By Shelby Huffman
Transportation is an important determinant of health, and the two may be more closely related than researchers previously recognized. You might be familiar with the idea that designing cities for cars is bad for health because it promotes inactivity. It appears that on top of this, designing cities for cars at the cost of public transit may also limit social mobility. An ongoing Harvard study seeking to identify pathways for children to escape poverty found that the strongest indicator of a neighbourhood’s influence on a child’s future earnings was the proportion of residents with a commute time of 15 minutes or less. (1) Transportation was more strongly related to social mobility than crime, elementary school test scores, and the percentage of two-parent families (2). Although the authors of the study can’t rule out the influence of confounding factors such as a lack of high-paying jobs or a history of racial and economic segregation in areas with longer commutes (3), they have nonetheless brought attention to this often-neglected issue.
One way that long commutes and limited access to transportation can limit social mobility is by preventing people from securing and keeping employment or educational opportunities. According to Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, “The poor are often stuck in urban neighborhoods with the fewest transportation options for getting to jobs, childcare, healthcare, and […] that makes it harder for them to climb out of poverty and exacerbates inequality” (4). She points out that it can’t be good for the individual or the economy if getting to and from somewhere on a daily basis is so unnecessarily onerous (4). “Unnecessarily onerous” is the perfect description of the public transportation experience in many (probably most) North American cities. Being passed by a full bus or having your bus show up late isn’t just frustrating, it can have negative consequences on your education or employment situation. With every additional transfer someone has to take, these concerns are compounded.
It’s worth noting that the study measured commute times, not whether someone uses public transit. Intuitively, relying on public transit and having a long commute usually go hand in hand, but many car owners also have commute times upwards of 15 minutes. In Moscow, which has some of the worst traffic congestion in the world, traffic jams routinely last four or five hours (5). For some residents, having loads of money has allowed them to work around this problem. The so called “minigarchs” of Moscow, such as the heads of procurement of oil corporations, are now conducting business in traffic, buying luxury vans in which to hold meetings. Moscow’s oligarchs have bypassed the traffic altogether, having people come to them in mansions and on yachts (5). This extreme example illustrates a less obvious manifestation of inequity in transportation. Rich people driving around in luxury vans or staying home on their yachts to avoid traffic is obviously not an ideal solution to the problem of an unsustainable reliance on cars in major cities. Investing in, and properly managing public transportation systems is a much more appealing direction for the future of urban transportation in North America.