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Transport poverty: U of T researchers lead national effort to support equity in transportation planning

A U of T-led project is the largest collaboration of its kind to study and address historical and current inequities in Canadian transportation systems, which affect millions of Canadians (photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A University of Toronto-led project is set to explore the causes of transport poverty in Canada and find ways to address it.

With funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the project will examine how barriers to moving around combine with social and economic marginalization to limit full participation in daily life for millions of Canadians.  

“This is a massive opportunity to create more equitable transportation systems across Canada, where the benefits of transportation investments are felt more widely and are specifically geared towards alleviating transport poverty,” says Steven Farber, an associate professor of human geography who will lead the five-year, multimillion-dollar project.

He says transport poverty occurs when traditional forms of marginalization, such as poverty or being a member of a racialized community, intersect with transport disadvantages like not being able to afford a car, not feeling safe on the sidewalk or not being served by adequate public transit options.

The partnership project, called “Mobilizing Justice,” is the largest collaboration of its kind to study and address historical and current inequities in Canadian transportation systems. It brings together a team of 33 academics from 15 universities and more than 30 contributing institutions including the federal, regional and municipal governments, universities, non-profits, industry partners, unions and professional associations.

The team will conduct a national survey of transport poverty and use it to develop transportation equity standards, evaluation tool kits and community-centred transportation planning processes that will be used by planners, decision-makers and advocates.

One of the project’s primary goals includes developing national transportation equity standards to clearly set equity goals and targets, while at the same time setting a baseline standard level of accessibility that should be provided to all Canadians regardless of their financial means, personal abilities or place of residence. Concepts such as the 15-minute city, an urban design principle that attempts to guarantee walking, biking or transit access to a set of core amenities within a 15-minute trip from any neighbourhood in the city, is one example of a minimum threshold that will be explored by researchers.

Farber says the most important thing to get right is understanding what amenities, resources and investments people want in their own neighbourhoods. He says figuring out how to integrate community-led planning with traditional top-down transportation planning practices is one of the major intellectual challenges of the project – and one the partners are eager to tackle.  

“Our research will inform how planners can set actionable equity targets in collaboration with communities at risk of transport poverty,” says Farber, who is an expert on the social and economic outcomes of transportation in urban areas.   

He says that vague equity goals are increasingly common in transportation plans, but adds that such plans need to be backed up by evidence, standards, legislation, monitoring and enforcement to ensure sufficient funding. No such legislation or equity-related standards exist in Canada at the moment, he says.

The project comes at a critical juncture for transportation planning in Canada. Farber says COVID-19 has magnified inequities for immigrants as well as low-income, racialized and Indigenous residents. Meanwhile, technological changes such as ride-sharing, on-demand transit and micromobility (e-scooters, for example) present the possibility of either making existing inequalities worse or, if properly managed, offer an opportunity to improve transportation outcomes.

To that end, Farber says the project will experiment with innovative transportation policies and mobility technologies specifically designed to help people living in transport poverty to travel more freely. 

The hope, he says, is for a future where a combination of conventional planning, such as the expansion of transit and safe cycling networks, is married with innovative technologies and policies such as e-bike subsidies or e-bike sharing systems.

“This might provide all Canadians with the opportunity to fully participate in the activities of daily life – something that so many of us take for granted,” Farber says.

He adds that the team will also improve understanding of transportation equity and identify the structural changes necessary to reach a more equitable transportation future for all Canadians.

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