Transport policy and social equality

James Wickham17/11/2015

James Wickham: The National Transport Authority (NTA) has just closed the consultation period for its draft transport strategy for the Greater Dublin Area. Consultation on the Dublin City Development Plan closes on 11 December 2015. Both consultations are an opportunity to discuss the relationship between transport issues and social equality. Here is an abbreviated and amended version of my submission to the NTA.

Social exclusion, transport exclusion and accessibility

Social exclusion refers to the way in which some members of society are excluded from participation in the normal life of society, in particular by lack of financial resources. Transport-related social exclusion has been defined as:

The process by which people are prevented from participating in the economic, political and social life of the community because of reduced accessibility to opportunities, services and social networks, due in whole or part to insufficient mobility in a society and environment built around the assumption of high mobility (Kenyon et al 2003).

The ‘assumption of high mobility’ means the assumption that everyone has access to car. While car ownership has increased, a significant number of households, in particular those in the lower end of the income distribution, remain without a car. Within car-owning households not all adult members will have access to the car and of course many members are too young (or too old) to use a car independently. Those who cannot access a car and for whom transport destinations cannot easily be reached on foot or by cycle face transport-related exclusion. In particular:

  • They will have difficulty in getting a job or have more restricted job opportunities, thus consolidating areas of low employment;
  • They will have difficulty accessing learning especially third level, further exacerbating educational inequalities within the city
  • They will have restricted access to shopping, thus expanding ‘food deserts’ and narrowing their range of food;
  • They will have more difficulty accessing healthcare, in particular hospitals;
  • They will have less access to social, cultural and sporting activitiesand may have reduced social networks and lower social capital (Social Exclusion Unit 2003; also Sustainable Development Commission, 2011)

In many European countries access to public transport has for some time been an indicator of social inclusion. By contrast the Strategy appears to make no consideration of how public transport access can be improved in the more excluded areas of the city.

Constrained car dependency

If car ownership is desirable or even essential in order to participate in the normal activities of a society, then car dependency is constrained. This also has implications for social inclusion, since the costs of car ownership may take a disproportionate share of income for those on lower incomes (e.g. Froud et al 2002). Indeed, given that public transport facilities are in general worse in deprived areas and that transport destinations from these areas are more dispersed, low incomes tend to be associated with compulsory car usage.

International comparisons suggest that the Greater Dublin Area is a relatively extreme case of such constrained car dependency. One earlier European research project published by tasc examined car ownership and use in different areas of four European cities (Athens, Bologna, Dublin, Helsinki). Comparing working class suburban areas of these cities the Dublin area had the lowest level of car ownership, but in the same Dublin area the relatively few car owners were more likely to use their car to travel to work than were car owners in other areas of other cities (See Chart). In Dublin, more so than elsewhere, whether or not you have a car makes a dramatic difference to your employment chances (Wickham 2006).

Four cities: Normal mode of travel to work, all employed aged 25-64, car owners

City areas: (I) Inner city affluent (M) Middle class suburb (W) Working class suburb

Source: SceneSusTech survey. Base: All aged 25-64 and at work who own cars, N=212

Planning and integration

The major investment projects identified in the strategy are based on the level of demand. This results in a list of projects which essentially replicate existing travel patterns. There is no consideration for projects which would change existing travel patterns, even though a reduction of travel-related exclusion would probably have such a consequence. Equally, projects that aim to integrate the existing network (and thus also change travel patterns) are given little or no consideration. For example, any cost-benefit analysis in terms of social equity would probably prioritise transport to the new western areas of the city, in particular the proposed East-West Luas line rather than Metro North. This would begin to tackle the transport deficits created by the unsustainable housing construction of the Celtic Tiger boom (Caulfield and Aherne 2014).

From a social equity perspective the most appropriate investments tend to be those that integrate the system as a whole, allowing all citizens to travel around their city. This is potentially the most important cultural contribution of transport investment. By contrast, projects that replicate existing patterns by definition can only benefit specific areas. From this perspective the clear priority would be DART Underground, since it potentially ties together the entire network. Whereas this crucial project has received very little national interest, it has been identified as an absolute priority by at least one external evaluation (Smyth et al 2010).

At a fundamental level the draft strategy is regrettably only a shopping list of individual projects. Given that transport decisions for Dublin are made entirely at national level, the result will be that governments will pick and choose projects to fund based on short term financial and indeed electoral considerations.

Prof James Wickham is Lead Researcher for TASC's Working Conditions in Ireland Project.


Caulfield, Brian and Aoife Aherne (2014). The green fields of Ireland: The legacy of Dublin's housing boom and the impact on commuting. Case Studies on Transport Policy 2: 20-27
Kenyon, K., Lyons, G., Rafferty, J. (2003) Transport and social exclusion: Investigating the possibility of promoting social exclusion through virtual mobility. Journal of Transport Geography 10: 207-219.
Smyth, Austin; E. Humphreys and S. Wood (2010) T21 Midterm Review. Dublin: Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport.
Social Exclusion Unit (2003) Making the Connections: Final Report on Transport and Social Exclusion. London: Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
Sustainable Development Commission (2011). Fairness in a car dependent society. London: Sustainable Development Commission.
Wickham, J. (2006) Gridlock: Dublin's transport crisis and the future of the city. Dublin: tasc at New Island.

Professor James Wickham

James Wickham

James Wickham was Jean Monnet Professor of European Labour Market Studies and Professor in Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. He has published widely on employment, transport and migration in Ireland and Europe; he is the author of Gridlock: Dublin’s Transport Crisis and the Future of the City and co-author of New Mobilities in Europe: Polish Migration to Ireland post-2004.  His book Unequal Europe: Social divisions and social cohesion in an old continent analysed the collapse of the European Social Model; his new text book European Societies (Routledge 2020) examines the structures of inequality in contemporary Europe.  He is a former director of TASC. 



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