The Geography of Transport Systems
Jean-Paul Rodrigue (2017), New York: Routledge, 440 pages.
ISBN 978-1138669574
Transportation and Society
Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue
1. Mobility and Society
Transport systems are a fundamental component of societies since they support complex economic and social interactions. Mobility is one of the most fundamental and important characteristics of economic or social activities as it satisfies the basic need of going from one location to the other, a need shared by passengers, freight and information. Locations do not share the same level of mobility as most are in a different stage in their mobility transition towards motorized forms of transport. Economies that possess greater mobility are often those with better opportunities to develop than those with scarce mobility. Reduced mobility impedes development while greater mobility is a catalyst for development. Mobility is thus a reliable indicator of development. Providing mobility is an industry that offers services to its customers, employs people and disburses wages, invests capital, generates income and provides taxation revenue. Mobility is therefore the recurring aspect where transportation has its most significant societal impacts.
Mobility is a multidimensional concept since it simultaneously expresses the potential for a movement as well as the movement itself. It is at start a choice to be exercised or not depending on economic and social goals. For economic activities such as businesses, transportation enables to access a workforce, reach suppliers and service customers. With improvements in transportation, interactions with the workforce are more effective and the costs of distribution usually declines with the derived competitive benefits. For individuals, transportation is the mean to access employment, goods, services, leisure and social networks. Thus, a share of the societal consumption is allocated to satisfy mobility needs. Paradoxically, higher income levels are usually associated with a higher share of transportation in consumption, a trend particularly attributed to automobile ownership and air travel.
Mobility is an activity which is constrained by a number of factors. For an individual, time limits the number of trips and their lengths that can be done in a day. These constraints are however technologically, socially and economically articulated since more efficient transport modes are supportive of more extensive mobilities as well as higher incomes. Thus, an individual would have a mobility contingent to physical capabilities, available budget, transport supply and the spatial distribution of activities such as residential, commercial and production areas. Further, the social context of mobility is changing in part because of its impacts. Mobility can be a factor of weaker social interactions as individual could be living further apart. At the same time expanded mobility enables social interactions that were not effectively possible beforehand. This is particularly the case for long distance interaction that have expanded with the growth of air transport.
2. Societal Transportation Challenges
While many of the social and economic impacts of transportation are positive, there are also significant societal challenges:
  • Mobility gaps. Since mobility is one of the fundamental components of the economic benefits of transportation, its variations are likely to have substantial impacts on the opportunities of individuals. Mobility needs do not always coincide due to several factors, namely the lack of income, lack of time, lack of means and the lack of access. People’s mobility and transport demands thus depend on their socioeconomic status. The higher the income, the higher the mobility, which may give rise to substantial mobility gaps between different population groups. Gender gaps exist in mobility as women tend to have lower incomes. Mobility gaps are particularly prevalent for long distance travel. With the development of air transport, a segment of the global population has achieved a very high level of mobility for their business and leisure activities, while the great majority of the global population has little mobility. This issue is expected to become more acute as the population of many advanced economies is aging rapidly, which implies that mobility will not be an income issue but an age issue. By 2020, about 10% of the global population (719 million) will be over 65 while by 2050 this share will reach 16% (1,492 million).
  • Costs differences. Locations that have low levels of accessibility, such as landlocked countries, tend to have higher costs for many goods (sometimes basic necessities such as food) as most have to be imported, often over long distances. The resulting higher transport costs inhibit the competitiveness of such locations and limits opportunities. Consumers and industries will pay higher prices, impacting on their welfare (disposable income) and competitiveness.
  • Congestion. With the increased use of transport systems, it has become common for parts of the network to be used above design capacity. Congestion is the outcome of such a situation with its associated costs, delays and waste of energy. Distribution systems that rely upon on-time deliveries are particularly susceptible to congestion as well as commuters seeking to arrive at work on time. In addition to involve additional costs, congestion involves additional time which is perceived to be increasingly valuable in advanced economies.
  • Accidents. The use of transport modes and infrastructure is never entirely safe. Every motorized vehicle contains an element of danger and nuisance. Due to human errors and various forms of physical failures (mechanical or infrastructural) injuries, damages and even death occur. Accidents tend to be proportional to the intensity of use of transport infrastructures which means with more traffic the higher the probability for an accident to occur. They have important socioeconomic impacts including healthcare, insurance, damage to property and the loss of life. The respective level of safety depends on the mode of transport and the speed at which an accident occurs. No mode is completely safe but the road remains the most dangerous medium for transportation, accounting for 90% of all transport accidents on average. At the global level about 1.25 million people died in road accidents in 2010, in addition to 50 million injuries. In developing economies, death rates are usually twice as high as those of developed countries. China has the world largest number of fatalities, 250,000 in 2013, a situation mainly due to a sharp growth in vehicle ownership in recent years, a lack of driver education and enforcement of regulations.
  • Health. The convenience of mobility, particularly through the diffusion of the automobile and its associated suburban lifestyle, is linked with rising obesity. There can be thus a societal drawback to convenient mobility since a population could be walking less and be less involved in physical activities. Such a trend is complex to mitigate and it has been advocated the design of more walking and cycling friendly neighborhoods would convey some improved health benefits for their residents.
All these issues underline the profound social implications of transportation in terms of opportunities, but as well in terms of social exclusion. The most significant factors of social exclusion remain land use and housing policies which tend to undermine access to employment, education, healthcare and other social activities. If this separation is not mitigated by efficient transportation, it becomes a factor of segregation.
3. Environmental Transportation Challenges
The emission of pollutants related to transport activities has a wide range of environmental consequences, which have a cost that have to be assumed by the users and the society:
  • Air quality. Atmospheric emissions from pollutants produced transportation, especially by the internal combustion engine, are associated with air pollution and global climate change. Some pollutants (NOx, CO, O3, VOC, etc.) can produce respiratory troubles and aggravate cardiovascular illnesses. In urban regions, about 50% of all air pollution emanates from automobile traffic. Since pollution is a health issue, its societal impacts are perceived to be significant.
  • Noise. A major irritant, noise can impact on human health and most often human welfare. Noise can be manifested in three levels depending on emissions intensity; psychological disturbances (perturbations, displeasure), functional disturbances (sleep disorders, loss of work productivity, speech interference) or physiological disturbances (health issues such as fatigue, and hearing damage). Noise and vibration associated with trains, trucks, and planes in the vicinity of airports are major irritants and have commonly been associated with lower land values.
  • Water quality. Accidental and nominal runoff of pollutants from transport such as oil spills, are sources of contamination for both surface water and groundwater. In addition, paved surfaces are more prone to floods with intense rainfall.
  • Land take. Transport is a large consumer of space when all of its supporting infrastructure and equipment are considered. This space is subject to competition between other activities and reflects societal values, particularly in terms of the space allocated to the automobile. Furthermore, the planning associated with transportation infrastructures does not always consider aesthetic values as is often the case in the construction of urban highways. These visual impacts have adverse consequences on the quality of life of nearby residents.