3.2 – Transportation and Society

Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

Transport systems support complex economic and social interactions and are thus a component of society. Transportation reflects the aspirations of a society such as accessibility and mobility, which expands its horizon.

1. Mobility and Society

Mobility is one of the most fundamental characteristics of human activities. It satisfies the basic need of going from one location to another, a need shared by passengers and freight for different purposes.

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

Irrespective of its aim, mobility enables social, cultural, political, and economic activities to take place. Throughout history, changes in mobility have been the outcome of technological developments that improved operational characteristics such as speed, range, price, affordability, and comfort. These changes improved societies and the quality of life of populations. For instance, the diffusion of highways and the automobile profoundly impacted the mobility of contemporary societies and continue to do so.

Regions do not share the same level of mobility from an internal and comparative perspective. A mobility transition has been observed towards motorized forms of transport, a process commonly linked with economic development. Regions with greater mobility often have 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, disburses wages and benefits, invests capital, generates income, and provides taxation revenue. Mobility is, therefore, the recurring aspect where transportation has its most significant societal impacts.

For economic activities, transportation allows access to a workforce, reach suppliers, and service customers. With transportation improvements, interactions with the workforce are more effective, and distribution costs usually decline with the derived competitive benefits. Most individuals have extensive experience with transportation since they are regular users. Transportation is the means to access employment, goods, services, leisure, social networks, and using transportation is often a social experience, at times negative (e.g. comfort, safety). Thus, a share of 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 is spent on mobility, as mobility symbolizes social status.

Mobility is an activity that is constrained by several factors that, when applied across social groups, lead to a number of observations:

  • Variations in the propensity, intensity, and scale of mobility are linked to differences in the availability of transportation resources, including infrastructure.
  • There are variations in the daily travel behavior that are manifest in the frequency, time, mode, and distance of travel.
  • There are variations in transport accessibility resulting in different opportunities.

For an individual, irrespective of their social group, time limits the daily number and length of trips. However, these constraints are technologically, socially, and economically articulated since more efficient transport modes support more extensive mobilities and higher incomes. Thus, an individual would have mobility contingent on physical capabilities, available budget, transport supply, and the spatial distribution of activities such as residential, commercial, and manufacturing areas. Further, the social context of mobility is partly changing because of its impacts. Mobility can be a factor in 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.

Transportation is not a homogeneous system but 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.

2. 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. There are four forms of gaps:

  • Differences in mobility because of the economic function of an area, particularly between urban and rural areas.
  • Unequal mobility and travel behavior between social groups, including their respective transport resources, such as car ownership, access to public transit, and average travel distance, frequency, and time.
  • Accessibility inequalities to outside markets or services such as retail and opportunities such as employment.
  • Employment inequalities where socioeconomic groups have different participation levels in the transportation sector.

a. Rural Mobility

The World Bank estimates that 1 billion people worldwide do not have direct access to a paved road, undermining their mobility. This gap is almost exclusively between rural and urban areas, which can be significant. Rural mobility must fulfill the dual role of allowing rural residents to access employment, goods, and services, as well as allowing the efficient mobility of rural equipment (tractors, trucks), agricultural inputs (fertilizers, water, seeds), and agricultural outputs (crops and animals). The latter is particularly important since agriculture is the core function of rural areas, and many rural transport systems were designed as feeders to wider circulation systems. For instance, the setting of railways in the western part of North America is organized around a hierarchy of rural towns collecting agricultural resources.

Rural areas differ particularly from urban areas because of the lower population density and a less diversified economy focusing on agriculture and related activities. This makes the setting of collective forms of transportation more challenging and less cost-effective. However, some rural areas in developing economies such as India and China have higher densities than urban areas in advanced economies like Europe and the United States. This implies a high usage of roads, leading to the adaptation of farm vehicles to provide mobility for people and goods. The main mobility differences between rural and urban areas involve longer average travel distances, a lower density of transportation infrastructure, with agricultural equipment (e.g. tractors), and farm animals using roads with related hazards (accidents).

b. Inequalities in mobility

Mobility needs do not always coincide due to several factors, namely the lack of income, time, means, and access. Mobility and transport demand thus depends on socioeconomic status. The higher the income, the more options and mobility, which may lead to substantial mobility gaps between different population groups. There are mismatches between the location of low-income people and the areas where employment and services are available. The more significant these mismatches regarding accessibility, the higher the gaps.

