Transport and Inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean

Poor transit options can perpetuate cycles of inequality in Latin America. Improvements in public transit -- with BRT systems like Bogota's TransMilenio, pictured above -- can help poor people break this cycle. Photo via Gerard :-[.Last week, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released its first Human Development Report for Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). The report,Acting On The Future: Breaking The Intergenerational Cycle Of Inequality” (PDF in Spanish), focuses on policies that could help Latin America — the most unequal region in the world — escape from the inequality trap.

The report introduces a new indicator to measure human development while reflecting inequality, and it finds that the region’s Human Development Index would fall by between 6 and 19 percent, on average, if it were corrected to account for inequality.

Acknowledging that poverty reduction programs in the region have too often focused on specific, piece-meal solutions, rather than addressing the deep-seated roots of poverty and inequality, the report calls for more comprehensive public social policies across the region. The policies must recognize and work to amend the “structural causes of political and social origin that reflect historical factors of social inequality, including lack of equal opportunity and lack of empowerment that result in marginalization, oppression, and domination.”

Lower inequality would mean a more connected and cohesive society, which would foster greater and more equitable economic growth.

Safe, reliable, affordable and sustainable public transport options could be integral to this comprehensive policy to address inequality in the region.

After all, linking cities through fast and affordable bus systems like Bogotá’s TransMilenio certainly makes them more connected and cohesive, while providing poorer residents with improved access to cities’ economic centers. Improving access to schools and workplaces can help historically marginalized and economically excluded groups break from the cycle of poverty and inequality.

And indeed, transport is mentioned a few times throughout the report. The report highlights, for instance, that while the benefits of achieving a healthy lifestyle and a high level of education might, in theory, be equal for all people, the costs of achieving these goals are quite different for a family living far from a city center and a family living nearby. Farther distances imply reduced access to schools and health services, greater transport costs, and higher opportunity costs: more time spent in transit reduces the amount of time that children can contribute to family tasks or even work outside of the home, for example.

This analysis of human development from the “operative restrictions” perspective implies that policymakers and planners must account for the interaction between services that are available for families — for instance, health and education — and these families’ capacity to take full advantage of these services. Improved transport is crucial, in this respect, for advances in human development and reduced inequality in LAC.

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