SPOTLIGHT • DAVID LOPEZ-GARCIA
One of the things you notice very quickly about David López-Garcia is that he is a bundle of energy, constantly thinking, making connections, and putting ideas together. He has already published work on a wide range of topics, from the social construction of urban risk to citizen participation, metropolitan fragmentation, and urban mobilities and accessibility.
David received his B.A. from University of Guadalajara and M.S. from the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales campus Ciudad de México. For two years he served as Head of the Citizen Participation Program for the State of Jalisco Electoral College, and another two years as Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor for Jalisco's Minister of Planning and Evaluation. He has volunteered with organizations such as the Lab for Innovation in Democracy, and he wrote a weekly column of political economy for El Diario NTR.
David brought this energy to the Ph.D. program in the Milano School of Policy, Management, and Environment. He coordinated the Urban Practice Working Group, chaired the research committee for the Doctoral Student Association, and served as a Research Associate for the Observatory on Latin America and for the Global Urban Futures Project, among many other activities.
I had the pleasure of talking with David about his dissertation, completed in 2021, titled Interactions between Economic Development, Housing, and Transport Policies and the Mobility Experience of Workers in Greater Mexico City. He is currently in the process of turning it into a book to be published by Routledge.
Joseph Heathcott: You recently defended your dissertation, which examined policy interactions in Mexico City. Could you give us a quick run-down of your main findings?
David López-Garcia: Yes, in the dissertation I show that the highly unequal mobility experience of workers cannot be explained by looking only at one policy domain, such as transportation. Rather, these inequalities are produced by the interaction between urban policy areas that often work at cross-purposes. So in the case of Mexico City, I show how the misalignment between economic development, housing, and transportation policy adversely affects how workers move around the metropolis.
JH: The interaction of policies is such an important but understudied phenomenon. What would you say are your main contributions to the field in this regard?
DLG: I see the dissertation as making two main contributions. First, it develops the Policy Interactions Framework (PIF), which provides analytical and methodological tools for the empirical investigation of policy interactions in urban settings. Second, it puts forward the Choiceless Mobility Hypothesis (CMH), defined as the process through which the interaction between policies from distinct policy domains produce mobility situations that consistently increase the transportation costs for workers.
JH: In conducting research for your dissertation, you ran a series of regressions. Where did you get your data?
DLG: One of the chapters assessed shifts in the location of employment subcenters in Greater Mexico City, which I produced with micro data from the 1999 and 2019 editions of the Economic Census. Another chapter analyzed the spatial distribution of publicly funded mobility resources, which I mapped with data from the 2016 National Housing Inventory. A third chapter mapped mobility situations by analyzing time and distance of the journey to work with data from the 2017 Household Origin Destination Survey.
JH: Could you say a bit more about how you designed the regressions?
DLG: The regressions were designed to answer specific questions using available data and producing my own indicators. For instance, I used well-established methods to classify travel districts into four distinct mobility situations: short commutes, long commutes, wormholes, and transit hells. I then used a multinomial logistic regression model to assess the extent to which transport-, land use- or socioeconomic-related variables drive the likelihood of a travel district experiencing a specific mobility situation.
JH: OK. Wormhole. Now I am intrigued. What is a wormhole? And a transit hell?
DLG: Here I am following the steps of Michael Niedzielski and Eric Boschmann who proposed similar categories. On one hand, a wormhole is a place whose travel distance is above, but travel time is below the city’s average. That is, workers in these places are located further away from their jobs than the average worker, but they get there faster. Some colleagues have suggested that I should borrowed the term TARDIS from Dr. Who instead! A transit hell, on the other hand, is a place whose travel distance is below but travel time is above the city’s average. That is, workers in transit hells are located closer to their jobs but somehow it takes them a long time to reach their jobs.
JH: OK, that helps to paint a picture. Now, was most of your research undertaken remotely, or did you spend time on the ground in Mexico City?
DLG: My dissertation is based on research done both in Mexico City and remotely. I was lucky enough to schedule my fieldwork before the pandemic. I spent the entire Fall of 2018 in Mexico City on a research stay at the National Autonomous University (UNAM) to conduct interviews and focus groups. I went back for a few weeks in the Spring and Summer of 2019 for specific pieces of information that I was missing. Most of the quantitative I could do remotely using
open sources and filing micro-data requests at the Mexican National Statistics Institute.
JH: What was your favorite and least favorite parts about being in Mexico City to do research?
DLG: My favorite part was the sustained rush and adrenaline of being in the field. As an urban scholar, nothing compares with being on the mission 24/7 for five straight months. I also enjoyed the iterative nature of my research process. I arrived in Mexico City with a clear idea of what I wanted to look at, but I embraced the uncertainty of not knowing what I would find. I let the research process unfold and loop back to inform the way I thought about my research problem, reshape my research questions, and refine my methods. Back and forth. Back and forth. And then, there was a moment around the month four of fieldwork that patterns emerged and things started to make sense. My dissertation finally had a purpose, and I went all in. As per my least favorite part of doing fieldwork in Mexico City, I can honestly say that I do not have one. I enjoyed every minute of it.
JH: What is at stake in this work for Mexico City residents?
DLG: My dissertation explains how economic development, housing, and public transport policies have interacted over the last four decades to produce geographies of low accessibility to jobs. Economic development policies keep concentrating jobs in central areas. Housing policies keep pushing workers and low-income population to peripheral areas. Public transport policies keep commodifying workers’ mobility needs. This must stop.
JH: Right. So how would you hope this informs planning and policy there?
DLG: We need to find policies which are able to slow the production of geographies of low accessibility to jobs and to help the situation of those already living in them. My work shows that the mobility experience of workers is not entirely dependent on available public transport infrastructures. Instead, socio-economic factors and land-use planning play a key role in the likelihood of workers experiencing a specific mobility situation. This means that in addition to transport-related policies, improving accessibility to jobs will require policies able to reduce socioeconomic inequalities and influence the urban structure.