Fair Mobility: Make no small gestures

On fairness in the domain of transportation

The upper and lower limit of government intervention

- Karel Martens

A different perspective: Concerns about the environment have long been seen as a trigger for a transition in transportation planning and policy across the world. While certainly steps in the right direction have been made, so far little fundamental change can be discerned in the policies of most (national) governments.

My claim is that real transition in the domain of transportation, and thus ultimately in the way we travel, can only come about if we recognize that mobility is a prerequisite for full participation in society – and that government policies have to guarantee, as much as reasonably possible, that all can partake in society.

A transportation policy based on principles of justice thus goes beyond small gestures to the low-mobile population groups

The understanding that mobility is a prerequisite for participation is certainly not new and seems all-too obvious. But a careful analysis of its implications shows that it enables the delineation of an upper and a lower limit for government intervention, leading to a radically different perspective on the role of government in the domain of transportation. And that is, ultimately, a crucial condition for a mobility transition.

The lower limit

Let me first turn to the lower limit. The recognition that mobility is a prerequisite for full participation in society means that a lack of mobility, also termed transport poverty, can lead to social exclusion. There is an extensive literature, notably in England, France and the United States, that confirms this expectation.

Probably the leading study in this area, conducted by the Social Exclusion Unit in the UK, has shown that lack of a car and inadequate public transport are a barrier for two out of five job seekers to obtain a job. Recent research in Flanders shows that, despite substantial investments in public transport following the decree on ‘basic mobility’, nearly seven in ten low-income job-seekers have problems to get a job because of lack of mobility and accessibility.

The notion of transport poverty can be further formalized by recognizing that there is a relationship between a person’s level of mobility, accessibility, and activity participation. Given a fixed land use pattern, a higher level of mobility, for example because of access to a faster mode of transport, will automatically lead to a higher level of accessibility. A higher level of accessibility, in turn, is conducive to a higher level of activity participation (Figure 1).

k martens accesibility social justiceFigure 1 : The relationship between accessibility and activity participation. The black dots indicate the level of activity participation of a particular person, while the solid line depicts the average level of activity participation of the entire population at a certain level of accessibility.

The relationship between accessibility and activity participation is obviously not linear in character. At a high level of accessibility, activity participation among persons is likely to differ significantly, as it will depend on factors such as personal preferences and stage in life. It may be expected that a decrease in the average accessibility level will also result in a decrease in the level of activity participation. This reduction is not problematic, as long as it does not have real effects on the quality of life of a person. However, if with a further decrease in accessibility level, the existing mobility system may actually prove to be a barrier to full participation in society.

When this occurs, people experience true transport poverty. A level of accessibility below this lower limit is unacceptable, given the broadly shared understanding that government intervention should guarantee everybody a decent minimum – also in terms of their ability to participate in activities out of the home.

Lower limit’s implication for government intervention

The above analysis suggests that the first responsibility of government lies in ensuring a minimum level of accessibility. Deviations from this principle may be acceptable, especially if the size of the group with a low level of accessibility is small and the cost of improving their accessibility, which are to be borne by the whole community, are disproportionately high. But deviations based on the notions of ‘ personal responsibility’ or ‘choice’ – for example, the argument that households have themselves chosen a particular residential location – are undesirable because ascribing personal responsibility to a particular situation is extremely problematic.

Such a claim assumes that households are really free in their choice of residential location and therefore assumes that the housing market offers a sufficient range of options to all types of households, regardless of e.g. income or household size. Obviously, this condition hardly ever applies, even in countries with a well-developed social housing sector.

The upper limit

It is less obvious to derive an upper limit from the claim that mobility is a prerequisite for full participation in society. The relationship between mobility, accessibility and activity participation does not directly delineate an upper limit. Yet it is clear that the marginal benefits of additional accessibility, as generated by improved mobility, decrease as the initial level of mobility and accessibility go up. In other words, improvements in accessibility will have smaller and smaller impact on the level of activity participation as accessibility goes up.

At a high level of accessibility, further improvements are more likely to induce persons to make different choices, in terms of destination or types of activity, than to actually contribute to a further increase in activity participation. When this occurs, additional investments in accessibility are no longer required in order to guarantee full participation in society. This, then, is the upper limit: government intervention is no longer needed if it does not increase activity participation.

This does not imply that additional investments in accessibility above the upper limit are out of the question. If citizens attach great importance to accessibility beyond the reasonable upper limit, they must be allowed to realize that without additional public funds. In other words, investments in infrastructure should be self-financing. The upper limit also allows for additional public investment where it would be desirable for other reasons than activity participation, such as improving the economy or environmental protection.

