session participants; it also made donated or otherwise acquired old bicycles fit for use by people who previously had no access to bicycles. This, for instance, is what another London initiative that specifically targets refugees and asylum seekers does. One of its staff members, Susan, also highlighted how social integration, security, restoration and capability building are closely interwoven, and she added the hedonic element of pleasure (‘fun’) – missing from the heuristic classification of time-spaces of wellbeing outlined earlier – to the mix. It is the entanglement of those qualities of the initiative’s time-spaces that generates belonging, commitment and a more durable community. The concept of assemblage (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987) is particularly useful in this context because it draws attention, firstly, to how a constantly changing set of elements comes together and collectively generates new elements with a character and qualities that cannot be understood without reference to the process of coming together and interaction from which they have emerged. Secondly, the assemblage concept also highlights how what is generated across different moments (workshops, days, etc.) in the space of the initiative is never quite the same and is always multiple. Bicycle maintenance and repair functionings and capabilities are but one outcome and not necessarily the most important one. The wellbeing generated through the initiative Susan is involved in is complex, and even highlighting the close connections between capabilities, practices and experiences may not capture that complexity adequately.

Lots of people are new to the area, and they’re looking at a way to integrate with the community and build a new skill set … there are a lot of people who have got bikes from us who come back to improve their maintenance skills, to maintain their own bikes, to help get other people cycling as well. And I think a lot of that coming back, it’s not just about the bikes, it’s about there being a bit of a community and everybody just doing stuff together and, you know, not actually coming because we were a refugee service centre and we’re providing this that and the other, but it’s just like, you know, you come to do something that’s quite fun and hanging out with people who are all on the same page and being treated like a human being. (Susan, staff member of an organisation offering various cycling-related activities to refugees and asylum seekers, London)


Competencies go a long way in turning the possibilities referred to as access by Kaufmann and colleagues into capabilities as ‘real freedoms or opportunities to achieve functionings’ (Robeyns, 2017: 39). Yet our empirical material suggests that certain dispositions are also required for the capability to cycle or walk. In practice, the motility constituents of competencies and appropriation may be difficult to separate; however, if the aim is to understand how the capability to walk or cycle is generated in situations of disadvantage in unequal cities, there is some analytical usefulness to the separation. Consider Marcos, initiator of an organisation that takes people – mostly middle-aged women – for walks through difficult neighbourhoods in peripheral São Paulo.

The news programmes in [the all-news radio network], the killing, you get scared of leaving your home. It isn’t like that, right. The more you occupy the streets, the less violence you’ll have and more people you will have on the streets. If the person stays at home, it’s because she is afraid, and the street is left empty and you might have muggings and stuff. I’ve been for a jog to the neighbourhood called Cidade Tiradentes that everyone is afraid of. Also we had a good group walking there. And it wasn’t all that, we went there, jogged and came back, no worries. People said: ‘wow, aren’t you afraid?’ It looks like you would be mugged just by going there. And this has nothing to do with reality, right. (Marcos, leader of a walking group initiative in peripheral neighbourhoods, São Paulo)

His words can be interpreted to suggest that, over and above access and competencies, a critical disposition towards discourses that instil fear of crime and withdrawal from streets as public spaces is key to the generation of the capability to walk and cycle in areas like Cidade Tiradentes – an eastern district of São Paulo developed mostly in the 1980s with some 220,000 inhabitants, more than a quarter of whom live in favelas, and with high levels of poverty, illiteracy and (fear of) crime. Jane Jacobs’s (1961) famous ideas about eyes on the street and safety in numbers may well have played a role in shaping his thinking.

His words furthermore suggest that practices as a type of functioning are key to the emergence of such a disposition, which is why the initiative he is leading organises walking groups for local residents. However, as with Lucas’s initiatives for disabled people discussed above, there is a certain ambiguity and risk of marginalisation of certain ways of being for individuals. A rational human subject who is inclined to adjust their perceptions and preferences once exposed to the accurate information seems to be presumed in the quotation above. There is, however, ample evidence from diverse social science literatures that preferences are not so easily adapted, nor is fear of crime so easily overcome as the excerpt implies (Koskela and Pain, 2000). Group walks can play an important role in the cultivation of certain dispositions – as Madalena’s words above and Jessica’s below indeed suggest – but those walks are unlikely to be a sufficient condition alone for those dispositions to emerge more broadly.

Jessica is a regular participant in group walks and bicycle rides in north London. Her words help us better understand when the dispositions that help walking become a capability. Familiarity resulting from repeated exposure (‘These walks’), positive eudaimonic and hedonic experience (‘confidence’, ‘being like a bird’, ‘freedom’ and ‘It’s fabulous’) and learning how to navigate and what to keep an eye on from the ‘guys’ who lead the group walks are all important and seem to have generated in Jessica an ethos of controlled experimentation: a willingness to venture out on her own and be exposed to people and events within a delimited area she knows how to navigate and for which she has a reasonable idea about what to expect. This suggests again that appropriation and competencies as well as their respective roles in capability cultivation are difficult to separate in practice.

