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Introduction - Inequality in Transport

Much has been written recently on inequality in terms of its background and history, and its impact on policy and society over the last 100 years. The focus of the debate has primarily been on issues relating to income and wealth, and the growing concerns over whether it is leading to instability and the breakdown of economic hegemony. It is argued that in a democratic system the concentration of income and wealth can only be pushed so far before social stability begins to breakdown, as the ‘middle class’ get squeezed and find themselves moving down the hierarchy rather than meeting their expectations of increasing affluence. They see their ambitions becoming less achievable than before, and their dreams are broken. Despite these danger signals, the redistribution of income and wealth does not seem to have been a priority for government action. Instead, a focus on maintaining the existing hegemony leads to increases instability and inequality.

In the United Kingdom, events since the 2008 financial meltdown illustrate this process well, with quantitative easing pumping £375 billion into government bonds. This action was intended to provide liquidity to the banks to invest in riskier projects (e.g. new technology) that might improve productivity. But the reality has been investment in equities and property, fuelling growth in these ‘safer’ sectors of the market, and as Danny Dorling (2015) has demonstrated, this has again resulted in the greater concentration of wealth. In addition, there has been 10 years of low interest rates resulting in low returns for savers, but the same period has seen the wealthiest getting wealthier. In the UK the top 10 per cent had 56 per cent of the net financial assets in 2008, but by 2014 this had risen to 64 per cent. This evidence fully supports Thomas Piketty’s (2014) basic argument that the rate of return on capital has been greater than the rate of growth in the economy, and this means that inherited wealth increases at a faster rate than earned wealth. The rich get richer. This does not necessarily mean that inherited wealth is the only determinant of whether one is rich or poor, as there are also numerous examples of the meritocracy producing billionaires. Many of the richest individuals in the world have benefited from being technology innovators.

Such an economic model is bound to be unstable, and low-income groups may well have been disenfranchised for many years, but it now seems that inequality is becoming more widespread as it moves upwards into the middle-income groups. When this is put alongside global uncertainties such as volatile oil prices, migration (economic and political), fundamentalism, populism and climate change, the net effect is that the pathway being followed is also unsustainable – politically, economically, socially and environmentally. It is no wonder that societies are beginning to fragment and the notion of working together to find global solutions is being replaced by much more narrowly defined objectives that are seen to be in the short-term national interest. The UK Brexit vote (23 June 2016), the US Presidential election (20 January 2017), and even the French Presidential election (7 May 2017) that provided a choice between a political unknown and a far right nationalist, all illustrate this fragmentation.

This broad-brush political and economic perspective provides a background to the thinking behind this book, which addresses the more focused issue of inequality in transport. The reasoning behind this thinking is that all societies need transport to move around and to get access to everyday opportunities, but that each person has a different set of requirements, and that these will change over time and space. So it is accepted that there will be inequalities in transport, but the more fundamental question is whether the nature and scale of the inequalities are increasing or decreasing, and whether these inequalities materially or otherwise affect a person’s quality of life. In addition, there is an important question about whether transport decisions, in particular those relating to investment and subsidy, benefit society as a whole or are substantially more advantageous to particular sectors within society.

This journey may seem to be a modest one in the first instance, but as it develops it can be seen that the issues facing transport provide a microcosm of the wider choices facing society on inequality. The approach taken is broad based. Part I starts with a summary of the historical perspectives on inequality, looking at some of the bigger issues which surround it (Chapter 1). These arguments are then placed in a global setting (Chapter 2) by means of an extensive review of the evidence from economics and elsewhere. This is followed by a more general theoretical perspective that links the different views on inequality to transport (Chapter 3).

Part II provides the empirical evidence (Chapters 4 and 5), as it examines Great Britain’s National Travel Survey (NTS) over the period 2002–2012 to establish the nature of travel by the different forms of transport, concentrating on the scale, the differences and the consistency of the travel patterns between different income groups, and the value of inequality indicators. The patterns of everyday travel are contrasted with those that relate to less frequent long-distance travel by rail and air. The time scale is much more limited than the more historic analysis of Piketty and others, but it reflects the period over with huge increases in travel have taken place in Great Britain and elsewhere.

Part III (Chapters 6 and 7) addresses the questions of wellbeing and mobility, and whether these important concepts can be measured and how they link to current priorities in transport. It also embeds inequality within the wider environmental debate over quality of life, climate change, pollution, and responsibilities to future generations. It is not just the distribution of income and wealth that are important determinants of inequality, but also how these factors relate to the very different patterns of movement for different individuals. It also covers the wider implications of inequality as they relate to social justice and the quality of life.

Finally, Part IV brings together the main conclusions (Chapter 8), where the recent increases in global and national inequality are reiterated together with the arguments that suggest that the current economic growth model is unsustainable as it leads to ever increasing consumption that are beyond the planetary boundaries. The same issues are now clear in transport, where inequality has also become institutionalized. New thinking is required that addresses the inherent weaknesses in the current economic model. This includes the need for a reassessment of the current desire for decoupling, the means by which investment and subsidy decisions are made to benefit the wellbeing of all and not just the rich, and the indirect effects of transport decisions that have a disproportionate impact on the poor, together with the ethical and moral issues raised for society in general. This is the new agenda for transport planning and policy.

The scale of inequality in transport is increasing rapidly, and any reductions identified have been relative as the poor have had a much lower level of travel historically. The growth in the amounts of travel undertaken is no longer concentrated on the short everyday travel, but in the substantial increase in long-distance travel by rail and air, both of which have high environmental and social costs. Across much of the population there are only limited differences between the frequency of travel and the modes used, but it is in the top income decile that the real differences become clear. It is the rich who are travelling more, making long-distance trips by rail and air, and their levels of mobility are several orders of magnitude greater than the rest of the population. But the inequalities go far beyond the actual amounts of travel undertaken by different people: they affect people’s general wellbeing, the opportunities available to them, and their ability to enjoy a reasonable quality of life.


Piketty, T. (2014) Capital in the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Dorling, D. (2015) Inequality and the 1%. London: Verso.