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Cars and equ(al)ity: A look at transportation and social justice since the 20th Century

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

Written by Fola Olaleye

The car played an important role in reshaping modern cities and offered a degree of freedom to people (as long as you could afford one).


There is no conversation about urbanisation or industrialisation that does not involve transportation. Transport plays a key role in the distribution of socio-economic benefits and can either make society fairer or increase economic disparity.

From access to services and opportunities to mobility, transportation systems are at the heart of cities, affecting how a city functions and how people live.

We see this relationship clearly in the twentieth century as the use of cars increased with the suburbanisation of jobs and changing family structures – women simultaneously managed domestic duties and paid employment [1]. People had more activities and commitments, leading to a greater need for mobility.

For those who could afford cars, the dispersed distribution of jobs may not have posed major issues; whereas non-drivers and individuals from lower-income groups may have been at a disadvantage.


Transport equity

There is an interplay between urban form and transportation; and this relationship underpins one strategic approach to achieving transport equity: high density and mixed land use.

Density plays a key role in determining the levels of transit use, and mixed land use has the potential to encourage walking and cycling [2]. So, by combining these two factors, cities can become more efficient, sustainable and equitable through more compact urban design. Compact urban environments contribute to transport equity and help address some of the negative social outcomes of motorisation by ensuring that cars are not a necessity.

For example, Stockholm’s high-density satellite centres are based on a policy that focuses urban development around stations on the rapid transit system. Satellite centres (think Vällingby) are designed based on planning principles like (a) locating workplaces and shops closer to homes to minimise the distances, and (b) linking centres through a network of bicycle and foot facilities [2]. This way, you encourage walking/cycling and reduce the reliance on cars, ultimately offering people more convenient, environmentally friendly transportation methods. It also supports the global sustainability agenda.

Cars and social justice

If you look hard enough, you will be able to draw lines between popular inventions or cultural norms and social (in)justice. Cars are not exempt.

In the 20th Century, the car was a status symbol. Having one suggested that families or individuals were able to afford luxuries [3]. Car ownership had an impact on a family’s social status, and it is possible that the lack of a car could have excluded lower-income groups from accessing the same opportunities as their middle-class counterparts.

Although the car became a technological reality in the 20th Century, ownership was restricted to a small minority due to its price [4]. However, mass production later on resulted in lower prices and greater accessibility to a greater percentage of the American population [3].

Transport disadvantage is not equally distributed throughout society, but follows the well-established lines of structural social inequality” – Kerry Hamilton and Linda Jenkins [5]

In the context of mobility and accessibility, people who suffer the most from structural inequalities (e.g. racism and poverty) tend to be at greater disadvantage. Research in the US shows that there is a mutual causal relationship between transportation deprivation and poverty simply because poorer people cannot access employment opportunities due to the inadequate transport facilities in their local areas [5]. And yet, they are unable to overcome these deficiencies because of their limited income. For example, car ownership rates for black people are lower than those of white people in deprived neighbourhoods; thereby making black people more reliant on inefficient public transport systems. Moreover, the racial discrimination faced in the housing market could influence where people live [5].

Participatory and inclusive policy-making

Over the years, it has become clearer that we need planning that is not dependent on cars, and these changes should centre the unique needs of communities in different cities. When cars became popular, public transit services (e.g. rail and bus transport) seemed less desirable because they did not offer the same level of freedom and flexibility [6]. This is why better investment in bus and rail systems is important.

To address these issues of social inequity, cities must shift from automobile dependency to the diversification of transport systems. This ensures that the needs of disadvantaged groups are met, and it helps cities work towards achieving transport equity.

Curitiba is a good example of a city that has implemented a good cost-effective bus rapid transit (BRT) system, which now acts as a model for other cities.

BRT systems tend to incorporate the high-quality performance of rail transit with the low-cost nature of traditional bus services. Through its affordable fares and inclusive design (which considers people with disabilities), the system clearly pursues transport equity and makes room for the important social aspects of transportation [2].

Curitiba’s system enables urban growth to occur in a linear way, along designated corridors [7]. High-density development occurs closer to the main BRT corridor, with a combination of commercial, business and residential use. Further outwards, there is low-density development, consisting mainly of residential land use. The high-density urban form with mixed land use is in close proximity to the BRT corridor because this attracts greater transit use. As a result of this BRT system, the city has seen a shift away from automobile travel towards commuting by bus.