Familiarity makes it a bit easier to walk in an area as it does for cycling … I feel much better on my own cycling … These walks do it and the bicycles do it, give you the confidence. I never ever went up to [a particular park] until the guys took me. And once they took me, it’s like being a bird [laughs], the freedom of going out there on one’s own. It’s fabulous … The guys have told me what to look out for. ‘Go this way. Beware that.’ (Jessica, participant in group walks and bicycle rides organised by a walking and cycling promotion organisation, London)

It is important not to think of dispositions that are favourable to walking and cycling as static once they have emerged. Just as they are cultivated and generated in particular events, they can also be diminished or transformed in later events, including unpleasant, unforeseen encounters that make the shortcomings of one’s skills and abilities for handling certain situations visible and/or induce experiences of pain or dependency. Nevertheless, our interviews also suggest that the functionings made possible through the capabilities generated, in part, from new dispositions triggered the emergence of new competencies, travel horizons, aspirations, expectations and needs. The evolution of appropriation was discussed with great clarity by Antonio, who co-leads an organisation that runs multiple initiatives to support cycling in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, including bicycle maintenance and mechanics workshops, cycling-in-traffic skill lessons, bicycle art festivals and coffee provision at cycling events:

So, now we have some important [information] that [participants] gave to us, that what they learned changed their lives. Like, many of them start to go to school, to go to a park by bicycle, and to work, to save money from the bus tickets. And also a mother of one of the teenagers, we had a parents’ meeting, and they told us, ‘Oh, my boy had a interview, a job interview in downtown, and he knows how to get there. I was really impressed because he’d never been there at all.’ ‘I went riding a bicycle today.’ ‘Oh from Capão Redondo! Riding a bicycle?’ … So they get to know distances and the city better. Because in the beginning, they [didn’t] even have the knowledge to dream, so when we ask them, ‘Where in the city do you want to go?’ Sometimes, they don’t know how to say because they only know the neighbourhood and … the nearby park. And then when they get to know downtown, other areas, to see, ‘Oh, Paulista Avenue has a very beautiful cycle path. Why don’t we have this kind of cycle path in our area?’ (Antonio, initiator of multiple cycling-supporting initiatives in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, São Paulo)

According to evaluations of the initiatives’ activities, participants’ lives had been changed. The increased mobility – the set of capabilities produced by the coming together of access, competencies and appropriation – had opened up all kinds of non-mobility functionings and capabilities, which in turn triggered new competencies (going somewhere ‘he’d never been … at all’, the ‘knowledge to dream’) and appropriations such as a desire for a central-city-style network of bicycle lanes that are clearly marked with red paint and bicycle paths that are segregated from pedestrian and vehicular traffic and also marked with red paint.


On the basis of the analysis in this chapter, we offer three sets of propositions, a term that conveys their tentativeness and the need for further critical interrogation better than ‘conclusions’ would do. First, in research focusing on wellbeing among disadvantaged individuals or social groups in deeply unequal cities, a focus on either experiences – be they hedonic, eudaimonic or a combination of both – or capabilities seems to be too narrow and reductive. Thinking about experiences, practices and capabilities as ‘entwined becomings’ appears to be a more useful point of departure for conceptualisation, thinking about research methodology, and empirical research. The notion of entwined becoming also brings out that wellbeing is never simply a state but is constantly happening and in-the-making. It is continually shaped and reshaped by events involving, and stemming from, assemblages of heterogeneous elements, human and otherwise. Wellbeing is therefore not simply individual but distributed (although this term is perhaps too static to convey ongoing happening), emergent from more-than-individual assemblages and at most articulated in an individualised manner in particular body-minds.

Secondly, while we believe that the kind of liberal interpretation and reworking of Sen’s CA proposed in this chapter has considerable potential, various issues merit further attention. One such issue is the distinction between capability and functioning. For Robeyns (2017: 39), ‘[t]he distinction between functionings and capabilities is between the realised and the effectively possible, in other words, between achievements, on the one hand, and freedoms or opportunities from which one can choose, on the other.’ Apart from the question of whether choice is the (main) way through which opportunities are converted into functionings, the distinction between what is realised and what could effectively be realised becomes increasingly blurred when empirical materials are used to identify capabilities. For the case of mobility, Kaufmann’s concept of motility is useful in the identification of capabilities. However, once competencies and appropriation are probed empirically using a relational and process-based perspective (albeit in this chapter with empirical material focusing on people whose real freedoms in everyday mobility are quite limited), then the answer to the question ‘of whether the person could travel [by bicycle or on foot] if she wanted to’ (Robeyns, 2017: 39) comes to resemble what she actually did very closely. Future research should problematise and explore further what formulations like ‘effectively possible’ and ‘real opportunity’ actually mean in relation to the capabilities concept.

Finally, the chapter demonstrates that the citizen-led initiatives supporting cycling and walking in São Paulo and London that we have studied can make a difference to the wellbeing of poor and otherwise disadvantaged individuals and groups. They fill gaps left by state and market in the cultivation of certain capabilities, experiences and practices in relation to walking and cycling for individuals and groups who can benefit in many ways from such cultivation. The benefits are not unqualified, however. The limited resources – finance, staff and volunteers, etcetera – and the challenge of reproducing the socially integrative, secure, restorative and otherwise supportive time-spaces that the initiatives co-constitute restrict the number of people who can participate in, and benefit from, the initiatives. Moreover, as with almost any attempt to create an inclusive and intimate environment, the empirical materials discussed above suggests that some marginalisation and even exclusion of certain functionings that are easy to justify from a moral perspective is still occurring. While this implies that the wellbeing benefits of the initiatives studied in this chapter should not be romanticised, it is also clear that they create unique desirable effects that extend beyond the realm of everyday mobility for disadvantaged people in unequal cities in which opportunities to develop capabilities are distributed very unevenly.


The research on which this chapter draws is part of the DEPICT (DEsigning and Policy Implementation for encouraging Cycling and walking Trips) project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (grant ES/N011538/1).


1 Although this interview was conducted primarily in English, the right to come and go, known as direito de ir e vir in Portuguese, is a constitutional right in Brazil (art. 5, subsection 15, of the 1988 Federal Constitution). The Portuguese expression thus carries semantic gravity.


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