Mobility injustice: the need for a different perspective


There is growing evidence of transportation poverty in many countries. This term refers to situations where, due to limited mobility, people are hindered from participating in society because of reduced access to opportunities, services and social networks. How can municipalities and private parties reduce mobility injustice in vulnerable neighborhoods by focusing on opportunities rather than realized behavior? This question was the starting point of my research on transportation poverty as a form of mobility injustice. With this, on July 6, under the supervision of TU Delft and Rebel Living & Mobility, I completed my master’s degree in Transport, Infrastructure & Logistics.

Transportation poverty is a growing problem, also in the Randstad area

Concerns about long travel times and costs have been raised not only in provinces, but also in several Dutch Randstad areas. Such is the case in The Hague Southwest, where the pre-exploration Zuidwestlandcorridor shows that in some neighborhoods relevant jobs for high-income people are three times more accessible than for low-income people. In addition, several public transportation lines are of inadequate quality, due to long travel times and lack of lines in the east-west direction. In addition, proposed solutions will need to make efficient use of scarce public space due to the construction of 10,000 new homes.

Focus not on resources, but on the potential to turn resources into opportunities

Generally, research on transportation poverty is based on large-scale accessibility studies. However, the traditional accessibility idiom fails to take into account that not everyone has the potential to convert available resources into opportunities. For example, having a bus stop on your doorstep does not add value in increasing opportunities if you cannot read the timetables. By going into the neighborhood, starting the conversation with people instead of talking about people, the human perspective and the situations the individual faces, without making assumptions, were central. The so-called Capabilities Approach here focuses on the accessibility of valued activities rather than travel. Can people participate in the activities that are valuable to them?

This research shows that there is a need to focus more on the perspective of the group at the center of the problem (bottom-up approach). Desired activities, the valuation of those activities and barriers that hinder someone are person-specific as well as context-specific. For example, a person’s perception of safety can influence which modes of transportation are taken as an option to be employed. It can also influence what opportunities (activities) are considered possible.

A new approach: bottom-up and top-down

This suggests the need to adopt a new approach to assessing accessibility that takes into account the group being studied and the different types of activities that are important to them. In addition, desired levels of accessibility may vary by community, affecting perceptions and expectations of accessibility. If a community does not perceive its accessibility as a problem, there may be no interest in solving this “problem. Furthermore, barriers that occur outside the mobility domain (such as mental barriers) show that it is critical to take an interdisciplinary approach to address issues of mobility injustice. In particular, this study shows opportunities for collaborations with the social and educational domains. One example is developing programs that engage young people in creating ideas for increasing opportunities in their neighborhoods.

In addition to the value of the bottom-up approach, my research also emphasized that accessibility problems can have consequences beyond just getting to activities. For example, people often find ways to reach their destinations even if this requires a lot of effort. However, these efforts limit their transportation options, which can affect activity choice and vulnerability to change. Therefore – in addition to a bottom-up approach – it is essential to establish a minimum level of accessibility for basic needs, from a top-down perspective. Developing concrete accessibility standards that take into account not only distance and time but also cost relative to income is crucial for this purpose.

What options are available to address transportation poverty?

Creating proximity appears to be a promising intervention in the case study (when feasible) because it allows accessibility on foot, thus removing a commonly cited barrier of ongoing transportation costs. It also appears to fit well into the experiential world of residents. Examples of this are particularly focused on the diversity and density of available facilities, such as children’s playgrounds.

In addition, appropriate interventions for activities where creating proximity is not feasible should focus on the micro level rather than large-scale, costly public transportation projects. Many residents are unlikely to benefit (fully) from such projects if fares are not reduced at the same time. Examples of promising micro-level policies include offering a free public transportation ticket once a month to low-income households or improving the walking environment, including focusing on sidewalk quality and introducing greenery (at eye level).

When improving accessibility requires the development of a new service, think of a demand-driven passenger van, it is important to involve the relevant group. This is expected to result in a service that will be supported by the community by better reflecting their habits and needs. It is interesting to consider also involving other relevant parties who are in close contact with residents (neighborhood organizations, voluntary organizations).

Finally, I expect that identifying at-risk groups experiencing accessibility problems through a tightened top-down approach will lead to the reduction of mobility injustice. Especially when complemented by the targeted approach to specific subgroups (through a bottom-up approach) and experimenting with solutions in practice using pilots.

I would like to thank everyone who supported me in this research. Without all the people in the neighborhood who took the time and effort to share their stories with me, I would not have been able to conduct this research. The people in the community centers provided a warm welcome and even let me join them for dinner at the dinner table. Also thanks to the attentive guidance of my supervisors: Bert van Wee, Jan Anne Annema, Arjan van Binsbergen, Jesse Hablé and Robert Boshouwers, this research took its final form and was taken to the next level. In the process, I had the opportunity to speak with many interesting people about the subject and related topics, which made the research even more alive for me. Last but not least, the Rebel Living & Mobility team and the other people at Rebel welcomed me with open arms and contributed to a meaningful and unforgettable internship experience.


Written by Jolien Meulepas

Read the rapport here: