The Impact of Transport Poverty on Transportation Accessibility

By Dorinda So, Executive Director of pointA

We developed this accessibility blog series to explore how people get around because mobility is an essential part of our everyday lives. Whether you are going to school or work, running errands, or meeting friends, you’re only able to do these activities if transportation is accessible to you.

Most importantly, the transportation options available and one’s lived experiences have a significant impact on the transportation choices one makes. In this blog post, we explore how economic and physical constraints impact transportation accessibility.

How do people choose their transportation mode?

Deciding how to get around is often an intuitive and quick decision, and is influenced by socio-economic factors. Scholars have attempted to examine what influences travel behaviour for different reasons, from determining ways to encourage more uptake of sustainable forms of transportation to ensuring that public policy decisions would be met with a positive response.

Overall, research has found that financial and physical constraints (e.g., built environment and availability of transportation infrastructure) are the most significant factors in travel behaviour. These two constraints, when compounded, make up the concept of transport poverty, when transport disadvantage (e.g., not owning a vehicle or living close to transit) is intensified by other types of social disadvantages (e.g., health conditions, disabilities, financial constraints).

This is further complicated by the intersectionality of factors that can exacerbate either aspect of transport poverty. People with disabilities, single parents, women, newcomers, and people of colour traditionally face higher financial barriers and social disadvantages that make getting around harder. As we have outlined in other posts in this accessibility series, transport poverty can lead to greater costs of transportation, less participation in economic or social activities, and can even lead to more social exclusion, which can make transport poverty worse, creating a vicious cycle.

Which areas deal with transport poverty?

Estimates have found that at least one member of more than a third of Canadian households experience transport poverty, which is likely now higher because of the pandemic. This means that transport poverty exists not just across households but also within them.

Those who face or are at high risk of transport poverty typically live in one of two types of housing conditions: lower income households in older apartments located in high density areas with average access to transit for employment purposes or those living in low density suburban neighbourhoods made up of single homes with little access to transit.

The former group demonstrates that low income drives transport poverty despite having moderate access to transit because they live in a high density area while the latter group shows that the built environment of a less dense neighbourhood can promote more transport poverty. In either case, household finances and the physical environment drive transport poverty when other factors are also included.

Financial status and transport poverty

To further explain how financials impact transport poverty, we look at what a typical family in Ontario who is in the lowest income quintile spends compared to the highest income quintile. According to the Survey of Household Spending (2017, latest available), the highest quintile households spent 11% of their household income on transportation, 13% of which is spent on public transportation. In contrast, the lowest quintile household spent 13% of their income on transportation, and 20% of this spending was on public transportation.

This means that while there is only a two-percentage point difference between the percentage of household income spent on transportation between the lowest and highest quintiles, this gap represents nearly $17,000. This translates to adding an additional used vehicle to a household, and is more than three times what the lowest income quintile household spends on transportation.

The ideal of choice

This gap sheds light on the fact that underlying many government planning and transportation decisions is the ideal of choice. This means offering as many transportation options as possible to everyone, and individuals should be able to choose the best option for themselves. While these ideals may address some of the constraints of transport poverty, such as increasing the supply of public transit, they do not address the reality that lower income individuals often have to make trade-offs. If money is spent on food, then transportation options may be more limited.

At a societal level, governments must continue to prioritize increasing access to transit and de-prioritizing private vehicles as the only viable option, as car ownership and maintenance is expensive and getting a driver’s license takes time, particularly for those who have disabilities who may require custom vehicle retrofits to drive. We have previously argued for mobility-as-a-service, which packages transportation options together so that the trade off between options is less pronounced. Furthermore, governments need to continue to pursue fare integration so that financial barriers are reduced.

In addition to these policy instruments is the need to continue to understand the lived experiences and the needs of those who either face or are at risk of transport poverty. This is a social justice issue, as well as an economic one. The pandemic has demonstrated that what happens to those who are most vulnerable or face the most inequalities affects us all. Therefore, it is the role of government, civil society, and businesses to work together towards a more just system and thereby realizing the ideal of enabling transportation choices and accessibility for all.  

How we are working to address transport poverty

At pointA, our role is to help acknowledge and address the unique needs of individuals in their demand for sustainable transportation. As such, we are thankful for the opportunity to be part of the University of Toronto’s Leading Social Justice Fellowship. This Fellowship is a partnership between the School of Cities and United Way Greater Toronto and the five-month program has given us access to resources, knowledge, and a network of like-minded individuals to start tackling the issue of transport poverty in Toronto.

As an organization that focuses on transportation demand management, we have the unique privilege of focusing on individual needs and listening to their lived experiences while working with government and transportation agencies to provide feedback on how best to address some of these barriers.

Addressing barriers does not always require big policy solutions. For people who use mobility scooters or who face mobility challenges, smaller actions such as ensuring that snow is plowed from sidewalks, transit stops, and curbs means snowbanks do not hinder movement or access to transit make a big difference. Scholars have also suggested more carshare services in transport poverty neighbourhoods can also help, as well as  helping to expand social networks to increase informal carpooling services. Understanding the needs of individuals and then providing solutions to these needs is an important first step.

We hope to tackle transport poverty as we navigate the pandemic together and as we do, to share our findings and raise the voices of those who are facing transport poverty, In doing so, we can hopefully help connect their needs and insights with government and other tangible solutions so that sustainable transportation is equitable, economical, and accessible to all.

Works Cited List

Allen, Jeff and Steven Farber. “Sizing up transport poverty: A national scale accounting of low-income households suffering from inaccessibility in Canada, and what to do about it.” Transport Policy 74 (2019): 214-23.

Brown, Anne. “Car-less or car-free? Socioeconomic and mobility differences among zero-car households.” Transport Policy 60 (2017): 152-9.

Lucas, Karen. “Transport and social exclusion: Where are we now?” Transport policy 20 (2012): 105-113.


Photo by Sandy Manoa on Unsplash

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