Transportation and Society

Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

1. Mobility and Society

Transport systems support complex economic and social interactions and are thus a component of society. In many ways, transportation reflects the aspirations of a society such as accessibility and mobility, which expands its horizon. Mobility is one of the most fundamental and important characteristics of economic or social activities as it satisfies the basic need of going from one location to the other, a need shared by passengers, freight and information. The diffusion of the highways and the automobile had profound socioeconomic impacts and continue to do so.

Locations do not share the same level of mobility as most are in a different stage in their mobility transition towards motorized forms of transport. Economies that possess greater mobility are often those with better opportunities to develop than those with scarce mobility. Reduced mobility impedes development while greater mobility is a catalyst for development. Mobility is thus a reliable indicator of development. Providing mobility is an industry that offers services to its customers, employs people and disburses wages, invests capital, generates income and provides taxation revenue. Mobility is therefore the recurring aspect where transportation has its most significant societal impacts.

Mobility is a multidimensional concept since it simultaneously expresses the potential for a movement as well as the movement itself. It is at start a choice to be exercised or not depending on economic and social goals.

For economic activities such as businesses, transportation enables to access a workforce, reach suppliers and service customers. With improvements in transportation, interactions with the workforce are more effective and the costs of distribution usually declines with the derived competitive benefits. For individuals, the majority have an extensive experience with transportation since they are regular users. Transportation is the mean to access employment, goods, services, leisure and social networks and using transportation is often a social experience, at times negative. Thus, a share of the societal consumption is allocated to satisfy mobility needs. Paradoxically, higher income levels are usually associated with a higher share of transportation in consumption, a trend particularly attributed to automobile ownership and air travel. The higher the income, the greater its share spent on mobility.

Mobility is an activity which is constrained by a number of factors. For an individual, time limits the number of trips and their lengths that can be done in a day. These constraints are however technologically, socially and economically articulated since more efficient transport modes are supportive of more extensive mobilities as well as higher incomes. Thus, an individual would have a mobility contingent to physical capabilities, available budget, transport supply and the spatial distribution of activities such as residential, commercial and production areas. Further, the social context of mobility is changing in part because of its impacts. Mobility can be a factor of weaker social interactions as individuals could be living further apart. At the same time expanded mobility enables social interactions that were not effectively possible beforehand. This is particularly the case for long distance interactions that have expanded with the growth of air transport.

2. Societal Transportation Challenges

Transportation cannot be seen as an homogeneous system, but as a set of diverse elements at times in competition. Access and services are not uniform. While many of the social and economic impacts of transportation are positive, there are also significant societal challenges:

  • Mobility gaps. Since mobility is one of the fundamental components of the economic benefits of transportation, its variations are likely to have substantial impacts on the employment, educational and social opportunities of individuals. The Word Bank estimates that 1 billion people around the world do not have a direct access to a paved road, undermining their mobility. Mobility needs do not always coincide due to several factors, namely the lack of income, lack of time, lack of means and the lack of access. People’s mobility and transport demands thus depend on their socioeconomic status. The higher the income, the higher the mobility, which may give rise to substantial mobility gaps between different population groups. Gender gaps exist in mobility as women tend to have lower incomes. Employment clusters in suburban areas are often designed to be accessible only by the automobile, with limited consideration to public transit. This undermines the employment opportunities of those not having access to a vehicle. Mobility gaps are particularly prevalent for long distance travel. With the development of air transport, a segment of the global population has achieved a very high level of mobility for their business and leisure activities, while the great majority of the global population has little mobility. This issue is expected to become more acute as the population of many advanced economies is aging rapidly, which implies that mobility will be more than an income issue, but also an age issue.
  • Costs differences. Locations that have low levels of accessibility tend to have higher costs for many goods, sometimes basic necessities such as food. This can play at several geographical scales, form the national to the local. For landlocked countries most of the goods have to be imported through an intermediate country, often over long distances. The resulting higher transport costs inhibit the competitiveness of such locations and limits opportunities. Consumers, retailers and industries will pay higher prices, impacting on their welfare (disposable income) and competitiveness. At the local level, some areas are poorly serviced with goods such as groceries and other basic necessities.
  • Congestion. With the increased use of transport systems, it has become common for parts of the network to be used above design capacity. Congestion is the outcome of such a situation with its associated costs, delays and waste of energy. Distribution systems that rely upon on-time deliveries are particularly susceptible to congestion as well as commuters seeking to arrive at work on time. In addition to involve additional costs, congestion involves additional time which is perceived to be increasingly valuable in advanced economies. Still, from a societal standpoint congestion is an ambiguous issue as different socioeconomic groups will have different levels of tolerance as each may have a different time value preference. On the positive side, the diffusion of information technologies offer drivers and passengers a wider range of activities to perform while in transit.
  • Accidents. The use of transport modes and infrastructure is never entirely safe. Every motorized vehicle contains an element of danger and nuisance. Due to human errors and various forms of physical failures (mechanical or infrastructural) injuries, damages and even death occur. Accidents tend to be proportional to the intensity of use of transport infrastructures which means with more traffic the higher the probability for an accident to occur. They have important socioeconomic impacts including healthcare, insurance, damage to property and the loss of life. The respective level of safety depends on the mode of transport and the speed at which an accident occurs. No mode is completely safe but the road remains the riskiest mode for transportation, accounting for 90% of all transport accidents on average. At the global level, about 1.25 million people died in road accidents in 2013, in addition to 50 million injuries. Although the number of deaths due to car accidents is declining in developed countries, in developing economies, death rates are usually at least twice as high as those of developed countries and account for close to 90% of all deaths. China has the world largest number of fatalities, 250,000 in 2013, a situation mainly due to a sharp growth in vehicle ownership in recent years, a lack of driver education and enforcement of regulations.
  • Health. The convenience of mobility, particularly through the diffusion of the automobile and its associated suburban lifestyle, is linked with a lack of physical activity and rising obesity. The easier it is to move over short distances through mechanical means such as vehicles, elevators and escalators, the less users are incited to walk. There can be thus a societal drawback to convenient mobility since a population could be walking less. Such a trend is complex to mitigate and the design of more walking and cycling friendly neighborhoods has been advocated. They would convey some improved health benefits for their residents.

