Mobility as a Basic Human Right

Advocates of sustainable transportation are sometimes charged with elitism and criticized for being out of touch with the mainstream of America. A new exhibit of photographs showing in Los Angeles, "Without a Car in the World: 100 Car-Less Angelenos Tell Stories of Living in LA," graphically makes the point that the people who have the most to gain from effective public transportation and complete streets are hardly the elite.

Stephen Box, author of the SoapBoxLA blog, was featured in the exhibit along with his wife, Enci. Box lives without a car by choice. But he said when he attended the opening of the exhibit he was "humbled" by the stories of others in his city who don’t drive because they can’t, for medical or economic reasons. Box writes:

86991698_97aac7e9aa.jpgWaiting for the bus in Los Angeles. (Photo: Thomas Hawk via Flickr.)

[T]he story that established the baseline against which the success of
LA’s transportation system must be judged was told by a gentlemen who
simply explained "I’m on the bus six, seven hours a day. MTA doesn’t
see what we see, they need to come from behind the desk, take a two- or
three-day trip, get on all the buses, see how they aren’t on schedule,
they’re always crowded …"

weakest and most vulnerable community members live in fear, sometimes
unable to simply cross the street. If LA is to become a Great City, it
will start with a commitment to mobility as a civil right, a basic
guarantee of effective transportation choices that extends to everybody.

Box’s post is an important reminder for sustainable transportation advocates. It is vital to remember that access to affordable public transportation, as well as safe pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, is a fundamental social equity issue. There’s nothing elitist about it.

More from the Streetsblog Network: Systemic Failure wants to get bike lanes out of the gutter. Tucson Bike Lawyer wonders if drivers only get charged for making an improper turn if they end up hitting a police officer. And Biking in LA reports on the opening testimony in a particularly frightening vehicular assault case.

  • A few years ago, Bicycling magazine had an article about “Invisible Riders” — the day laborers, mostly undocument, who ride bikes for transportation in Los Angeles because they can’t spare the money for bus fare. It’s as good a refutation as any I’ve seen to the claim that bike riders are “elitists.”

    It’s well worth reading — the article is on the web at:,6610,s1-3-12-13639-1-P,00.html#.

  • Glenn

    In a completely auto-dependent situation, what percentatage of the population can even drive or should drive? 60%? 75%

    Children, elderly and disabled are forced to be either be home bound or chauffered around by healthy driving age family members.

    Those on the margins are forced to start earlier or continue longer than is probably safe for other road users. The ability to drive IS independence.

    We focus a lot on “commuters” but there are many people that need basic mobility that don’t have a job.

  • I said it before: Maybe we’re elitist, but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong. The e-word is the lamest entry in the arsenal of right-wing rhetoric, popularized by Spiro Agnew, he of the nattering nabobs of negativism. Nothing to be afraid of, really. When someone accuses you of elitism, that means they’ve run out of arguments.

    I don’t think that the plight of people who bike because they can’t afford a car adds much support to the cause of livable streets. I reckon that the vast majority of day laborers who ride a bike because they have to are dreaming of the day when they can afford a car and drive to work like everybody else.

    Maybe there is something inherently elitist about the realization that the dominant lifestyle of a good chunk of the industrialized world (and the fondest dream of much of the rest of the world) is profoundly misguided and bad for everybody, including those who are lucky enough to live that way.

  • @Mitch,

    Out on the North Fork of Long Island, agricultural production — which is more and more focused on wine production and crucial to the local economy — would be in dire straits if not for bike-riding laborers. And transit here is too sparse to be an option.

  • I am dubious about the claim that mobility should be a basic human right.

    Most Americans are too mobile. Per capita VMT is twice what it was in the 1960s, and we don’t benefit from all this driving back and forth.

    The goal should be to reduce the need for mobility – or more precisely, to reduce the need for mobility in motor vehicles. We should be moving back to the old fashioned mobility: moving around on your own power for most trips.

  • @Charles Some of us are mobile, very mobile. The “mobility disparity” is what is what needs to be fixed.

