Back to top

What Inequality Means for Transport

Over the last 50 years, there has been a steady flow of research on the transport disadvantaged, normally interpreted as those with limited access to transport, and the implications of this for social exclusion and wellbeing (Lucas, 2012; Wachs and Kumagai, 1973). The topics covered here are related to:

  1. Unequal distribution of travel between social groups, related to transport resources, including car ownership, access to public transport, or indeed all forms of transport more generally. This topic links in with the Rawlsian tradition of primary goods, but it can be seen as being at odds with Sen’s Capability Approach. It does not recognize the huge diversity in individual needs and preferences, and says little about the nature and purpose of travel, or the individual’s ability to use the transport provided. The focus is on the supply of transport rather than the demand or need for mobility;
  2. Observed daily variations in travel behaviour between different groups of people, including trip frequencies, travel distances, speed and time. Here, the concern is over travel patterns and the links between what people do and their wellbeing, including levels of participation (e.g. Nordbakke and Schwanen, 2014). This thinking has been central to the empirical analysis in this book (Chapter 4), and is based on what people do, as reflected in their actions. The difficulty here is that there is little information on what people would like to do or the constraints that make their participation impossible, sometimes called latent demand. This might include an understanding of their aspirations, the information available to them, and their knowledge. The assumption embedded in revealed preference analysis (i.e. what people actually do) is that all travel reflects the value assigned to the travel activity, and the value of the activity engaged with at the destination. If there is no value, then the activity, including the travel, would not be undertaken. Similarly, by definition, latent demand does not exist, as if that activity were sufficiently highly valued, the individual concerned would find a way to carry it out. For example, if a person has to make a trip to a hospital appointment, a way would be found, even if it were very difficult, uncomfortable or expensive. Failing that an ambulance or local voluntary scheme could be provided (e.g. a ‘fish scheme’ where local volunteers take those with limited mobility to hospital appointments, or to day care centres or to social clubs). The increase in levels of actual mobility is only part of the story, as other policy measures may also enhance people’s ability to access desired activities (Banister, 1994; Rajé, 2004; Preston and Rajé, 2007).
  3. Inequalities in the levels of transport accessibility (Neutens et al., 2010; Van Wee and Geurs, 2011). This can be measured by the ease with which a set of opportunities can be reached, with high levels of accessibility enhancing an individual’s freedom, and it can also be seen as promoting equality of opportunities generally, and those that are of value to each individual (Martens, 2012). There is a high level of agreement that enhancing physical accessibility provides an important means by which transport can help reduce levels of inequality. This contrasts with the reluctance of transport researchers and decision-makers in the UK to make any comment or judgement as to what levels of transport are fair, or to debate moral issues in transport.

This pragmatic approach embedded in much of the transport policy thinking in Britain contrasts with the French tradition that addresses the ‘droit du transport’ as an issue that people have engaged with over time – ‘depuis l’origine, l’homme pratique la notion de transport’ – from the beginning [of time], man has practised the notion of transport. It is accepted that transport is a part of progress and people have a right to move around.

Consequently, transport policy requires improvements in transport modes and structures (Bonnafous, 1985). The Loi d’Orientation des Transports Intérieurs (LOTI, 1982) was directed towards the ‘right of transport for all’, as all users should now have the right to travel and the freedom to choose the mode with reasonable levels of access and at a reasonable cost. Priority for public transport was to be balanced by complementarity with other modes and by fair competition, and the transport system was to be closely linked with urban development (Plan de Déplacements Urbains – PDU). Part of the process involved public consultation to encourage a debate between the different parties, and to get support for proposals.

