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Transport Equity
April 29, 2021

Understanding Transport Poverty and Transport Disadvantage

Understand transport poverty, its disadvantages and how individuals are impacted because of the transit and societal constraints placed around them.

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Transport poverty and disadvantage are a reality for millions of people across the world. Urban and rural people experience varying levels of disadvantage as a result of a lack of access to adequate transport, influenced by a range of factors.

Let’s uncover these concepts and how individuals are greatly impacted because of transit and societal constraints placed around them.

What is Transport Poverty?

When it comes to transport poverty, according to Lucas, an individual is considered transport poor if their ability to satisfy every day needs and activity is limited by the following factors:

  • Availability of transport (services offered)
  • Accessibility of transport (being deterred by surrounding terrain or accessibility requirements)
  • The cost or affordability of transport
  • Time spent travelling (known as time poverty/time poor)
  • The adequacy of transport travel conditions (being dangerous or unsafe)

Essentially, transport poverty limits quality of life as a consequence of being unable to access transport services. Studies have shown that it’s not always the entire family within a household affected by transport poverty, but often individuals. Different levels of transport poverty within a family are in particular, found between men and women, and young people. 

You may think that transport poverty is only prevalent in developing nations, but many individuals in developed countries are facing challenges as a result of transport poverty. A report in 2013 brought this to the forefront in the United Kingdom, highlighting how at the time, over one and half million people were at risk of transport poverty because of the rising cost of car ownership. 

In particular, areas of low income were found to be placed in financial strain because of car ownership, and were more than a kilometre from the closest train station or bus stop.The impact of these effects is that people may be forced to choose between buying a car they cannot afford (in 2017/2018 transport cost households 14% of their income, with low socioeconomic households needing to spend more), or walking long distances to access a transport option when they may not physically be capable, or feel safe in doing so. 

Who is affected by Transport Poverty?

According to Professor Julian Hine, the following groups are most at risk of experiencing Transport Poverty: 

  1. Low income earners
  2. Women
  3. The elderly
  4. Persons with disability 
  5. Young people

1. Low income earners

Low income earners are said to travel less in general, have low levels of car ownership, walk more and use Public Transport more than high income earners. However, for this group, Public Transport can become a barrier to employment opportunities—especially for shift workers and part-time workers.  

2. Women 

Women are faced with multiple barriers to accessing transport, especially from low income groups or in public housing. Unfortunately, this results in social exclusion. For many women, personal safety is an ever present concern—influencing decisions every day—due to fears of traveling alone or walking home in the dark, which serves as a huge deterrent in utilising local transit services. Especially for single mothers with lower incomes, the high reliance on Public Transport can result in a lack of access to adequate health services due to being time poor and family/carer responsibilities.

3. The elderly 

The elderly are considered as one of the most vulnerable and largest groups of individuals unable to access general services due to their reliance on Public transport. A loss of independence occurs within this group, resulting in a lack of confidence and sometimes reluctance in using local transit services if they are not conveniently available. 

4. Persons with a disability 

On average, persons with a disability in the United Kingdom travel one third less than the rest of the population. Difficulties with accessibility, boarding and moving around buses, feeling unsafe, and walking far distances have become a huge barrier to transport accessibility, and thus transport poverty amongst this group. There are over 14.1 million people in the UK with a disability, equating to 19% of the adult population. There are however, fantastic organisations who are helping to create better access to services for persons with disabilities, like Briometrix—who are helping cities and towns, greenways and parklands and transport networks to connect their islands of accessibility, showing people how to travel actively through mobility mapping. As mobility for persons with a disability is highlighted, it’s essential that organisations and governments look to ways to create equal opportunities through safe mobility options.

5. Young People

Children and youth are largely at risk of transport poverty, especially in low-income areas and when part of a family unit with low socioeconomic status. As adolescents reach their teenage years when connection with peers and social inclusion is imperative, having access to transport gives young people a sense of community, independence and responsibility. Access to safe and affordable transport is also essential in allowing young people and adults opportunity for employment. When transportation systems are not set up well to accommodate for ease, convenience and safe mobility, young people can be severely disadvantaged and limited in opportunities.

What is Transport Disadvantage?

A lack of access to transport can lead to disadvantage in many different ways, and from there ‘transport disadvantage’ evolves. Transport disadvantage can be caused by many variables—from the practical geography of the land, individual health, socioeconomic status and availability of government services.  

