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Addressing transport poverty: the ticket to improving social mobility

Modern society relies heavily on transport. A lack of suitable transport options acts as a barrier to individuals meeting basic needs such as accessing essential amenities, healthcare, or education and employment opportunities.

The concept of energy poverty is widely known, perhaps even more so today in light of the current crises, but far less commonly discussed is the concept of transport poverty. Transport poverty is experienced by a substantial number of households and has been discussed within the context of energy poverty for more than 20 years but is still struggling to establish itself as a major social issue.

A clear and shared definition of transport poverty is needed

In a modern society relying heavily on transport, the lack of suitable transport options constitutes a barrier to individuals meeting their basic needs such as accessing essential amenities, healthcare services, education, or employment opportunities. This is becoming even more prevalent today in light of the recent fuel and energy cost increases.

A few studies from France and Belgium have estimated that around 20% of their populations are considered at risk of being 'transport poor', based on criteria such as the percentage of income spent on transport (10% to 15% of the annual income of an individual in those countries). However, setting a common definition for transport poverty has still not been achieved. 

In the absence of a commonly agreed definition, Sia Partners proposes a common characterization of transport poverty, based on recurring criteria found in the literature. As a result, an individual can be considered as “transport poor” if they meet at least two of the following three criteria:

  • Affordability: Is the percentage of income spent on transport more than twice the national median? Is the individual particularly sensitive to price increases relating to transportation, such as fuel costs or fare increases?
  • Safety & Adequacy: Does the individual have frequent and reliable transport options which are safe to use and are adapted to suit his or her needs relating to accessibility?
  • Availability & Alternatives: Does the individual have at least one viable transport option, including active or micro-transportation as well as public transportation to meet their needs? Do these alternatives mean the individual can avoid the use of private transportation without significantly increasing their travel time?

Some people are at a higher risk of transport poverty than others

The current landscape of the issue in France, the United Kingdom, and Belgium suggests five main profiles are most likely to be exposed to transport poverty, as well as the criteria most likely to be associated with them:

Profile 1: 

  • Description: Young people living in rural & suburban areas
  • Consequences: Less likely to participate in educational and social activities

Profile 2:

  • Description: Persons with impairment with a persistent disability
  • Consequences: Difficulties accessing health services and basic amenities Reduced access to social activities

Profile 3: 

  • Description: People living in the city in a situation characterized by low income/education
  • Consequences: Reduced education and employment opportunities. Difficulties commuting outside of peak hours due to lack of services and unsafety perceptions

Profile 4: 

  • Description: Persons with no professional activity and no/low income
  • Consequences: Difficulties accessing and remaining in employment and education. Reduced training and employment opportunities.

Profile 5: 

  • Description: Parents with caring responsibilities and low financial means
  • Consequences: Negative safety perceptions, reduced access to education and employment, and limited to lower paid or part-time work due to caring responsibilities. 

Across the countries studied, it is clear that historically high levels of car ownership and dependence, particularly in suburban and rural areas, are critical factors in the prevalence of transport poverty. Cars have become the preferred mode of transport for most in those areas, leading to lower demand for public transportation compared to urban areas. Additionally, it was found that there is often a lack of safe walking or cycling routes, particularly in rural and suburban areas. Combined with the removal of local services that are not profitable, there is little incentive for people to reduce their dependence on private transportation. This dependency increases the risk individuals face of becoming “transport poor” when the economic situation changes, as was observed with the “gilets jaunes” in France.  With the current economic crisis, many costs are rising, including motoring costs, and many people in rural and suburban areas will be finding that they no longer can afford to commute to their place of work or education or travel to amenities by car and have no viable alternatives which they can depend on.

In urban areas, whilst there may be better developed transport networks, the issue of transport poverty is still present and takes other forms. Less affluent parts of urban areas are often less well connected and therefore the time taken to travel to a place of work, or the number of connections involved may restrict opportunities for employment. People living in these areas may also be from low-income households, or of lower educational attainment, for example, unskilled immigrants with another first language. These individuals may face issues in relation to understanding and navigating complex transport systems or find that they cannot travel easily to employment that is outside of normal working or peak hours due to a lack of available services. Finally, negative perceptions of safety, particularly for women traveling outside of peak hours, can heavily dissuade people from using public transport.

Solutions exist, mainly at a local or regional level

Common across the countries studied, free or discounted public transport is available for certain groups such as the elderly, job seekers, and young people. Additionally, some local authorities or NGOs provide community transportation for the elderly and people with disabilities to help them meet their needs, such as attending healthcare appointments or visiting shops. 

A major observation about existing solutions is that most of them are very local and can vary from one municipality to another, increasing transport inequalities. Moreover, it was found that there were no specific measures in place to help parents working part-time around caring responsibilities.

Different actors are involved and have roles to play

There are a number of key groups that will have a key role to play in addressing this issue: 

  • Governments, local authorities, and regulators
  • Transport operators
  • Charities / NGOs

All stakeholders will have their own unique challenges when faced with developing solutions, however, all actors involved in addressing transport poverty have a role to play in engaging with the public and collaborating with each other to develop solutions, as well as raising awareness of available support to relevant groups.

Some potential solutions which should be explored include:

  • Partnerships with micro-mobility providers to develop ‘last mile’ transportation options to and from transport nodes. 
  • Partnerships with operators and on-demand services to integrate fares and improve access to public transport. 
  • Increased safeguarding measures, visible staff, and improved availability and affordability of on-demand services outside of peak hours.

Some government/local authority-specific interventions could include improved active transport infrastructure, particularly to and from transport nodes or highly frequented areas, and subsidies for equipment e.g. e-scooters or bicycles.

Our Recommendations

Often discussed within the context of energy or fuel poverty, we propose that transport poverty is a complex and significant issue that should be addressed in its own right. Additionally, there is relatively little information widely available on the topic which makes it difficult to determine the full extent of the issue. Therefore, our study has highlighted the following conclusions:

  1. Transport poverty should be officially addressed at a national, rather than regional level, and included in government policies. 
  2. Transport poverty needs a commonly agreed definition and measurements of its prevalence.
  3. Raising awareness on the topic is essential. 
  4. All stakeholders have a role to play in the issue. 
  5. Addressing transport poverty should not be seen in silos but more widely as a means to fight unemployment and improve access to education, healthcare, or social activities. 
  6. Solutions should take into account the specific needs of different profiles.

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