To illustrate this point, by 2005, about 1.3 million passengers were served by the buses and roughly 80% of city commuters used the bus services [7]. One of the most successful aspects of Curitiba’s BRT is its affordability, as citizens spend about 10% of their income on travel, which is below the national average and therefore a more viable option for lower-income groups [7].

What’s the rub?

While transport equity is desirable in theory, it is often difficult to achieve in practice for various reasons. Firstly, there are challenges with operationalising concepts such as ‘social justice’ and ‘transport equity’ because of the various definitions and factors to consider [8,9]. Thus, without a universal understanding of these concepts, levels of social justice and transport equity will vary because all cities face unique circumstances which shape their needs and priorities.

Secondly, the applicability of strategies and the openness to pursue transport equity pose issues. On one hand, what might be successful for one city may not be adequate for another, based on factors such as levels of development, capacities, and priorities. For instance, developing cities may have to prioritise more urgent needs such as the provision of sanitation, healthcare or education over equitable transport planning [10]. Consequently, when assessing the practicality and applicability of strategies, it is important to view each city independently rather than blindly imposing models that have proved successful in other cities.

Moreover, perceptions of the car as a symbol of prosperity may lead to the neglect of infrastructure investment and enabling policies [2]. Some developing cities, like Lagos and Jakarta, have been unable to deliver highly effective BRT services as seen in Curitiba, because of political pressures to maintain the status quo.

Sometimes, the biggest obstacle to transit equity is political rather than financial or technical.

Where do we go from here?

When discussing transport equity, it is important to acknowledge the difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome [8]. Equality of opportunity is about providing all people with the same means to access opportunities, whereas equality of outcome is concerned with the extent to which, all things being equal, people end up in the same position.

Placing this in the context of transportation, it is one thing to provide diverse transport modes to access jobs in the city centre; whether people will actually find employment is a different issue determined by individual and external structural factors.

Where transport equity has been sought because all members of society have access to job opportunities, they may not all experience the same socio-economic gains. This tension highlights the overall complexity of transport equity and shows that transport planning must fully integrate itself with other social factors if policies aim to achieve social equity, as seen in Curitiba.

Ultimately, cars changed the nature of cities since the 1900s, and while transport equity is not easy to achieve, it is important for policymakers around the world to rethink priorities and adopt more comprehensive transport policies in order to enhance the overall livability of cities and minimise any adverse effects on social justice.

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[1] Rosenbloom, S., 1992. ‘Why Working Families Need Cars’, 39 – 56 in Wachs and Crawford, 1992, The Car and The City, Ann Arbor: University Michigan Press

[2] Newman, P. & Kenworthy, J., 1998. Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming Automobile Dependence, pp. 143 – 177 and 191 – 212

[3] Berger, M., 1992. ‘The Car’s Impacts on the American Family’, pp. 57 – 74 in Wachs and Crawford, 1992, The Car and The City, Ann Arbor: University Michigan Press

[4] Hall, P., 1988. Cities of Tomorrow: an intellectual history of urban planning and design in the twentieth century, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, pp. 273 - 218

[5] Tolley, R. S. & Turton, B. J., 1995. Transport Systems, Policy and Planning: A Geographical Approach, Harlow: Longman, pp. 301-327

[6] Webber M., 1992 ‘The Joys of Automobility’, pp. 274 – 284 in Wachs and Crawford, 1992, The Car and The City, Ann Arbor: University Michigan Press

[7] Goodman, J., Laube, M. and Schwenk, J., 2005. Curitiba’s bus system is model for rapid transit. Race, Poverty and the Environment, pp. 75-76.

[8] Litman, T., 2002. Evaluating Transportation Equity. World Transport Policy & Practice, 8(2), pp.50-65.

[9] Manaugh, K., Badami, M. G. and El-Geneidy, A. M., 2015. Integrating social equity into urban transportation planning: A Critical evaluation of equity objectives and measures in transportation plans in North America. Transport Policy, 37, pp. 167 – 176

[10] Thomson, J. M., 1978. Great Cities and their Traffic, Harmondsworth: Penguin, pp. 234 - 243



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