Professor Steven Farber discusses transportation poverty on CBC Radio

Head shot of Steven Farber

Professor Steven Farber

In a fascinating interview with Professor Steve Farber by CBC Radio One, a discussion of research on transport poverty in Canada concludes with the suggestion that the research data might be used to inform “decisions we make around where and what we build when it comes to new transit lines our city.”

Following on the heels of a recently published paper about his research project, Farber explains what transport poverty is and why his findings are somewhat surprising.

The program originally aired January 14. Listen to the interview (approx. 7 min.) here.

Unofficial interview transcript

CBC: More than 600,000 people living in the Toronto area are struggling to earn enough money and don’t have enough public transit options. It’s a combination that a new study calls “transportation poverty”. Professor Steven Farber from the University of Toronto led this study and found that a lack of access to public transit makes it difficult for people to find jobs and also to access services that can help them improve their lives. Steven Farber’s on the line now from Washington, DC where, appropriately enough, he’s at a transportation conference. Steven, good morning.

Steven Farber (SF): Good morning.

CBC: What is transportation poverty?

SF: I think you’ve summed it up fairly well. It’s the intersection of low socioeconomic status, socioeconomic disadvantage and something that’s called transport disadvantage, which means living in a place that doesn’t provide a lot of good opportunities for reaching daily activity destinations. And the combination of the two results in transport poverty. People living in transport property have a really hard time making it out of their house in order to participate in the activities of daily life.

CBC: I was going to say it sounds like a real double-whammy. How does that shape somebody’s life?

SF: We’re finding that it really suppresses activity participation rates, meaning that people living in transport poverty are doing less each day with their life out of their home, compared to other people not living in transport poverty. And over the long run, that makes it difficult to  find work, keep a job, access important services, develop social capital and entrenches isolation and perpetuates further disadvantages.

CBC: How common is this across the country?

SF: So that’s the reason that we did the study. Before the study we really didn’t know how big of a problem this was. There are a lot of studies that did interviews with people living in transport poverty, to hear what it was like, and how it affected them. But no one really knew how big the issue was until we did our study. What we actually found is that there are up to two million people living or at risk of transport property across the country. And unfortunately, 640,000 of those million people are here in the Toronto area.

CBC: Do we have a sense as to where the 640,000 people live and where those “transportation deserts” happen to be?

SF: Sure. We did a typology analysis which allowed us to kind of see that there are two main types of neighborhoods in Canada at risk of transport poverty. The first one is dense tower communities that are really full of large, low-income, recent immigrant families and sprinkled throughout the city’s suburbs. These are places where there’s a high concentration of poverty and those tower communities, they might be on a major street but they’re not really being serviced by a higher order transit line, like a light rail or subway line. So these are neighborhoods like Jane and Finch, Flemingdon Park, Thorncliffe Park. They’re not necessarily so far away from the centre of the city, but their transit connections to the centre are really poor. The other type of neighborhood – and this was surprising to us – there’s actually quite a large growth of poverty occurring in traditional outer suburbs. So these are single-family-home neighborhoods, very automobile-dependent neighborhoods, and incomes are actually going down in quite a few of these neighborhoods over  the last decade, say, either due to recent immigration, like neighborhoods of Brampton, say, or economic restructuring, like the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs in Oshawa and Hamilton which have resulted in quite a few low-income traditional suburbs. Living without a car in those types of environments really disconnects you from opportunity.

CBC: In some ways, and it’s not to suggest that it’s acceptable, but you can understand why there may be fewer transit options in those suburbs that, to your point, have been designed with the car in mind. For the other areas, Flemingdon, Thorncliffe Park, Jane and Finch communities, those are very dense neighborhoods within the city core. Are you surprised that the transit options aren’t commensurate with the need in those communities?

SF: I’m not surprised by either of those situations. I think that social inclusion goals have not really been part of the transport planning debate and they’re certainly not enshrined in any of the codes of conduct for planning transportation. I think one of the messages of our papers is that we really need to get serious at this important juncture where we’re witnessing so much income polarization, so much increased segregation in our cities by income and race lines, that we need to start taking these issues and making them part of our planning process.

CBC: What does that mean when you say “get serious “what does that mean?

SF: I think we need to evaluate transportation plans in terms of how well they actually service people in transport poverty. And really start looking at how many people will a potential change our transit system bring out of transport poverty? And use that as one of our major metrics in deciding which projects to fund and support.

CBC: So if you are a transportation planner in a city that likes to pull its hair out over transportation planning, and fights over whether these lines will be built and what these lines will look like, how should something like transportation poverty inform the decisions that you make about where and what you build?

SF: I think now that we have the metrics that we’re able to compute for different transit options, different scenarios that we might be debating over, for each of those scenarios we could have a score on how well that project performs on the transport poverty issue. And the politicians need to decide whether or not that’s something that they want to take into consideration, but at least we have to provide them with solid understandings and numbers associated with social inclusion on these different projects they’re evaluating.

CBC: You going to put this into the hands of those politicians?

SF: Absolutely. I’m already working with numerous levels of government in this region to try to help infuse some of the processes with this line of thinking.

CBC: Excellent. Let’s hope that they listen. Steven, thank you.

SF: Thank you very much for having me.

CBC: Steven Farber is a Professor of Human Geography at the U of T and one of the researchers in a new study. It looked at access for low income Canadians to public transportation and what leads to that issue of transportation poverty and how that should inform the decisions we make around where and what we build when it comes to new transit lines our city.