As defined by the World Bank, social inclusion means improving the terms on which individuals and groups take part in society. People are frequently unable to participate in political, economic, and social life to the full extent. This exclusion can be very costly, both at the individual and national levels. The barriers are usually rooted in poorly designed legal systems, labour markets, health systems, as well as discriminatory attitudes or perceptions.
All these elements have figured prominently on both social and political agendas. Nevertheless, one factor that has not been given enough attention, i.e. transport and mobility, has gained its momentum now. Transport-related social exclusion is widely discussed on all levels, from municipal councils to international forums.
A revealing insight
International Transport Forum (ITF), the only global body to cover all transport modes, puts inclusivity high on its agenda. Transport ministers from around the world met on 18-20 May in Leipzig, Germany, for the Annual Summit. Its theme – "Transport for Inclusive Societies". The Moroccan Presidency prioritized various aspects of the theme of inclusion: from connectivity for rural communities to the digital divide, from workforce diversity in the transport sector to inclusive planning and design.
The first meeting held as an in-person event since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was the occasion to promote the transition toward more accessible mobility for all. As emphasized by the Moroccan representative Larbi Fahim, Head of the Road Works Department: “Inclusion is a key element of sustainable societies, capacity to fully participate in the life of a community”.
The Young Researcher of the Year Award, granted annually by the ITF, went to a PhD Researcher at the Delft University of Technology Malvika Dixit. Her study on the effects of public transport design on equity was a perfect illustration of Mrs Fahim’s words. Dixit pulled from a database of smart card data covering all journeys made on the public transport network and combined with the neighborhood-level income data. It turned out that residents from the lower-density peripheral areas suffer from more circuitous routes, which usually results in higher fares. The research demonstrated a fundamental link between income and circuity: public transport users in Amsterdam’s predominantly higher-income areas have more direct routes, which translated into shorter distances and, therefore, lower fares.
The combined effect aggravated the income disparity between the lower- and higher-income areas. As a result, it contributed to creating inequality within an already divided society.
What to do? An influential guideline for inclusive mobility
The World Economic Forum (WEF) joined forces with the Boston Consulting Group and the University of St Gallen, Switzerland, and in December 2021 published a White Paper on the ways that mobility shapes inclusion and sustainable growth in global cities.
Three different cities that represent the most common urban archetypes were closer looked at – polycentric Berlin, car-centric Chicago and the high-density megacity of Beijing. All three were struggling with soft spots, including traffic congestions and isolated underserved neighborhoods. Based on the examples of those metropolitan areas, the researchers came up with five imperatives that decision-makers must consider while creating more socially inclusive mobility.
First, improving inclusivity should be a top priority in urban transportation planning and design. If mobility is to be truly inclusive, the systems need to be adapted for people with disabilities and persons from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
Second, both demand and supply have to be taken into account by transportation managers. As authorities of Chicago found out, a simple increase in the frequency of late-night trains and additional transit lines does not necessarily lead to an increase in ridership. It must be combined with a real understanding of demand and the preferences of the users.
Third, more innovative and multimodal mobility systems that escape a binary logic with cars on one side and mass transportation on the other, need to be developed. Recent mobility innovations, such as on-demand shuttles, micro-mobility offerings (e.g. bikes, scooters) and car-sharing apps start playing a noticeable role in the city’s “mobility puzzle”.
Second to last, ensuring community engagement in the process of decision-making. All studies show that the mobility infrastructure is better designed when local communities are involved. Last but not least, collecting data and running mobility pilots is the only guarantee of successful scale-up. The pilot programmes ensure an in-depth analysis of a chosen solution and help to identify possible barriers that may occur.
Inclusive mobility means equal society
As WEF’s White Paper points out, the majority of transport systems look and function the way they did in the 1950s, when they served radically different societies. It is only now that the decision-makers begin to grasp the fundamental role of transport in providing jobs, access to quality education and healthcare, and, in consequence, leading to socio-economic growth and more equal societies. Mobility is not just about getting from point A to point B. It is the way to move people to a higher place on the social ladder. Therefore, the development of the right approach to equitable urban transport will take more and more place on the agenda of policymakers in the coming decades.