A common and yet underrated example of transport disadvantage is evident when we take a look at car ownership in modern day society. When families are forced into car ownership because of convenience or lack of alternative services—and need to own more than one vehicle to carry out day-to-day activities—this can create difficulties and place strain on finances, physical and mental health, and relationships. When faced with transport disadvantage, individuals and families are forced into difficult and sometimes undesirable circumstances. 

Even if there are Public Transport options available for those who cannot use a car, there are still travel-related disadvantages for individuals who have to utilise these services to access education, employment and the community. This is especially prominent in geographies where transport services are impractical to reach by foot—broken or non-existent paths, poor lighting, steep terrain, long walks and other factors that all contribute in creating disadvantage. Other disadvantages include becoming time poor or missing out on opportunities all together because the travel is too far and time consuming.

Who is affected by Transport Disadvantage?

Because access to transport has the ability to enhance or take away opportunities, transport disadvantage tends to hurt the people who need access to transport the most. For example, families and individuals with a low socioeconomic status can find themselves living in geographies that are further away from cities and regional centres, where work opportunities and salaries are typically lower.

This has a roll-on effect, essentially creating disadvantage for individuals who must spend longer distances travelling to and from work, or for those unable to upkeep the associated costs of car ownership. Access to transportation services can serve as a barrier, deterring an individual from taking an opportunity to work further out, or even accessing high quality education. This concept is also known as social exclusion—whereby access to services are limited and with it, social opportunity.

The United Nations states that the most affluent in society benefit the most from infrastructure and well planned transportation systems, which improves standard of living. Living further away from city centres means that Public Transport journeys become more complex for passengers. For example, we’ve seen this in large suburban developments primarily in Western nations, where governments continue to build large car dependent suburbs. These low density, large area urban developments discourage walking to local transit systems due to the vast distances that need to be covered to get there. These suburbs are being built at rates that Public Transport just can't keep up with. This is not only because of the rate at which these suburbs are being constructed—but because they bring in less tax revenue than more densely populated zones closer to cities. This results in suburbs becoming isolated and consequently at risk of transport disadvantage until infrastructure can catch up.

Interestingly, research has also proved that poorer individuals and groups worldwide are not as mobile in general. The UN also states that rural isolation is linked with poorer health, low agricultural productivity due to a lack of resourcing and up-to-date technology, as well as literally confining people with disabilities and the elderly to their homes. Transport disadvantage consequently affects the vulnerable—the most. And for those living in extreme poverty, it has been found that access to roads, and affordable transport opportunities highly reduces the level of poverty suffered. 

Consequently, the lack of opportunities available and poor quality of services creates difficulty in attaining sufficient access to private and public transport. And with a lack of mobility, challenges will continue to arise for individuals trapped by transport disadvantage unless governments and communities look to more creative ways to enhance access to services in rural, isolated suburban and even lower socioeconomic areas.

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What next? Creating equitable transport

Combating transport poverty and disadvantage needs support from a national government level, all the way through to local council action and implementation. Transportation, urban and rural town planners need to think creatively about ways to directly address the needs of their communities in a way that provides equitable transport. 

For example, in 2021 the UK government announced funding for councils across the United Kingdom, known as the ‘Rural Mobility Fund.’ The RMF is essentially providing opportunity for councils in rural areas to attain funds to transport communities more efficiently with the help of Demand-Responsive Transport systems—moving away from fixed-route transit in areas where it’s not economically viable or practical for residents. Governments around the world are warming up to the concept of MaaS (Mobility as a Service), and are gradually paving the way for innovative opportunities to combat transport disadvantage and poverty through the help of modern day technological advancements. 

Creating equitable access to transit and thus opportunities for our communities is an essential fabric for society that needs to be addressed. Without change and policy makers who advocate for the rights of individuals and families who can fall prey to transport disadvantage and poverty, socioeconomic gaps and transport-related barriers will continue to negatively impact those who need access to transport most. 


At Liftango, we understand the need to address these shortcomings in transport offerings as a way of improving society in general. This is why we focus heavily on helping Transit Operators understand the problems they are tackling and design suitable services that are capable of solving the right problems, at a local level. While we develop useful tools that help identify regions of high need, and plan appropriate solutions, we recognise that there is no replacement for truly understanding the needs at a local level and working with the people most impacted to develop fit-for-purpose solutions.

Get insights to one of our latest Demand-Responsive Transport projects with North Lincolnshire Council's JustGoBus service—with a ten times larger service zone than your average DRT project.

About the Author

Ellyse McCallum

Ellyse McCallum


Australian-based digital marketer passionate about making an impactful societal change through every-day life. Ellyse loves spending time in nature, drinking coffee and hanging with family and friends (preferably all at the same time)!