‘A massive opportunity’: U of T researchers lead national effort to mainstream equity in transportation planning

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A new five-year, multimillion-dollar project will bring together university researchers, non-profits, industry, unions and various levels of government to study transportation poverty in Canada (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Don Campbell

Millions of Canadians are at risk of transport poverty, where barriers to getting around combine with social and economic marginalization to limit their full participation in daily life.  

Now a new U of T-led project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) is set to explore the causes of transportation poverty while creating ways to address it.

“This is a massive opportunity to create more equitable transportation systems across Canada, where the benefits of transportation investments are felt more widely and are specifically geared towards alleviating transport poverty” says U of T Scarborough professor Steven Farber, who will lead the five-year, multimillion-dollar project.

He says transport poverty occurs when traditional forms of marginalization, such as poverty or being a member of a racialized community, intersect with transport disadvantages like not being able to afford a car, not feeling safe on the sidewalk or not being served by adequate public transit options.

The partnership project, called Mobilizing Justice, is the largest collaboration of its kind to study and address historical and current inequities in Canadian transportation systems. It brings together a team of 33 academics from 15 universities, and more than 30 contributing institutions including the federal, regional and municipal governments, universities, non-profits, industry partners, unions, and professional associations.

The team will collect a national survey of transport poverty and use it to develop transportation equity standards, evaluation toolkits, and community-centred transportation planning processes that will be used by planners, decision-makers and advocates.

Farber says the team will also create new understandings of transportation equity and identify the structural changes necessary to reach a more equitable transportation future for all Canadians.


Steve Farber

Steven Farber is an associate professor in the department of human geography at U of T Scarborough. 


A main goal of the project includes developing national transportation equity standards to clearly set equity goals and targets, while at the same time setting a baseline standard level of accessibility that should be provided to all Canadians regardless of their financial means, personal abilities, or place of residence. Concepts such as the 15-minute city, an urban design principle that attempts to guarantee walking, biking, or transit access to a set of core amenities within a 15-minute trip from any neighbourhood in the city, is one example of a minimum threshold that will be explored by researchers.

Farber says the most important thing to get right is understanding what amenities, resources, and investments people desire for their own neighbourhoods. He says figuring out how to integrate community-led planning with traditional top-down transportation planning practices is one of the major intellectual challenges of the project, and one the partners are eager to tackle.  

“Our research will inform how planners can set actionable equity targets in collaboration with communities at risk of transport poverty,” says Farber, an expert on the social and economic outcomes of transportation in urban areas.   

He says that vague equity goals do show more and more in transportation plans, but those plans need to be backed up by evidence, standards, legislation, monitoring and enforcement. That way sufficient funding can be directed to achieving those equity goals. No such legislation or equity-related standards exist in Canada at the moment.

The timing of the project happens at a critical juncture for transportation planning in Canada. He says COVID-19 has magnified inequities for low-income, immigrants, racialized and Indigenous residents. Meanwhile, technological changes such as ride-sharing, on-demand transit and micromobility (e-scooters, for example) present the possibility of either worsening existing inequalities or, if properly managed, offer an opportunity to improve transportation outcomes.

To that end, Farber says the project will experiment with innovative transportation policies and mobility technologies specifically designed to help people living in transport poverty to travel more freely.  

The hope, he says, is for a future where a combination of conventional planning, such as the expansion of transit and safe cycling networks, is married with innovative technologies and policies, such as e-bike subsidies or e-bike sharing systems.

“This might provide all Canadians with the opportunity to fully participate in the activities of daily life, something that so many of us take for granted.”