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Tackling transport poverty in Scotland

By Alexander Quayle,

Transport poverty affects all sorts of people across Scotland. Cycling can empower people to take control of their travel

People cycling in Scotland

Accessible small towns and accessible rural locations are most likely to be at risk of transport poverty

For many of us, the way we get to the shops or how we travel to the dentist isn’t something we have to worry about.

However, more than 1 million Scots live in areas where the transport options can be the difference between getting support and services they need or going without.

What is transport poverty?

Transport poverty is when people don’t have access to essential services or work because of a lack of affordable transport options. This could mean that someone is forced into owning a car to get to work each day, as their bus route has been taken away.

This can result in a burden on households for those on medium to low incomes and can reinforce pre-existing social disadvantages. Transport poverty makes it even harder for a person to break that cycle.

Researching transport poverty

Sustrans first highlighted transport poverty five years ago, with our Locked Out report which looked at the issue for people living in England. Our researchers looked at household incomes and access to local services by public transport and compared it with car availability to assess the risk in each area.

None of these things are, on their own, a sign of transport poverty. But when low incomes combine with a lack of transport options, the necessity of a car for day to day living can lead people into transport poverty.

Sustrans Director of Insight, Dr Andy Cope, has written about how this methodology works in more detail.

Who is at risk of transport poverty?

When our researchers applied their calculations to the whole of Scotland, they found that 20% of the neighbourhoods studied were at high risk of transport poverty. Although 20% is not the majority, the impact is substantial: The at risk areas are home to more than 1 million people in total.

Plotting the data on a map, the high risk areas are largely based outside urban areas and 9 out of 10 have poor access to public transport. 

In fact, the research indicates that it is not remote areas that are at the highest risk or transport poverty; It is accessible small towns (28%) and accessible rural locations(30%)

This means that people living in these areas have nearby public services. However, low household income or a lack of transport options might make these services difficult to access.

The research indicated that cycling could be a viable solution to transport poverty. In analysing the at high risk areas, we found that 61% were places where vital services could be reached within a 10-minute bike ride. 

Tackling transport poverty 

There are three things that Sustrans Scotland think Government should do to tackle transport poverty.

1. People-centered transport planning

Firstly, we need a planning system that puts necessary services where people live. People should be able to access shops, schools and healthcare within a short distance on foot, without the need for a car. Instead, too often we see the products of a system that promotes large out-of-town retail parks with little option other than to drive. Or a system that allows new developments with few services and fewer active travel options for the reason that there are big roads for access by car.

2. Quality public transport

Secondly, access to a car is lower in deprived urban areas, meaning accessible, affordable and frequent public transport should be a priority.

3. Provision for cycling

Finally, to empower people to travel actively by making cycling an easier, safer choice for everyone.

To offer more people this choice we need:

  • Safe cycle routes in all communities
  • Secure bike parking, especially in residential areas
  • Wider access to bikes through public bike hire, bike libraries or purchase subsidies
  • Maintenance and repair facilities in public places

Cycling won’t be the choice for everyone, but it does offer an alternative to being dependent on a car for some, and the cost savings associated with swapping a car for a bike for local journeys can offer families a financial boost.

Improving opportunities for people to choose to travel by foot or by bike would also have lots of additional benefits. Low-income areas are more likely to have worse health and pollution. Active travel improves public health, both physical and mental, and reduces air pollution.

We should all have the choice to cycle

We think cycling is something that everyone should have the choice to do. But currently, this isn’t the case. For example, in Glasgow, the most well-off people are three times more likely to cycle than the least affluent. There is a false impression that cycling is something that only certain people do.

Cycling is a simple and affordable way to make everyday journeys. Cycling is a viable way of dealing with some of the impacts of poverty by empowering people to take control of their travel.

More needs to be done to make cycling a choice possible for everyone, regardless of who they are or where they live.

Read more in Andy Cope's blog: People in Scotland vulnerable to transport poverty