If the principles of accessibility and fairness are to be combined, it would suggest a combination of market and non-market means to enhance accessibility (Martens, 2012). Principles that could be used here might include egalitarianism, based on concepts of equal access for social groups or different locations. An alternative could be based on thresholds, where there would be ‘expert’ determined accessibility levels that could relate to needs. Decisions would then be taken to ensure that these minimum levels were available to all people. In both cases, there are questions about how the different levels of accessibility are determined, whether there is a tendency to equalize or to seek minimum thresholds. Issues relating to the diversity of needs and preferences are not explicitly considered, and the difficulties of trying to be fair need to be addressed, whilst at the same time accepting the need to impose a set of constraints on individuals. In addition, the time element should be addressed where the needs change, together with the expectations that one’s quality of life improves so that once one set of needs are met then others emerge. Such complexities are often overlooked in the interests of a more general concept of fairness.

There seems to be a fundamental contradiction between society’s desire for fair outcomes and the individual’s basic rights. Rawls (2001) argues for freedom of movement as a crucial liberty (droit du transport), but that this should not harm the freedom of others. The dilemma here is whether using the carin an urban area is seen as increasing or decreasing inequality, because the wider external effects (including congestion) might be greater (freedom of others) than the benefits to the driver (freedom of the individual). The economist might say ‘yes’, providing drivers paid the full costs of their travel, including the external costs. Morally, though, the answer might be ‘no’, as other people’s freedoms are damaged. To avoid this problem, the Rawlsian difference can be interpreted as justice not being dependent on providing everyone with the ‘same’ (i.e. equal accessibility), but how policies can be used to reduce the level of inequality of opportunity.

Even here, there is the caveat that these interventions should be targeted at those who are most disadvantaged, for example low-income people (Van Wee and Geurs, 2011). This would mean that in urban areas priority would be given to public transport, walking and cycling, as well as transport designed for specific users (e.g. Dial-a-Ride), but in rural areas there would still be a more car oriented strategy, perhaps with an emphasis on joint ownership and sharing. If the wider social and environmental costs of transport were part of the debate over fairness and justice, then other non-transport factors might also need to be included in the overall strategy so that health, safety and security, noise and pollution levels would all be included. More generally the answer might be to encourage people to live in urban areas where the provision of public transport services is more comprehensive and likely to meet most needs.

Returning to Sen’s conception of capabilities, transport provides one key mechanism for the development of human capabilities, and accessibility provides a means to see transport as a capability in itself (Pereira et al., 2017). This duality allows individuals to participate in activities that they value. Although there may be similar opportunities provided through accessibility, it does not mean that each person will make the same use of them. Both the transport system and the use of it will vary across time and space, meaning that there will be many different solutions. This in turn means that there would need to be minimum levels of accessibility to a range of ‘needed’ destinations, but the setting of those levels is problematic (Banister, 1994). The Capability Approach also extends the notion of accessibility, including the physical and mental conditions of the traveller, to cover the social environment and whether the system itself provides a high-quality service (timings, information, costs etc.). The overall quality of the service should also relate to the means by which capabilities can be improved through the process and the experience. This is much harder to conceptualize and measure (Martens et al., 2012).

The poor often have no option but to use public transport, and this may result in a negative experience as this long queue for the bus in Tbilisi shows.

Bringing these approaches together to provide a clear perspective on the means to improve accessibility and at the same time enhancing equality of opportunity, and addressing issues of fairness and the needs of the most disadvantaged is a difficult (if not impossible) task. The conclusions reached by Rafa Pereira et al. (2017) are that such a composite (minimax) approach can be embedded within an ‘accessibility plus framework’ that:

  1. Sets minimum standards of accessibility to key destinations which should be guaranteed by the government through social or transport policies, as necessary;
  2. Limits the highest levels of accessibility of social groups and transport modes only in those circumstances when a marginal improvement of accessibility at the upper levels harms the groups at the bottom.

The case made here is that these two conditions provide a balance between the universal notions of justice and the need to make solutions context specific. This means that basic capabilities are protected (universalist) and basic needs can be satisfied (individualist), and that this combination promotes equality of opportunity, and the values that individuals place on their own priorities and choices are addressed, provided that they also respect the rights of others.