  • To amplify what Charles has said, if you count mobility as a basic human right, you wind up mandating government-sponsored free flights to Yakutsk for everyone who wants one.

    Jarrett Walker talked about access and I have expanded on that a bit.

    I think there have to be limits on access too, or else you get people moving to Tristan da Cunha and expecting free transportation to the nearest Trader Joe’s. But access is a lot closer to what we want, and talking about it instead of mobility will allow us to work towards more efficient transportation.

  • To clarify my last post: This article is clearly about expanding opportunities for using transit, bicycling, and walking, but I don’t like the slogan that “Mobility is a basic human right.”

    The slogan not only implies that we should try to expend mobility; it also works against our attempts to promote clean transportation.

    Because freedom of speech is a basic human right, we must defend it for everyone, including people we disagree with.

    Likewise, if mobility is a basic human right, we must defend it for everyone, including those whose mode of transportation we disagree with.

  • Interesting story and responses. I would argue that we’re already hyper-mobile and need to reduce the need for mobility by building walkable communities served by efficient and sustainable transit. Telling Americans mobility is a human right is like telling the morbidly obese that Doritos are a human right.

  • absolutely. people who can’t move are not free in the strictest sense. life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness; that sort of thing also. being allowed to move yourself is part of this fundamental right.

  • Anyone who skims through NY Post comments knows that they don’t just hate a nonexistent elitist class, but also poor people. Sounds pretty elitist to me!

  • Adam: Contrarily, I am pretty struck by all the concern for the poor from more liberal quarters. Poor people have by-definition failed to achieve. Nobody’s looking out for me; why should I look out for them?

    Special treatment based on economic status isn’t only distasteful when applied to the rich.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    If I understand Kaja correctly, and I think I do, I can be counted in the totally opposite opinion column. Finally someone writes a solid piece on how poor people might fit into the new-urbanism transportation model. It takes a special genre of poverty denier to fail to recognize the value of the article. Usually the class sneers here are limited to public employee pensions and health plans, mis-behaving immigrant cab drivers and the like. Nice to know someone thinks too much ink is being spilled on the poor. What could he possibly be reading?

  • Kaja

    Pardon, I’m reacting to commenters. Not to the sadness whereby the poor are nigh-marooned in auto nation.

    ‘Mobility is a human right’ isn’t wrong because ‘Americans are too mobile’, it’s wrong because it’s phrased positively, it suggests we have duties to others. Freedom of movement is principle rightly understood, not society somehow owing each soul a mobility guaranty.

    The latter turns into Mobility Aid programs for protected groups, with attendant bureaucracies and infantilization. The former means cops can’t ask for your papers.

    Certainly restoring walkable neighborhoods will make all of us happy.

    If my sympathy for the marooned American poor runs short, it’s only because I’m dry of it completely. There’s nothing deserved or savory about this situation.

  • Rather than phrase it as mobility being a basic human right, you would say that access is a basic human right.

    As for the whole poor failing to achieve, there is some good research connecting lack of nutrition, child abuse, drug use during pregnancy to lack of success in later life. Basically, when one person fails, look to them. When an entire group does, start looking for deeper causes.

  • Kaja

    I think it’s politically destructive to see humans as groups with interests superceding the individual.

    Certainly there are structural causes – perhaps the most egregious case being ‘Greatest Generation’ city planners eminent-domaining the homes of a quarter million black people, shuttling them to Corbusian projects, disconnecting the projects from transit, and creating a permanent underclass of subsidized rentors who lack equity and who thus can’t reach the bottom rung of the latter to start climbing. They’re trapped there, by design.

    Systematic, structural oppression well-understood doesn’t lead you to identity politics. Identity politics are destructive because they teach people to vote for folks “like them”, not folks who’ll benefit them.

    It’s especially damaging in America, where our republic pits faction on faction per design; it’s always in the state’s interest to factionalize the people.

    As evidence I’ll cite the black political caucus’s failure to improve the material condition of black Americans over the past fifty years. There’s been no progress because black-caucus politicians cannot lose the black vote, no matter what they do. No Republican will ever be rewarded for helping poor urban blacks, and no Democrat will ever lose his primary for _failing_ to help poor urban blacks.

