Transportation and Escaping Poverty
Last year while I followed my husband to a conference in Finland, I came across an article in the local newspaper discussing “transport poverty” in Finland. This concept was completely new to me and it has since piqued my interest. Working in the field of Financial Inclusion where we aim to improve people’s welfare by increasing their access and usage of finance, I found the linkage between transportation and poverty intriguing.
Upon further research, there is indeed a large literature on this. A 2015 study – conducted at Harvard University on upward mobility – found commuting time to be the single strongest factor in helping to escape poverty – higher than even the linkage between test scores and two-parent families. Although this study was based in the US, I think the results are definitely food for thought and can be applied to places like Thailand where commute time is often a topic of discussion, especially if you live in urban Bangkok.
Measuring transportation is important because travel offers the means with which one can reach opportunities such as employment, education, resources and networks. Lacking mobility is linked to social disadvantage and exclusion.
For example, if you lived in the suburbs but your employment opportunity is in the city center, to be able to pursue the opportunity you’d need to be able to reach the destination. Those lacking resources would find it harder to travel to places outside walking distance since travel would require money. Faster modes such as cars and trains are often more expensive than taking the bus. Reducing barriers to travel allow those with limited resources to widen their range of opportunities for education and employment.
The lack of access to transportation not only has implications with regards to accessing a wider range of opportunities, but it also has social impacts due to social exclusion. For example, those in transport-deprived areas would not be able to fully participate with their community and society. This, in turn, results in decreased access to social networks and services amongst other opportunities. Social exclusion could eventually lead to a myriad of social problems.
Literature confirms that upward mobility is more than merely improving education and people’s understanding of how to manage their finances, but that it is a complex web of many factors, including transportation. Many governments around the world are now gauging transport poverty, although definitions vary from country to country. Measuring transport poverty would allow governments to implement more targeted schemes to improve people’s access to education and other opportunities.
The more we look into the issue, the more we see how transportation affects those around us. For example, many people living in Bangkok still use the local bus system – the cheapest and most accessible mode of transport in this city. Without the local bus system, they will not be able to travel to work in or across the city. Although the skytrain would reduce much travel time, it is still too expensive for many and they’d rather save the money for other necessities.
One of the indicators of transport poverty is the amount of money spent on transportation relative to one’s income. Even if you have your own personal car, it does not mean you are exempt from transport poverty. For example, if you spend more than 10 percent of your income on transport then you are considered having a high level of transport poverty. The money spent on transportation could have been spent on more productive factors that help raise your standard of living.
There are many aspects to transport poverty, but one key aspect is that poverty reduction requires the help of all parties involved. Barriers to upward mobility are complex and interlinked. I am excited about the new infrastructure projects in Thailand and look forward to the day when I can walk out of my house in the suburbs and take a seamless journey on public transportation to work. Wouldn’t that make Thailand more of a paradise than it already is?