Equity and Public Transportation Services: Some Thoughts

  • Author: Amy Conrick
  • Date: September 8, 2020
Downtown Renton, Washington's Transit Center
Downtown Renton, Washington's Transit Center

I have been reading several sources on the discussion of equity and public transportation recently, and wanted to share some of those with you, as well as my thoughts.

Before sharing those resources, I wanted to address the question of what we mean by equity in transportation: I would propose that equity means providing the same level of quality of service to all populations. Notice that term, “level of quality.” I chose that specifically because I wanted to ponder whether different rider groups define a “quality service” in different ways. Sure, there are basic aspects of quality service that could be predicted across all rider audiences: clean facilities, full accessibility for all people regardless of their mobility considerations, safety during and in the physical environment surrounding the ride, reliability, and affordability.

Where they may be some variability is in what one is willing and/or able to pay for a service. This is where I think equity comes in – that the quality of the service—especially on those basic qualities—should not vary regardless of what riders pay. The same high standards should be applied across the board. Beyond those basics, that there may be some flexibility in balancing what one pays versus the additional amenities one receives. So how do we ensure quality is defined in terms important to the user? Ask them. This imperative is one of the reasons NCMM has embraced human-centered design (aka design thinking) in all its work.

Resources of Note

The first is a three-part series by Christof Spieler, a former  member of the Harris County Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board of directors, and author of “Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit.” Spieler’s premise is that public transportation agencies generally try to design services that meet the needs of all community members. Spieler states:

“Transit agencies, in fact, tend to be much more thoughtful about their impacts on people of color than any other part of government. There are few agencies that don’t talk about diversity, equity and economic opportunity. Transit planning explicitly considers impacts on minority neighborhoods, and every service change comes with a Title VI analysis.”

However, he notes that good intentions notwithstanding, both external and internal factors have led to unfair planning and implementation of transit services. External factors in how communities have developed, such as the use of redlining and outright refusal to sell or rent property to people of color, as well as decisions about placement of intrusive transportation infrastructure (e.g., highways), have influenced how and where transit services are provided.

Spieler also looks at internal agency decisions. “From funding, planning and infrastructure, to design and policing, many transit agencies essentially have built two systems with different standards for “choice” and “dependent” riders (that is to say white and Black). .  . “[D]ependent” meant they weren’t going to be picky — the primary emphasis here was on providing service, not providing a good experience. For the “choice riders,” however, agencies needed to provide great service — shiny new rail lines and limited-stop express commuter buses — that had to be fast, reliable, comfortable and safe to get people out of their cars.

He contends that those decisions extend to the condition of transit facilities, contrasting what he sees as a typical bus local stop in America — “often without a bench, a shelter or an ADA boarding pad,” with suburban park and ride lots with canopies and seats.

A second article recaps the discussion on a “Riding While Black” symposium in the Washington, DC area. Bill Washburn, a former transportation planner, focused more on planning efforts: “Transportation systems, whether it’s bus or train systems or whatever, these are not things that exist in a vacuum,” he said. “One thing that happens that turns a lot of Black people off is that the planning processes tend to be rushed and they tend to ‘x’ the community out.” He cited Nashville’s transit expansion failure as an example, which TransitCenter said failed both because the city failed to reach out to the city’s African American community and the pace at which the campaign took place.

The third source is the August 2020 analysis from the Urban Institute, “Defining ‘Communities of Concern’ in Transportation Planning: A Review of How Planners Identify Underserved Communities.” This brief aims to highlight the various approaches that transportation agencies take to conducting environmental justice analyses in transportation planning. It also presents a history of transportation policy planning in the US; shares results from a review of how regional, state, and transit agencies identify underserved communities, and provides recommendations for supporting equitable transportation access. An additional resource to share: this syllabus, compiled by Jennifer Dill, Ph.D., Portland State University. It covers university courses on transportation planning and engineering so that their courses will better address issues of race, racism, equity, and justice in the transportation field.

Facilitating Equity

So what do we make of these early attempts to more robustly address equity in planning and implementing public transportation? If anything, I think it is an exhortation to adopt the mantra from the disability community: “Nothing about us without us,” a mantra that was first introduced in a book by the same name, two decades ago.  If we want to design our public transportation services to meet the needs of individuals, we need their participation in that design. Here are some tips from the resources cited above on how to make this design/planning process work better:

  • Co-create transportation services with the potential rider audience
  • Provide transportation if meetings are not within easy rich of the audience or bring the meeting to them
  • Cover expenses such as transportation to meetings and child care [this is a big one] during meetings
  • Consult local data that would provide more detailed or richer information on communities of concern (e.g., survey communities to determine their needs, use local administrative data, such as the locations of assisted housing projects and unemployment filings, to identify other communities of concern)

In order for equitable public transportation service to function, its design must be equitable first, in participation.


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Have more mobility news that we should be reading and sharing? Let us know! Reach out to Sage Kashner (kashner@ctaa.org).

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