Such investments, however, are not part of transportation policy, but rather of economic or environmental policies which use transport investments as a means to achieve a particular, non-transport, goal. Transportation policy should focus on the goal to enable activity participation by securing the lower limit and avoiding ‘excessive’ public investments when the upper limit has been achieved.

Make no small gestures

Translated to practice, the above implies that transportation policy should no longer guided by the intensity of traffic congestion. The fact that everyday motorists join the traffic jam actually underlines that the transport system is of sufficient quality to enable activity participation.

The real transportation problem must be sought in the existence of latent demand for travel. Real transport problems occur when people want to make trips, but do not do so because of the poor quality of the transport system. These are the cases in which interventions in the transport system are necessary.

For instance, a recent study conducted in Rotterdam shows that low-skilled job seekers cannot obtain work in part because of a lack of public transport services to industrial estates located along highways. It are precisely these ‘missing links’ in the network that are in need of ‘repair’. If we do that in a smart way, with high quality public transport services, we may also induce people to switch from cars to public transport, thereby reducing traffic congestion. But these are just side benefits. The core aim of such a transportation policy is to ensure the conditions for activity participation by everyone.

A transportation policy based on principles of justice thus goes beyond small gestures to the low-mobile population groups, such as volunteer bus services or wheels-to-work programs. Rather, it requires radical changes in priorities, with the bulk of public funds to be used to guarantee the lower limit. For most countries, it will entail a substantial shift from investment in asphalt and high speed rail, to investments in high quality regional public transport.

Since one bus an hour for everybody does not provide the kind of accessibility that enables persons to really participate in activities, priorities will have to be set. These should go to areas with large numbers of people who are dependent on public transport and where maximum benefits can be generated in terms of an increase in activity participation. This means that high frequency connections to and from poor urban areas are preferred over an occasional bus to every village in the rural areas. Fairness also requires an efficient use of resources.

The setting of priorities does require the delineation of the proposed upper and lower limits. That is obviously not an easy task. There is hardly any systematic research on the relationship between accessibility and activity participation. Given the wide variety in the intensity of activity participation among individuals, it will not be easy to establish a clear connection between both variables. Nevertheless, it may be expected that substantial progress can be made by combining data from national travel surveys and increasingly advanced accessibility analysis.


The application of the lower and upper limits in transportation policy will actually imply an end to the much-criticized predict-and-provide approach in transportation. This would be a radical break with the past, but at the same time it would lead to a normalization of transportation policy.

Few areas of government intervention consider it their responsibility to meet unrestrained demand. For instance, setting limits is an inevitable task in the domains of health and education. As in the field of mobility, both domains are confronted with a seemingly infinite demand for services. There is virtually no limit on the demands for better education and for better health care services. However, in neither area the ‘demand’ is considered to be the sole guide of government intervention. Indeed, the term ‘demand’ as it is defined by economists, plays only a minor role in both domains.

Rather than demand, the upper and lower limits of government intervention in both health and education are determined by budget constraints. The egalitarian nature of both domains implies that the upper and lower limits are very close to each other. A greater bandwidth between the upper and lower limit is inevitable in the domain of transportation, not in the least because differences in accessibility between center and periphery are inevitable. But this observation does not mean that the demand for transportation should be leading in government policies. Rather, it seems in line with broader government practice in health and education, to set limits on the responsibility of government to serve the ever-increasing demand for travel.

My claim is thus that justice should be at the heart of any transportation policy and that the notion of justice can be the starting point for a true transition in the domain of transportation. Such a transition would build on the understanding that mobility and accessibility are conditions for full participation in society.

Accepting this premise as a basis for policy would lead to a radical change in government responsibility in the domain of transportation and to a radical shift in policy priorities. It would bring transportation policy in line with the widely accepted doctrine underlying government intervention in the areas of health and education. It is this similarity that makes me believe that a transition based on principles of justice is much more likely to succeed in the long term, than a transition based on concerns about the environment alone.

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About the author

Karel Martens NetherlandsKarel Martens is Associate Professor at the Institute for Management Research, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, the Netherlands. He is currently working on a book titled ‘Transportation planning based on principles of justice’, which will be published by Routledge in 2015.




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About the editor:

9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Trained as a development economist, Eric Britton is MD of EcoPlan International, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government, business and civil society on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change and sustainable development. His forthcoming book, “Toward a General Theory of Transport in Cities”, is being presented, discussed and critiqued in a series of international conferences, master classes, workshops and media events over 2014. (More at http://wp.me/PsKUY-2p7)

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One thought on “Fair Mobility: Make no small gestures

  1. I’ve been working on community health in Africa these past few years. The minimum package of commodities and services are what promotes equity here as the author rightly points out. Hope we will start seeing minimim and just packages of transport investments in urban areas for equity in the very near future.


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