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Study unravels Web solutions to transport-related social exclusion

Published: 4 April 2002

A study by transport researchers at the University of Southampton has shown that using the Internet provides a positive solution to some of the problems caused by transport-related social exclusion, without increasing the need for people to travel.

The links between lack of transport and social exclusion have long been recognised by governments and researchers.

Proposals to increase access to transport have traditionally been seen as the answer to the problem, but the Southampton researchers believe that increased Internet access may provide an alternative.

The team at the University's Transportation Research Group interviewed a wide range of people with access problems caused by lack of adequate transport. Their responses confirmed that lack of transport was proving both a cause and a means of reinforcing social exclusion, but also that 'virtual mobility' through use of the Internet could overcome some of their problems.

"If people can't travel, they have reduced access to the goods, opportunities, services and social networks that are necessary to participate in modern society," researcher Susan Kenyon explains. "Lack of adequate transport meant that the lives of the people we interviewed were made more complicated, more tiring, more expensive, and more lonely than they would have been if transport had been readily available.

"Our study has shown that the Internet could be used to combat mobility related exclusion instead of increasing travel and there is evidence to suggest that it is already being used in this way-but not enough. If the Web was to be promoted and Internet access made more available, 'virtual mobility' via the Internet could reduce the need to increase physical travel for those affected by transport-related social exclusion.

"The Government is currently looking at ways of increasing travel to reduce social exclusion. Of course, public transport should be improved and we fully support government initiatives in this area because people do need to have the opportunity to travel. However, our study shows that increasing Internet access to affected groups will go a long way to providing an alternative, more environmentally friendly, and possibly more attainable solution.

"Instead of being excluded from participating in social groups, for example, people are able to meet new and keep in touch with existing friends via the Internet.

"Particularly important for people is the support that they gain from these virtual social networks. People have also found jobs online, can access education, and find information, which can be empowering, particularly in relation to health issues."

The team's findings suggest that although people are already using the Internet to substitute for some activities, particularly 'chore-like' activities, like grocery shopping and banking, levels of substitution for 'real' mobility, or travel, are low. The real gain is when people supplement physical mobility with 'virtual mobility'.

The researchers hope that the results will encourage further research in this area and, ultimately, the incorporation of virtual mobility into both transport and social policy.

Notes for editors

The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship. The University, which celebrates its Golden Jubilee in 2002, has 21,000 students and over 4,900 staff and plays an important role in the City of Southampton. Its annual turnover is in the region of £215 million.

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