Gender gaps exist in mobility as women tend to have lower mobility levels, which is partly attributable to lower incomes, work preferences, and social roles such as family care. This is particularly the case in developing economies since, in more advanced economies, the labor force participation of women has increased, thus alleviating gender differences. Mobility patterns by gender tend to be similar for younger age groups, but differences increase as women reach child caretaking years. This is associated with shorter travels and trip chaining to perform several activities along a trip sequence.

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. In contrast, 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 is becoming more than an income issue. An aging population has more difficulties operating vehicles and using transport systems. Further, an aging population has, on average, less disposable income.

c. Accessibility gaps

Locations with low levels of accessibility tend to have higher costs for many goods. This can manifest at several geographical scales, from the national to the local. For landlocked countries, most goods must be imported through an intermediate country, often over long distances. The resulting higher transport costs inhibit the competitiveness of such locations and limit opportunities. Consumers, retailers, and industries will pay higher prices, impacting their welfare (disposable income) and competitiveness.

At the local level, some neighborhoods are poorly serviced with groceries and other necessities. This leads to paradoxical effects: populations in poorer neighborhoods can pay higher prices for basic goods due to the lack of demand, higher distribution costs, and a lack of mobility to facilities offering a wider variety of goods. Mobility is associated with a wider range of choices and options. Employment clusters in suburban areas are often designed to be accessible only by the automobile, with limited consideration for public transit. This undermines the employment opportunities of those who do not have access to a vehicle.

d. Employment inequalities

Conventionally, the transportation sector and its related activities (e.g. warehousing) were male-dominated, particularly in operations. This trend is on the decline but likely to endure. The sector tends to have low barriers to entry, implying employment opportunities for young or immigrant workers to find work. Still, transportation work tends to be labor-intensive and physically demanding, which is not conducive to generalized gender equity. For instance, in the transport and warehousing sector, about 75% of the workforce is male, and 85% for the trucking industry, while around 55% of the general workforce is female. The growth of the logistics sector and E-commerce offer opportunities the lessen the gap since they are associated with more management and administrative work. Irrespective, gender equity across the transportation sector is unlikely due to the nature of the work involved and enduring gender preferences in the type of employment.

The above gaps can be presented, particularly by advocacy groups, as a form of transport equity issue. This concept needs to be taken with caution since it refers to an equality of outcome. Although equity can appear superficially as a desirable outcome, it goes against many fundamental precepts in geography. At the core, geography underlines that characteristics such as climate, the distribution of resources, and accessibility confer a non-uniform distribution of opportunities. Some locations are better or more suitable than others, leading to an inequality of outcome in terms of accessibility and economic development. Thus, geography can be a powerful force in the generation of inequalities, which can be a factor of productivity and wealth. For instance, global passenger and freight traffic is handled by a rather small number of large ports and airports, which is associated with highly productive distribution systems benefiting from economies of scale and agglomeration. Therefore, the concept of transport equity is, at best, elusive and could lead to substantial misallocations of resources in attempts to rectify gaps.

3. The Social Externalities of Transportation

With increased mobility, it has become common for parts of transportation networks to be used above design capacity, particularly in urban areas. Congestion is the outcome of such a situation with its associated costs, delays, and waste of energy (congestion is addressed in more detail in the Urban Transport Challenges section). 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 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. First, congestion is commonly the outcome of economic success as the level of mobility exceeds what was initially anticipated and designed for. Further, different socioeconomic groups will have different tolerance levels to congestion as each may have a different time value preference. On the positive side, the diffusion of information technologies offers drivers and passengers a wider range of activities to perform while in transit.

