The Bartlett School of Planning


Mengqiu Cao

Research subject

Thesis title: Exploring the Relation between Transport and Social Equity: Empirical Evidence from London and Beijing  

Primary supervisor: Dr Robin Hickman
Secondary supervisor: Dr Iqbal Hamiduddin

“[W]ealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else”.

------- Aristotle (2015, p. 5)

“[I]f there is equality in distribution there will be no poverty; if there is harmony in society there will be no under-population, and if there is security, there will be subversion”.

------- Confucius (1990, p. 1).

In the transport context, most researchers have not previously treated social equity as a significant issue, partly because the relationship between transport and social equity has not been fully concerned. Social equity in itself is a difficult term to define, and researchers know less about quantifying the contribution that transport investment might make to improving social equity.

From a starting point of interest in social equity issues related to transport and mobility, most researchers have investigated the relationship between transport and social exclusion issues, focusing on aspects such as access to opportunities, income, reduced mobility, class, age, ethnicity, gender, social exclusion, travel poverty, and unequal accessibility. The wider social and economic effects of social exclusion in the transport context have primarily centred on addressing the imbalance in the distributional effects of transport accessibility. Issues relating specifically to social equity still remain under-researched, perhaps due to the difficulties involved in comprehensively comparing, measuring and quantifying these as socially just or unjust. Therefore, there is an urgent need for both theoretical and empirical research to be conducted to explore social equity within the field of transport planning.

The aim of the research is to explore and analyse the relation between transport and social equity, and its effects on neighbourhoods within the city. The outcome of this research could contribute to reducing social inequalities through investment in transport infrastructure and improve transport policy or targeted governance, particularly in terms of social patterns, while creating a fairer society for members of the wide array of different social groups residing within a city.

In order to achieve this aim, the following focused research objectives have been developed:

1) To investigate which parts of the city are more vulnerable to the combined problem of high car dependence and housing affordability;

2) To explore the implications of transport-related equity for individuals, depending on their different demographics, socio-economic characteristics, and geographical context;

3) To examine the key determinants affecting individual’s commuting transport mode choice, particularly from a social equity perspective;

4) To investigate any policy instruments, methods of intervention, subsidies, or other enhancement strategies/enabling mechanisms that may be available in order to address the issues of social inequality and inequity.

This research has shed new light on the interrelationships between transport and social equity, using both quantitative and qualitative methods. It has further contributed to the existing literature and methodology in four ways. Firstly, a composite car dependence and housing affordability index (CDHA) is developed, using indices of oil vulnerability related to car travel and housing affordability in order to measure high levels of composite car dependence and housing price vulnerability in different areas within a city at an aggregate level, adding to the previous areas of social deprivation related studies (Cao & Hickman, 2017). Secondly, this research has not only focused on people’s everyday travel experiences (also called ‘functionings’ in this case), but also taken into account their expected travel opportunities (also called ‘capabilities’ in this context). Thirdly, issues specifically pertaining to transport-related social equity have been empirically measured and quantified using different types of models in the case studies. Finally, the method influenced by Sen’s capability approach (Sen, 2009) and adapted from Nussbaum’s capabilities approach (Nussbaum, 2011) has been applied in the transport field. This method enables the subjectivities associated with ambiguities in potential needs or expected travel opportunities (i.e. capabilities) to be quantified to some extent, as well as allows comparisons to be made on the capabilities and functioning of different socio-demographics and socio-spatial groupings (Hickman et al., 2017).


Aristotle. (1999). Nicomachean ethics (W.D. Ross, Trans.). Retrieved from https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/nicomachean/

Cao, M. and Hickman, R. (2017). Car dependence and housing affordability: an emerging social deprivation issue in London. Urban Studies, Online First, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042098017712682

Confucius. (1990). Analects of Confucius (C. Muller, Trans.). Retrieved from http://www.acmuller.net/con-dao/analects.html

Hickman, R., Cao, M., Mella-Lira, B., Fillone, A., & Biona, J.B. (2017). Understanding capabilities, functionings and travel in high and low income neighbourhoods in Manila. Social Inclusion, 5(4), 161–174. https://doi.org/10.17645/si.v5i4.1083

Nussbaum, M. (2011). Creating capabilities: The human development approach. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Sen, A. (2009). The idea of justice. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


Mengqiu (Matthew) Cao is a PhD candidate at the Bartlett School of Planning, working under the supervision of Dr Robin Hickman and Dr Iqbal Hamiduddin. He is also a visiting lecturer at University of Westminster and a research assistant at Birkbeck, University of London. He has an MSc in Procurement, Logistics and Supply Chain Management from University of Salford and an MSc in Transport and City Planning from UCL. He received the 2017 First Prize for the best paper at the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) Annual Conference (Transport Geography Research Group-sponsored Postgraduate Paper Prize).


transport London