    The biggest beneficiaries of politics understood as competing ethnic, social, or economic groups, are the figureheads who in theory represent those groups, because their representation is de-facto permanent by nature.

  • #14 Kaja, #15 Corey Burger, “Rather than phrase it as mobility being a basic human right . . . ”

    Wrong! Mobility is a basic human right and most people and creatures have this. It is called self-propulsion. Fortunately, science and technology helps those people who cannot move under their own power in addition to greatly improve the speed and range of the vast majority of people who are born with self-propulsion.

    Transportation systems based on cars greatly infringe on this basic human right to the point of being structurally violent; not unlike the structural violence of the poor being denied suitable health care in failing states like the Sudan, Congo, etc., where mortality and suffering is extremely high as if tahe poor are victims of actual violence such as the collapse of the rule of law and war.

    It is absurd when automobile advocates try to use this argument.

    Here, where we are it is easy to feel a sense of entitlement, to actually believe that we deserve, even actually have earned the riches and high quality of life we have. To a large extent we are just lucky; in the main, to be in the right place at the right time having the right parents.

  • Mass transit doesn’t work. Period. In a hundred years, there has never once, ever, been a profitable, or even self-suficient, mass transit system produced or designed anywhere on the face of the planet; and for the entirety of recorded human history. It is this very FACT that gave rise to the personal automobile in the first place. Mass transit is a health disaster of epic proportions in the making. It clogs personal and commercial traffic. Plus, it is the earmark of the poor and will ALWAYS be a social stigma.

    Some are supporting the notion that a grass-roots redesign of often centuries old transportation and personal paradigms is the way to go. Like Jose has three decades for changes like this to titrate down to him? This makes it impossible to rely solely upon future-planing to get Jose to effin work TODAY folks. Next? Ya, we go for the symptom, and not the problem. Imagine that? Yet you guys wonder why you come off as classist. While you would redesign our lives, people are trying to make better lives for themselves. The only one they get.

    We should be handing out free cars, but no. Wouldn’t want the elitist Church of Green, and Urban LIvability cadres to go without some poor people to kick around, now would we? We should be scrapping mass-transit wholesale, and recycling it into sustainable-fuel cars. But no. No, we’re going to swallow this false humanism from the Progressive Cali liberals again and move the poor people off the road, and onto buses, so that the Goode Family has an easier time getting to their MTB destinations.

    No, no elitism there. Huh-uh.

  • Ian Turner


    Hong Kong’s subway system is entirely privately funded and operated. It is a profitable and for-profit business.

    As far as I’m aware, there is no transportation system based on private automobiles anywhere in the world that operates without government intervention, including in Hong Kong. Feel free to prove me wrong.



  • Vance, there are profitable transit systems in New Jersey as we speak. There are profitable transit systems all over the world. Do your homework before you blab off next time.

  • Vance- Most of the streetcar systems of yesteryear were profitable, or they were loss-leaders in a larger profitable business (such as real estate or electric power companies). Also, as I understand it, the two main companies of the New York Subway (the Interborough Rapid Transit Company and the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company were profitable, though they operated via franchise agreements with the City of New York that did limit competition. However, cable television operators in most jurisdictions today operate the same way- are you about to tell me that cable TV is a losing proposition, and we ought to abolish Time Warner or Comcast?

    Transportation companies have always been profitable, be it the railroads of the 19th century, the streetcars of the early 20th, or the construction-automobile-gasoline nexus of the early 21st. The only reason that the automobile is so ridiculously profitable, while every alternative isn’t so much (though bike companies are cleaning up lately) is because our governments, city, state and federal, pump billions upon billions of dollars into road infrastructure while letting the alternatives lapse. If we lived in a world with more perfect competition, where the costs of auto infrastructure were actually paid by drivers (and they aren’t- highways are subsidized to the tune of 50%, local roads upwards of 90%, and parking by unknowable amounts from non-user-fee funds), and where the car wasn’t given a free hand up by favourable government intervention, I suspect we’d see a much more diverse transit system.


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