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Too Poor to Travel: The Right to Inclusive Mobility Beyond the Lockdown

Sofia Ranchordas, University of Groningen

[Editor’s note: This is one of our biweekly I-CONnect columns. For more information about our four columnists for 2020, please click here.]

As governments throughout the world are devising strategies to ensure that their citizens can safely return to their workplaces after the initial 2020 public health lockdowns, transportation experts are debating whether mobility will ever be the same. The spread of COVID-19 and the partial or full lockdowns that were established as a response to it, showed that many activities can be held online. Nevertheless, by now, most of us has come to the conclusion that remote meetings do not replace most physical activities. Academics are certainly wondering when they will be able to present their new papers at an academic conference or teach a class before an audience of interested students without facial coverings. Nevertheless, we academics can (for better or worse) work remotely. The same cannot be said about millions of workers who need to be physically present and use public transit on a daily basis. When public transit shuts down, does not guarantee social distancing or regular cleaning, or prohibitions are established on who can travel during peak hours and who cannot, low-income householders are affected.

This column draws attention to the problem of transport poverty and the need for more legal research on inclusive mobility. I do not argue that we should add another fundamental right to the longstanding proliferation of fundamental rights. Rather, I contend that inclusive mobility is grounded in the right to equal treatment, particularly in the case of physical or psychological disabilities. This column draws on a recent paper and a podcast on inclusive mobility where I explain the problem of transport poverty  and how it sets limits on the exercise of multiple socio-economic rights.

Transport Poverty and Inclusive Mobility

Equal access to safe mobility is an issue that goes beyond the current responses to the spread of COVID-19 and that it is often overlooked. Policymakers focus on designing efficient mobility solutions that ensure that commuters get faster from A to B, using the most sustainable means of transport. In the COVID-19 era, this will mean that solutions will have to be adopted to ensure that fewer commuters crowd public transit during peak hours. In the Netherlands, the government has for example asked universities to change the schedule of physical lectures to ensure that students would not use public transportation during peak hours. The spread of COVID-19 may be pushing for other (and much more) innovative solutions to ‘shave the peak’ of public transportation demand. Nevertheless, it is also in this context and along the lines of these types of mobility policies that many citizens may feel that they are being left behind.

In Western countries about 20% of the population does not have access to adequate mobility options. They are too poor to travel. For these individuals, the price of public transit or fuel represents a very significant part of their household budget. The protests initiated two years ago by the gilets jaunes in France against fuel prices and in 2019, the violent student demonstrations in Chile against the increase in the price of subway prices, have shown the societal dimension of the problem. Existing scholarship has thus far focused on the need to improve the connectivity of rural communities and to help rural populations overcome social exclusion and isolation. However, transport poverty has become an urban problem due to the explosive expansion of cities in the last decades (urban sprawl), the high prices of housing in neighborhoods near employment centers, and the growing prospect of a new financial crisis.

Transport poverty has been defined as ‘the systemic lack of (usually motorized) transport that generates difficulties in moving, often (but not always) connected to a lack of services or infrastructures’.  Transport poverty can be divided into different categories: mobility poverty, transport affordability, accessibility poverty and exposure to transport externalities. While for some individuals transport poverty means spending multiple hours commuting between their homes and jobs in crowded public transit systems, for others it means not being able to attend medical appointments outside their residential area due to the prohibitive prices of public transit or the lack of physical mobility. Existing scholarship in both developed and developing countries has shown that there is a correlation between the lack of access to suitable transport and better employment opportunities and healthcare.

Transport poverty can be explained by either internal (personal) or external elements: personal features of individuals such as special needs, resources and personal capabilities can facilitate or hinder mobility as much as external elements such as housing location and choices related to the distance between residence and employment. Transport poverty results from the lack of affordable options as well as from internal or psychological elements such as the feeling that available modes of transport are unsafe or unreliable. In countries where cycling is widely facilitated and even advocated, it is often forgotten that certain minorities may not feel comfortable using this mode of transport which may be regarded as ‘inferior’ in certain non-Western cultures. When inclusive mobility is proposed as a solution for transport poverty, policymakers should take into account that multiple options need to remain available.

A Right to Inclusive Mobility

In 2018, Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, concluded his visit to the United Kingdom by stating that ‘transport, especially in rural areas, should be considered an essential service, equivalent to water and electricity, and the government should regulate the sector to the extent necessary to ensure that people living in rural areas are adequately serviced’. In recent years, the idea that transport should assume the same status as other basic utilities has started taking shape. Yet, it is unclear whether there is a ‘right to inclusive mobility’ and what this right entails.

