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The Less Well-Off Lose Out Again

The debates over inequality and transport, both here and in the wider literature have concentrated on the direct effects, and how consumption in its broadest sense (including transport) varies across income groups, and by other social and spatio-temporal factors. There is an almost exclusive concern over what is ‘done’, and whether this pattern is considered to be fair for all people. The concerns about how one group is impacted upon by the actions of another group have not been a central part of the debate. These are the indirect effects that should form a central part of the discussion, and it is becoming increasingly clear within the transport sector that these may impact more on the less advantaged people within society. Here I discuss some of the evidence that addresses inequalities arising from local air pollution, for those living near to roads and airports, together with the related noise, safety, and health concerns. All these issues are part of quality of life. A further factor is the controversial issue of subsidy, as this is often seen as a means to redress inequality, but the actual effects may result in perverse outcomes.

The evidence is sparse and much of the health debate in transport is over trying to get more people walking and cycling. This provides an excellent starting point; it is beneficial for personal health and for the quality of the local environment, and these forms of transport are available to all, but the disabled. This is the thinking behind the recent Healthy Streets for London initiative (Transport for London, 2017) which promotes walking and cycling to make streets healthier, safer and more welcoming. This major initiative is to be encouraged, as it is intended to reduce car use, allow people to be more active, cut levels of air pollution, and reduce the health service costs. It is addressing issues of inequality and it is also opening up a debate on the better-connected and the inclusive city. It will also have an impact on the health of individuals and it plays a part in addressing societal problems such as obesity.

These indirect effects go beyond the questions of accessibility, as they address the means by which all people can participate in a full range of activities. It also goes beyond the measurement of disadvantage and indices of multiple deprivation, and even the improvements in levels of health. The transport inequality issue here is that those least well-off travel less and locally, but these same people are disproportionately impacted by the indirect effects caused by those that travel much more.

Location Decisions

Inequalities in transport may also be increased by decisions made in other sectors, and this relates to services and facilities being accessible, ideally within walking and cycling distance, or by a short bus trip. The location of new development (e.g. housing) is a major responsibility for local planning authorities and has major implications for traffic generation and attraction. To reduce trip lengths and to improve accessibility, a full range of services and facilities need to be built at the same time as the housing. Conversely, new housing could be located near to existing services and facilities, and this means urban infilling or possible urban extensions. There have been extensive debates over the location of new developments, as there are still many unresolved issues on density, new settlements (including eco-towns), and compactness (Williams, 2001; Banister, 2005; and Crookston, 2013, 2015), and transit oriented developments (Dittmar and Ohland, 2012).

But it is the closure of services and facilities that may have the greatest impact on inequality. Closure may be initiated by lack of demand (e.g. schools and shops) or through the need to concentrate resources and specialisms in regional facilities (e.g. hospitals and health care), and there would be savings made to the providers of those services and their sectoral budgets. However, the costs are merely transferred from the provider of the service to the user of the service as they have to travel further to get to these more centralized and specialized facilities. Planning authorities need to have the powers to balance commercial priorities with those of the users of those services. There is considerable potential for new technology to reduce some of these barriers to accessibility but, in reality, the levels of inaccessibility are likely to increase. Those that have lower levels of access to transport in the first place are likely to be the most severely affected by closures and the concentration of services and facilities. They are also less likely to have access to the technology and the ability to use it, for example in terms of using the internet for shopping or for medical advice.