Mobility policy mostly makes a false start

Arie Bleijenberg — October 31, 2023

Instead of 'mobility', policymakers should consider 'accessibility', writes Arie Bleijenberg

Mainstream transport policy papers typically state as a goal something like: “we want sustainable and affordable mobility for all”. At first sight this looks good. How could anyone object to this? However, only the sustainable part is correct, mobility and affordability are not.

Mobility is often regarded as a goal in itself but it is just a means to get access. Instead of mobility, accessibility should be the policy goal because this creates the social and economic benefits we want. Accessibility is what we can reach within a certain time. How many jobs can we choose from with less than half an hour commute? Can we get to school in fifteen minutes? Are shops, sports facilities and recreational areas accessible in an acceptable travel time? These examples show that accessibility can be achieved in two distinct ways: through proximity and through mobility. The first is missing in most mainstream policy papers. 

People and firms, however, do know the value of proximity. This is the reason they cluster in towns and villages. The short travel distances in cities outweigh the slow car traffic there and create better accessibility in urban areas than in rural areas. People in major cities have an average trip distance of 10 kilometres, while those living in rural areas must cope with 15km. 

It follows that spatial concentration in villages, towns, cities and metropolis is the cheapest way to improve accessibility. Dense urban areas also offer the best accessibility for low-income groups, because short distances and biking are cheap. Policies should be aimed at improving accessibility and must therefore include spatial planning and integrate this with transport planning.

Next, what is wrong with affordability? Nothing, except that it is politically used to prevent road traffic from paying its full costs for infrastructure, accidents and pollution. It is economic to apply true pricing for transport, resulting in increased taxes and charges. Most people can afford this, except those with little financial means. The solution for this is not to keep prices for road traffic too low, but instead to compensate low-income groups through higher salaries and social security contributions. Poverty should not be reduced by making everyone not pay the full costs for mobility. This mainly benefits the well-to-do.

Concluding, the goal of transport policy should be: “we want sustainable accessibility”. Fairness should be achieved through income policies and specific support for those who need it.