              The right to mobility is first of all interpreted as the right to travel in the sense of crossing borders and moving around. It has been incorporated as such in several legal and constitutional documents. However, mobility also has a non-physical dimension that is not always considered. The right to mobility is not only about moving from one place to the other. Citizens need to have the financial means to travel, particularly when traveling can increase their chances of improving their lives and realize fundamental rights. Even in countries such as France where legislation includes a right to travel ‘on reasonable terms of access, quality and process, as well as of costs to the community’, its implementation has remained problematic. While many European countries have subsidized public transport for low-income households, senior citizens, and students, these policies have not fully addressed transport poverty in that they seldom offer coverage for the ‘last mile’. Moreover, for a large number of individuals, public transit does not offer an adequate alternative to owning a private vehicle.

A separate right to mobility does not need to be constitutionalized in order to guarantee inclusive and affordable mobility. Instead, within and beyond the current public health situation, both the physical and economic dimensions of mobility lead us to the same problems: exclusion, poverty, and unequal treatment. Whenever some citizens are denied access to better healthcare or education because of inefficient transportation, they are being treated unequally. Transport poverty is not only a dimension of poverty, it is also a problem that impedes many citizens from exiting this social condition. Placing inclusive mobility under the ‘umbrella’ of the right to equal treatment means that the denial of mobility or accessibility needs to be reasonable and justifiable.

Inclusive mobility entails not only that individuals should be granted reasonable access to public transit but also that other modes of transport should be seen as acceptable, depending on national or local conditions and individual needs. To illustrate, in a case on social security law in Australia, the right to maintain ownership of a private vehicle was considered justified because mobility in several parts of Australia is only possible with a privately owned vehicle.

The abstract meaning of equal and inclusive mobility is hard to determine. Mimmi Sheller has designed for example a ‘mobility bill of rights,’ which includes ‘the right not to harm the environment’; the right to ‘affordable transportation to meet our basic needs; the right to transportation that does not threaten health, safety, water, air, or the local environment of a community; the right to a fair transport pricing system that does not penalize those that use less’; and ‘the right to efficient and inviting mobility’. Sheller’s concept of ‘mobility justice’ draws attention to the multidimensional complexity of the problems of uneven mobility and accessibility and the need to provide equitable solutions that treat citizens equally, that is, without providing mobility to some citizens at the expense of others or denying access to citizens on the grounds of race, gender and ability.

A perfect implementation of inclusive mobility would not come cheap and it would be either dependent on cross-subsidies or public funding. A growing number of mid-sized European cities have started experimenting with some forms of free public transit in an attempt to address the problem of transport poverty and reduce dependence on private vehicles. Multiple small to mid-size French cities, such as Aubagne, Niort and Dunkirk, Cascais in Portugal, Tallinn in Estonia and Luxembourg offer free public transport to their residents. In September 2018, a bill on the promotion of free public transit was introduced for examination in the French Parliament. This bill justified the need for free public transportation on environmental, public health, social and economic grounds. Besides the argument that free transportation would improve the purchasing power of French residents, this piece of legislation also aimed to promote social inclusion. The bill drew upon successful experiments in France as well as on the system in Tallinn that has offered free public transit since 2004. Free public transit is an easy (though expensive) answer to the problem of inclusive mobility. Nevertheless, universal basic mobility proposals in themselves do not conclude our analysis of the legal meaning of the right to mobility. It is important to keep exploring in the future whether and how transport can be regarded as an essential utility and how transport limits individuals’ abilities to exercise different fundamental rights.


The right to mobility should be interpreted as the right to treat citizens equally in the provision of transportation and the design of (smart) mobility solutions. Complex mobility systems that disproportionately exclude citizens who are not tech-savvy could be regarded as a violation of the right to equal treatment. The same is true for transport pricing systems that do not take into account the varying impact that transport expenditures can have on each household. While it is easy to understand how this generates the obligation to take steps towards the improvement of mobility for disabled persons, this reasoning has not often been applied to poverty. Mobility is nevertheless essential to exercise multiple fundamental rights. The rights to health, to vote, and to have access to safe water, food, education can be endangered if individuals do not have adequate mobility options. Adequate, safe, and inclusive mobility allows individuals to lead a life of dignity—a life ‘without shame’, as Amartya Sen puts it. When individuals are too poor to travel, they are also too poor to escape poverty.

Suggested citation: Sofia Ranchordas, Too Poor to Travel: The Right to Inclusive Mobility Beyond the Lockdown, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Jul. 15, 2020, at:

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Published on July 15, 2020
Author:          Filed under: Analysis

3 Responses

  1. Kishor Dere

    One needs to distinguish between an essential travel and non-essential one. Travel for entertainment and leisure (tourism) is detrimental to environment. Even during the pre-COVID-19 era, travel was not always a fun for everybody everywhere. Prof. Sofia Ranchordas is quite right in drawing attention towards inadequate travel arrangements. Those activities which can be performed from home, ought to be done so to overcome the new challenges posed by the pandemic. Those who need to compulsorily travel, should be given top priority. No right, including the right to mobility, is an absolute right. It is important to be a responsible person by striking a balance between one’s rights and duties.

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