BLOG: Transport and poverty: making the connection

The right to work, the right to health, the right to education, the right to cultural life, and the right to an adequate standard of living; these are the inalienable rights we all share. Yet too often, the rights of people on low incomes are not fully realised because of unaffordable, unavailable and inaccessible transport services.

Over the last few months, we’ve been holding events and discussions with people across Scotland about the transport challenges they face. Whether young or old, in or out of work, living in urban or rural areas, people told us that the transport system just isn’t working for them or their community. In many cases, it’s tightening the grip of poverty on people’s lives.

In Lairg, we heard of people missing hospital appointments because they couldn’t afford the cost of transport to hospital. Others shared that transport (particularly bus) services are so infrequent that they have been forced into car ownership to reach essential services; adding hugely to their household costs. In Glasgow, we heard lone parents – mainly women – speak of the challenges of balancing childcare and low-paid employment while relying on inaccessible and expensive public transport, and of people having their employment options limited because of poor transport connections to areas with decent jobs.

Wherever we went, the same themes emerged. People on low incomes – who disproportionately rely on public transport – feel they have no say in discussions around transport services in their community. We also consistently heard how particular groups who are already more likely to experience poverty – like disabled people, women, and people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds – face additional barriers to transport. And wherever we went, the disconnect between transport and anti-poverty policy was clear. There is the sense that those with power haven’t quite yet grasped the vital role that transport plays in the lives of people living in poverty in Scotland.

That’s why Stage 2 of the Scottish Government’s Transport Bill – which begins tomorrow – must be used to help create the changes that the people we’ve been working with want to see. As it stands, issues around poverty and inequality are not visible within the Bill, but a raft of amendments submitted by Colin Smyth MSP and to be debated tomorrow would help to remedy that.

One of the amendments, if passed, would make clear that decisions around transport in Scotland must be taken according to a stated set of values, for example that transport is a common good, must be affordable for all, and should be used to prevent and reduce poverty and inequality. Other amendments would ensure that any plans brought forward by local transport authorities to improve bus services would have to show how they will better meet the needs of people on low incomes and – crucially – require them to consult with people on low incomes as part of the development of those plans. These amendments may not address all the challenges of the transport system, but they will represent important steps forward in using transport as a tool for tackling poverty.

We all believe in a society where every young person can access the same educational opportunities, but this can’t be realised if young people can’t afford the transport costs of attending a local college. We all believe in a society where every person can access decent work, but this can’t be realised if transport services are not planned around the working patterns of everyone in the modern labour market. And we all believe in a society where people have a say in the decisions that most impact their lives, but this can’t be realised if decisions about transport services are made without listening to those who most rely on them.

The Transport Bill represents an important opportunity to begin to create the transport system we all want to see; one that works for everyone in every community across Scotland, and which helps to loosen – not tighten – the grip of poverty on people’s lives.

Neil Cowan is Policy and Parliamentary Officer at the Poverty Alliance

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