Here today, gone tomorrow: public transportation and vulnerabilities in rural and remote Canada

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About the project

Guided by the question “How does the presence or absence of public transportation contribute to people’s vulnerability in rural and remote locations?” this knowledge synthesis project explored how remote and rural (RR) places face a complex array of social, political and economic obstacles to achieving sustainable, accessible and appropriate transportation and exercising mobility rights.

Growing vulnerability and inequality among RR places contribute to growing vulnerabilities and inequalities between RR residents and the rest of Canada. Social exclusion, reduced capabilities and transportation disadvantage are products of the structuring impacts of unequal mobility. Insufficient or absent access to mobility―especially affordable public transportation―shapes whether individuals and communities can achieve sustainable livelihoods, societal participation, and personal and collective safety; and access essential and non-essential services, resources, opportunities and rights.

Our approach illustrates the processes and practices by which intersections of social identity can be used to advance a more just notion of mobility. We initially sought input from stakeholders, then methodically combed through national and international academic and grey literature and social media. After an initial scan, we determined 11 key areas of focus from literature regarding rurality, mobility rights, capabilities, social exclusion, equity, transport poverty, and the multiple dimensions of individual, community and regional vulnerabilities. Given neoliberal restructuring, we paid close attention to how the systematic removal of public transportation alongside increasing, near-exclusive emphasis on automobility, is implicated in the production and exacerbation of vulnerability for RR persons, communities and regions of Canada.

Key findings

  • There is a lack of voice, agency and community-based information that considers people and places located in RR Canada.
  • Public transportation should reflect and be designed around the lived experiences and needs of RR places and people, including health, human capabilities, social needs, climate change and sustainable development.
  • There is a dearth of research on transportation exclusion and disadvantage in RR Canada, even less that considers multiple, intersecting inequalities. Further research should avoid homogenizing populations by taking into account intersectional transportation disadvantage as it is experienced in particular RR places.
  • There is a need for solutions and new approaches to address mobility rights and capabilities. Mobility shapes the conditions and lived experiences of gender, poverty, disabilities and older age: it either restricts or enables citizen participation.
  • Market-based solutions are often inaccessible and unresponsive to the needs of the most vulnerable. They often result in superficial solutions that are not sustainable and do not address the needs of all the most disenfranchised. Governments must commit to developing public transportation that links people and places, particularly lower-income people and non-urban communities.
  • Auto-mobility deeply impacts places and people in RR areas and has led to two-tiered citizenship.
  • Transportation policies are all too often political and tied to neoliberal ideologies. Instead, interdisciplinary theories of mobilization that understand RR places and people as subjects in their own histories should inform public policy. Processes and resources are needed, including research that addresses how to design and democratically develop multifunctional public transportation that sees beyond the concerns of industry.
  • Transportation and mobility are structuring principles that constitute important foundations of the infrastructural capital of place and of people’s lives.
  • Further research and leading practices in policy development that highlight public transportation and mobility with an intersectional lens, which is central to social infrastructure, social cohesion and active citizenship, are needed.
  • Lack of public transportation penalizes RR places.
  • Mobility, transportation disadvantage and vulnerable group identity are important intersections for transportation policy development in RR areas of Canada.
  • It is necessary to go beyond economic considerations and centre the social and environmental impacts of transportation policy to achieve social and environmental goals.

Policy implications

  1. Understand community needs
    • Include the community in policy, planning, evaluation and monitoring of public transportation to ensure transportation policy addresses community concerns and needs.
  2. Address mobility and justice in transportation provisions
    • Implement transportation policies that recognize the complexity of disabilities and support people with physical and cognitive disabilities.
    • Coordinate national-level transportation with organizations at local levels.
    • Focus development of rural public transportation with consistent, accessible routes and services that provide access to education, recreation, social activities and other public social goods.
  3. Create and change infrastructure
    • Support the development of local, intercity and interprovincial networks within a national system of affordable, accessible, safe, reliable, rapid and cost-effective multimodal transportation in order to support individual autonomy over time and choices in work, education, social and economic activity.
    • Centre and promote nonautomobile options and public transportation.
    • Develop a national, long-term, sustainable public system of transport that is affordable, accessible, reliable and safe, and recognizes the complexity and diversity of transportation needs.
  4. Address legislative concerns
    • Commit to a capabilities and rights-based approach, in accord with Canada’s international stance on transportation. Work toward making Canada an example of mobility rights and mobile commons.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Cindy Hanson, Professor of Sociology and Social Studies, University of Regina:

JoAnn Jaffe, Professor of Sociology and Social Studies, University of Regina:

Emma Varley, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, Brandon University:

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, Infrastructure Canada or the Government of Canada.

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