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July 01, 2007

Comparing British and American Approaches to the Human Right to Transportation

by Karen Lucas

In the highly mobile, car dependent societies that are common to most of North America and Europe, the lack of personal transportation in low-income households is often a major factor in their economic and social exclusion. It can prevent the acceptance of employment; lead to failed health appointments, school truancies, and low college attendance rates; and severely reduce the ability to participate in the daily activities that the rest of us take for granted. In other words, transportation is a civil rights issue for many low-income, elderly, disabled, and black and ethnic sectors of the population.

U.K. policy makers are just beginning to recognize transportation pov-erty as a social policy problem as part of its social exclusion agenda. In U.K. policy, the term “social exclusion” refers to a series of linked and reinforcing social problems that are manifest where sectors of the population experience a whole range of mutually reinforcing deprivations or social ills such as unemployment, ill health, low educational achievement, poor housing conditions, and exposure to high levels of crime.

Since 1998, a variety of themed and area-based policy programs has been introduced to help combat this persistent and deepening phenomenon. Although the physical isolation of Britain’s poorest neighborhoods—combined with a lack of key basic services, low levels of car ownership amongst households, and inadequate public transport services within these areas—were recognized as problems at the conceptualization stage of many of these policies, the issue of improving provision of transportation was not directly addressed by the government’s Social Exclusion Unit until 2003.

A growing body of research evidence has identified a significant minority of poor people in the United Kingdom that is restricted in its use of transport because of low incomes, or fear of crime, or due to physical or mental disabilities or simply because public transportation services do not take these people where they need to go and they do not have access to a car. The Social Exclusion Unit concluded that these transport problems can reinforce their social exclusion by preventing access to key services and activities such as jobs, learning, health care, food shopping, and leisure. It found that poor people also disproportionately suffer the negative effects of road traffic through pedestrian accidents, air and noise pollution, and community severance.

To redress these inequalities in transportation, the U.K. government has introduced a new framework of accessibility planning that is built into the local transport plans that are delivered to the central government by local transport authorities every five years. This new approach requires transport authorities to routinely undertake accessibility assessments to identify whether low-income communities within their administrative boundaries are able to access key activities by public transportation with relative ease, reliably, safely, and affordably. Each transport authority is then required to work in partnership with the main providers of public services (including bus operators but also health providers, education authorities, and the private sector) and land use planners to develop an accessibility action plan to address any insufficiencies in this respect, to be delivered as part of their 2006-11 local transport plans.

Clearly, the poverty of transportation for low-income and ethnic populations has long been recognized in the United States, first by American civil rights campaigners and then in policy response by U.S. federal law. Rosa Parks was literally on a bus when she began her protest for racial equality back in 1955. Martin Luther King Jr. embraced the issue of poor transportation in his campaign speeches for structural reforms to address race and poverty in the lead-up to adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The right to transportation justice is implicitly embedded in Title VI of the 1964 act and backed by federal law through consecutive executive orders and Department of Transportation planning regulations. The landmark environmental justice class action, Labor/Community Strategy Center v. Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is a demonstration of how these laws have been successfully taken up by communities and applied to secure transportation justice in practice.

As an outsider, I am clearly no expert on the matter, but you only have to watch the newsreel footage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster to feel that, although there have been these occasional successes, more generally, transportation justice has still not been served in the United States. As with the United Kingdom, at least part of the problem lies with the failure of key providers of essential services—including employers, educators, health and welfare workers, and housing suppliers—to recognize the important role that transport plays in the distribution of the “merit good” of their services to their target audiences. For example, employers often refer to the problems they have with “recruitment and retention of the workforce” but rarely associate this with the lack of transit services to the workplace from areas of high unemployment. Similarly, health care workers report their concerns about the ill health of a community but rarely consider that community members’ physical inability to get to a hospital appointment may play a part in this.

The result has been that essential services like jobs, hospitals, schools, and shops are increasingly situated in places that are virtually impossible to access without a car. This means that those people in the population that most need these services are often the least able to reach them—and yet transport and access considerations rarely play a part in decisions about the location of these services. The converse aspect of this delivery failure lies with transport professionals and the providers of transit services.

Traditionally, transport spending has tended to most favor road building and major rail and metro projects over the provision of local (and far less costly) transit services and cycling and walking amenities. In transport planning, too, the main focus of activity has been geared toward improving operating conditions for vehicles, resulting in a general tendency for transport systems to cater for physical movement rather than providing for adequate physical access to goods and services, especially for those without cars. The problem is often intensified in areas of social or low-cost housing, where low profits and high crime levels can drive out local businesses and service providers, so people need to travel further to access basic goods and amenities.

Perhaps the United Kingdom’s accessibility planning approach has something to offer to our U.S. colleagues in terms of establishing a systematic process for the assessment of transport poverty. My feeling is that without similar legal, legislative, and regulatory frameworks as exist in the United States to enforce it, the response from U.K. authorities will be patchy and all too often half-hearted. It is early in the delivery process, and only time will tell in this respect. In both the United Kingdom and the United States, however, the key challenge is to secure sufficient funding to deliver a step-change in the actual provision of transit services. Addressing the highly varied transport needs of low-income communities does not come cheap and almost always requires a high level of public subsidy, as existing initiatives in both the United States and United Kingdom have demonstrated. Both governments are reluctant to increase their spending on public services, and support for transit services features low on their list of spending priorities.

Any chance of success, therefore, lies in raising the profile of the importance of transportation to the human rights agenda. The truth is that everyone suffers from the lack of decent public transport systems, made evident by the cars and trucks that clog our highways and cities, pollute our local environments, run over our children and old people, and significantly contribute to the global disasters that are being visited upon our planet. For poor people who do not have access to cars, however, it is literally their lifeline. The difference is between having a job or not, visiting a doctor or missing a vital health appointment, securing a decent education or not, or simply getting out of the house instead of being a prisoner in one’s own home.

Karen Lucas

Karen Lucas is the research coordinator for the Centre for Sustainable Development and a principal research fellow with the Transport Studies Group, University of Westminster, in London. Her research focuses on the relationships between sustainable development and social exclusion, with a particular emphasis on neighborhood renewal and transport. She has served as a policy advisor to the government’s Social Exclusion Unit.