Sorry if this gets a little heavy for people, but I think about these kinds of things, so I want to share my thoughts.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about transportation and how it relates to social justice. I won’t aim to make this an exhaustive post, but rather just to bring up some thoughts I’ve had, in hopes of maybe getting others thinking about some things they may not have thought about.
I don’t think transportation is often thought of as a social justice issue, but in reality, it has huge effects on different populations of people. In a city or country where the primary mode of transportation is the personal automobile, huge portions of society are then left with no convenient means to get from home to the places they need to go. If a city or country spends all its transportation planning on making systems of roads to accommodate automobiles, then you leave those who are too young to drive, those who can’t afford to own and operate an automobile, and those who would choose not to with no viable means of transportation. Not only that, you force people to make difficult decisions about their place of living, their finances, their consciences in some cases, simply in order to be able to get anywhere safely and reliably. In a time when we are trying to focus on rebuilding our economy, I think this is a very important issue, because if we want a flourishing economy, we want as many people as possible to be contributing to it, and gaining benefit from it.
Let’s think about this – a person who lives in a suburb of a large city loses their job. They are getting unemployment, which pays for their apartment, but almost nothing else. They need to find a new job, but they cannot afford to drive the 30 miles a day it would require to get around to businesses in the area to look for job opportunities, because the suburb is very spread out, and this person has no expendable income. There is very little public transit in the area, and because it is so spread out, it is not feasible to walk, the distances are just too far. All the main roads are 4 traffic lanes or more, wide open, with no speed-limiting except a few stoplights, and none of the side streets connect the main streets, they all dead-end in housing developments, so to ride a bicycle, you would have to ride on the main streets in traffic with cars going 40-50mph around you.
Another situation – a person living on the streets is looking for a job, but all the jobs in the immediate area seem to be taken up. There are, however, several job openings across town 10 miles away, for which the person is qualified. The problem is, obviously this person does not own and cannot afford to own a car. There is no bus, lightrail, train or tram in this city that goes to the area of town those job openings are in, and it is an industrial area, with a lot of large maintenance vehicle traffic, and again nowhere to ride a bicycle except in with all the traffic. Even if this person gets the job, how are they supposed to get there?
Another situation – A person makes enough money to own and operate a vehicle, but just barely. Finances are tight and the person is often just barely making bills, food and rent. Getting rid of the car could give them up to an extra $200-300 per month considering car payment, gas, insurance and maintenance. However, that is only possible if they can either walk everywhere they need, ride a bike everywhere they need, or take public transit everywhere they need.
A transportation system that is centered around the personal automobile is inherently catering to people in the upper percentages of income, and disadvantaging those in the middle to lower percentages.
On the other hand, a well planned, easily accessible public transit system allows a person with even a very low income to get within easy walking distance of nearly anywhere, in the city center or the suburbs. If the city and the suburbs are then accommodating for pedestrians, all the better. If a person is able to get to everything they need on a daily basis within about a 20 minute walking distance from home, and their neighborhood is arranged in such a way that it’s safe to walk, they really have no need of owning an automobile in order to live. If a city has a well-established and well-maintained network of quiet, speed-controlled or car-free streets that make it easy for a person to ride a bicycle to most places in the city, then you allow a person to have nearly the entire city accessible to them, at an absolute minimum monetary cost: the one-time purchase of a bicycle. This also makes the donation of bicycles a particularly useful thing for those who can’t afford to buy one – they then don’t have ongoing costs of insurance and fuel.
These are just some preliminary thoughts and musings, I’m sure this topic could go much deeper than what I’ve laid out here, and if any of you have more thoughts on the issue, I’d be happy to hear them. It seems very clear to me that a very balanced transportation system between automobiles, public transit options, and human-powered transportation (walking and cycling) is a great way of providing opportunity to all levels of society, and that an automobile-only transportation system is one of the best ways of making sure that whose with limited means are denied opportunity.