All these issues underline the profound social implications of transportation in terms of opportunities, but as well in terms of social exclusion. The most significant factors of social exclusion remain land use and housing policies which tend to undermine access to employment, education, healthcare and other social activities. If this separation is not mitigated by efficient transportation, it becomes a factor of segregation. Under such circumstances, the high level of subsidies that public transit systems are receiving is made socially acceptable as a form of support to the mobility of those less advantaged. A similar observation applies to congestion and pricing schemes as the poorer segments of the population are less able to afford financial restrictions on mobility, even if undertaken with the rationale of managing scarce assets. The road remains perceived as a public good and impairing its free use becomes a social justice issue.

3. Environmental Transportation Challenges

The mobility provided by transport activities has a wide range of environmental consequences, which have a cost that have to be assumed by the users and the society. While many environmental issues can have negative health impacts, societal tolerance to environmental externalities has significantly evolved. As income and levels of education increase, a society becomes more aware of environmental concerns and has less tolerance for its negative impacts:

  • Air quality. Atmospheric emissions from pollutants produced transportation, especially by the internal combustion engine, are associated with air pollution and global climate change. Some pollutants (NOx, CO, O3, VOC, etc.) can produce respiratory troubles and aggravate cardiovascular illnesses. It is estimated that 3 million deaths per year are related to air pollution, although the contribution of transportation is less clear. In urban regions, about 50% of all air pollution emanates from automobile traffic. Since pollution is a health issue, its societal impacts are perceived to be significant.
  • Noise. A major irritant, noise can impact on human health and most often human welfare. Noise can be manifested in three levels depending on emissions intensity; psychological disturbances (perturbations, displeasure), functional disturbances (sleep disorders, loss of work productivity, speech interference) or physiological disturbances (health issues such as fatigue, and hearing damage). Noise and vibration associated with trains, trucks, and planes in the vicinity of airports are major irritants and have commonly been associated with lower land values since it makes those location less desirable.
  • Water quality. Accidental and nominal runoff of pollutants from transport such as oil spills, are sources of contamination for both surface water and groundwater. In addition, paved surfaces are more prone to floods with intense rainfall.
  • Land take. Transport is a large consumer of space when all of its supporting infrastructure and equipment are considered. This space is subject to competition between other activities and reflects societal values, particularly in terms of the space allocated to the automobile. Furthermore, the planning associated with transportation infrastructures does not always consider aesthetic values as is often the case in the construction of urban highways. These visual impacts have adverse consequences on the quality of life of nearby residents.

The most common way for a society to mitigate the environmental externalities of transportation is to impose regulations related to standards, level of emissions and operating conditions. This comes from various regulatory agencies having a jurisdiction and advocacy groups are also playing a significant role at promoting and defending environmental concerns. Many transportation infrastructure projects, such as roads, terminals and pipelines, have become embattled into public debates over environmental and at time aesthetic concerns. This is indicative of a societal change requiring careful consideration of not only technical and commercial aspects of transportation infrastructure, but their level of social acceptance, or at least tolerance.


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