How Smarter Mobility Can Make Cities More Equitable

Words by Joey Gardiner
Oct 14, 2021 11:05 AM ET
Article

1. Reduce reliance on private cars

Mobility is a particular driver of social exclusion in cities that have been designed around private car use, often to the exclusion of other forms of travel. One such place is Detroit, nicknamed the “Motor City”. “The city has been built to enable cars to move around,” says Stacey Matlen, a former WSP employee who was seconded to the City of Detroit as a senior mobility strategist. “Those are the patterns we have structurally set up. It makes it incredibly difficult to find sustainable employment if you don’t have a vehicle.” This particularly affects Detroit’s low-income residents, and the problem has been exacerbated by the depopulation of many already low-density neighbourhoods, challenging the economics of public transport. “There have been lots of attempts at a regional transportation plan, but it would require the suburban counties — which are often more white — to put their money towards regional transportation, and it’s always failed in the past.”

Matlen is involved in a project to map people’s journeys to work and then use this data to tackle the economic exclusion caused by the lack of transport infrastructure. The project involves working with low-income residents to obtain detailed information on the barriers they face moving around the city, particularly for work. Initially, this will be used to help inform job seekers of the transport implications of different work choices — highlighting how they may want to prioritize city centre roles or plan their transport strategy before accepting an offer. The hope is that this will also stop career advisers guiding people towards roles that they cannot physically get to. Ultimately, she says, the aim is that the data will inform the choices the city makes about where to invest in new public transport capacity.

2. Think beyond the commute

Data can also help by shedding light on who uses a city’s transport infrastructure, and how. Systems have historically been designed predominantly for commuting, whether by road or rail — and usually for a specific segment of the population. “By and large, this has meant able-bodied white men, which results in overlooking the needs of those who diverge from this user group,” says Suzanna Massingue, a consultant in WSP’s future mobility team in the UK.

This can end up disadvantaging women, for example, who are likely to have more varied domestic responsibilities and therefore different movement patterns. One example is trip-chaining, fulfilling different purposes such as going to work, shopping or dropping off children in a single journey. This may not be captured by traditional analysis, she says, so it is imperative that we widen the lens. “Considering diverse identities of gender, physical ability, race and more, enables a more inclusive understanding of how people navigate transport systems.”

Transport is also a derived demand, she points out — a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Viewing mobility in this way led Massingue’s team, working with Solihull Borough Council, to explore solutions that are, paradoxically, not necessarily forms of transport at all. One example is mobility hubs, places designed to house an aggregation of community and mobility functions. This may include public and shared mobility options, as well as parklets, parcel lockers, convenient retail and workspace units, depending on local needs. Such hubs can support more sustainable travel options, by addressing the factors that create demand for infrastructure in the first place. “There is an element of jumping to the technology, saying ‘we need this semi-autonomous shuttle system’, when actually that’s not necessarily the answer,” she says. “Then, if that technology is implemented in an unequal way, it can just exacerbate income disparities and prevent people from accessing services at all.”

3. Bring transparency to congestion charging

Congestion charging is typically either point-based, where the user pays to enter a certain area, or distance-based, where people pay according to how far they travel. The City of Vancouver commissioned WSP to develop an analytical tool to assess how a new congestion charging scheme might influence equality.  At first sight, point-based charging would appear to affect everyone in the same way, whereas distance charging falls hardest on those who live further out. But the relationship between overall financial impact and the benefit of quicker, more predictable travel times is complex, depending on people’s wealth and earning potential. It also depends on how the problem is framed — for example, do you provide everyone with the same level of service, or use targeted enhancements to compensate for other forms of disadvantage? 

A team led by Adrian Lightstone, WSP’s manager of advisory services in Canada, created a tool that brings together existing neighbourhood-level data relevant to equity, and produces numerical outcomes. The idea, he says, is to give a quantitative sense of the impacts and trade-offs implicit in different options, which otherwise might not surface. “People tend to focus on a very narrow thing: does the cost-benefit analysis tell us we should do this, yes or no? Well maybe it does, but there are lots of other things to consider.” 

Lightstone says the tool can help devise ways to mitigate unfair outcomes — for example, by calculating the impact of travel discounts for certain groups — and be applied to any kind of infrastructure investment. “On a new rail line, you could look at where the stations are located, the surrounding communities and their income levels. How easy is it for them to access the station? Is it walkable, do they have bus access? Are those groups being made better off or worse off as a result of this investment in transit? Every city will be slightly different, but the approach applies for any mode of transit in any developed-world country.” 

This article appears in The Possible issue 07, as part of a longer feature on designing more equal cities