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 the higher the probability for an accident to occur with more traffic. The most important segments of road transport infrastructure also inflict the most externalities. They have important socioeconomic impacts, including healthcare, insurance, damage to property, and the loss of life. Therefore, public policy has focused on different aspects of transportation safety, such as vehicles, infrastructure design, and operating conditions.

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 of transportation, accounting for 90% of all transport accidents on average. At the global level, about 1.35 million people die in road accidents each year, 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 nearly 90% of all deaths. China has the world’s largest number of fatalities, estimated to be around 255,000 in 2016, mainly due to a sharp growth in vehicle ownership, a lack of driver education, and enforcement of regulations. Another trend is the rise in the number of pedestrian deaths after years of decline, a trend attributable to changes in vehicle preferences, suburbanization, and even the rapid diffusion of portable mobile devices such as smartphones. However, there is an emerging body of evidence that ridesharing technologies are associated with a reduction in traffic fatalities mainly because of the professionalization of driving and a readily available option to counter the risks of drunk driving.

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 fewer users are incited to walk. Thus, there can be a societal drawback to convenient mobility since a population could walk and exercise 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 social implications of transportation in terms of opportunities, as well as in terms of social exclusion. Significant factors of social exclusion have a transportation component, such as difficulties in affording transportation (public or private), transportation services that do not cover effectively demand, and a lack of appropriate infrastructures such as sidewalks and waiting areas. Land use and housing policies can have the unintended consequence of undermining access to employment, education, healthcare, and other social activities. If efficient transportation does not mitigate this separation, it becomes a segregation factor. Under such circumstances, the high level of subsidies that public transit systems receive is made socially acceptable as a form of support for the mobility of those less advantaged. A similar observation applies to congestion and pricing schemes as the poorer segments of the population cannot 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 divisive social issue.

4. The Environment as a Social Transportation Challenge

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

The most salient environmental challenges having social consequences include:

  • Air quality. Atmospheric emissions from pollutants produced by 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. The World Health Organisation estimated that 3 million deaths per year are related to air pollution, although the contribution of transportation is less clear. About 50% of all air pollution in urban regions emanates from automobile traffic. Since pollution is a health issue, its societal impacts are perceived to be significant, with air quality commonly a source of social concern. Still, improvements in engine technology (including electrification), changes in fuel quality, and the extension of vegetation and green spaces in urban areas are effective mitigation measures.
  • Noise. A major irritant, noise can impact human health and welfare. Noise can be manifested at different 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 near transport terminals and main roads are major irritants and have commonly been associated with lower land values since they make those locations less desirable.
  • Water quality. The main association between transportation and water quality involves accidental and nominal runoff of pollutants, such as oil spills, which contaminate surface water and groundwater. In addition, paved surfaces are more prone to floods with intense rainfall, implying that the footprint of transportation infrastructure can have multiplying effects.
  • Footprint. Transport is a large consumer of space when all its supporting infrastructure and equipment are considered, such as roads, parking areas, and terminals. This footprint is subject to competition between other activities and reflects societal values, particularly regarding the space allocated to automobile use. 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, levels of emissions, and operating conditions. This comes from various regulatory agencies having jurisdiction, and advocacy groups also play a significant role in promoting and defending environmental concerns. Many transportation infrastructure projects, such as roads, terminals, and pipelines, have become embattled in public debates over environmental and, at times, aesthetic concerns. This underlines a societal change requiring careful consideration of not only technical and commercial aspects of transportation infrastructure, but also their level of social acceptance, or at least tolerance. The situation can go as far as a widespread NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) attitude that prevents, stalls, and increases transport infrastructure development costs. Under such circumstances, society becomes an active force preventing transport development, leading to future development challenges due to the lack of infrastructure and could lead to additional safety issues if the infrastructure is not properly maintained. Ideally, society should aim to create an abundance of mobility options, as restricting mobility (scarcity) has more negative than positive outcomes.

Related Topics


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