In the minds of many, public transportation is linked to civil rights. The Montgomery bus boycott is a seminal moment in U.S. history. Kafui Attoh, a professor at the City University of New York, describes the right to mobility as underpinning our other rights. In his book Rights in Transit, Attoh cites a bus rider, Karen Smulevitz, who says that of all the rights that exist, “whether it is food security, housing, healthcare, or education, the right to transportation is the most integral to each.” The Community Transportation Association of America declares that “mobility is a basic human right.”
Federal law — Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — requires that transit agencies mitigate harm to low-income and non-white communities when making service and fare changes. But in U.S. cities that have been shaped by inequitable politics, preventing further harm is not enough to achieve transportation equity. It is up to local leaders to plan public transit in ways that further racial and social equity.
In the course of researching my book Better Buses, Better Cities, I was proud to see how many transit agencies have stepped up to face this challenge. Three lessons:
Leaders must set clear goals to improve service for marginalized riders
Advancing equity means concentrating attention and funding in neighborhoods and on customers who have been left out, which means less attention to privileged neighborhoods —which tend to be the most politically connected ones. Because of this, many discussions of equity founder at the implementation level.
Agencies are more likely to make ambitious changes when their leaders show a strong commitment to equity. For example, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority’s (SFMTA) “service equity strategy” commits the agency to improving transit in eight neighborhoods with high concentrations of non-white, senior, and low-income residents. Rather than discussing equity in general terms; SFMTA’s strategy identifies specific recommendations: Bigger buses for the 9R route, actively managing headways on the 10 route in Chinatown, and more service on the 44.
Examine fare policy and understand riders’ experience of paying the fare
In many cities, low-income riders end up paying more for transit than high-income riders, because they have trouble affording multi-day passes. Transit agencies like Portland’s TriMet and Connecticut’s CTtransit have adopted “fare capping” — capping the monthly cost of transit for anyone, regardless of whether they pay by the ride or buy a pass.
Higher-income riders are also more likely to have discounted transit through employers or business associations. In response, Denver’s Regional Transportation District launched a low-income fare program in 2018 — joining counterparts like the New York MTA and Seattle’s King County Metro.
Transit agencies also need to understand how their riders pay the fare, to prevent avoidable harm. In Chicago, the Ventra farecard launched with predatory banking features that led to community outcry. Bus fare evasion tends to correlate with inconvenient payment systems and poverty. Instead of enforcement crackdowns, transit agencies can improve their fare retail networks and enroll riders in discount fare programs.
Engage riders — and view them as allies
Rather than thinking about equity near the end of a service change or project (as is typical in Title VI analysis), transit agencies should embed it early — by engaging riders to understand how they use transit. Minnesota’s Metro Transit did this in its “Better Bus Stops” program, an initiative aimed at building bus shelters in underserved neighborhoods and overhauling old shelter guidelines. Metro Transit planners set aside 10% of a federal grant for public engagement and hired 11 community-based organizations to collect rider input. As a result, agency survey respondents were representative of bus riders’ income and race, a rarity in public engagement efforts.
More profoundly, transit agencies can work with marginalized communities in ways that help them use their own power. When community-based groups advocate for transit improvements in their neighborhoods, they provide political cover for agencies to take action. In Los Angeles, for example, local advocates played a major role in convincing LA Metro to adopt an equity platform. Metro Transit’s Better Bus Stops program came about in part because advocates for low-income communities saw that regional transit investments were prioritizing wealthier suburbs. Agency leaders and advocates often have different styles of working – but by coordinating their actions, they can do more together to realize equitable transit than either can alone.
Steven Higashide (@shigashide) is an urban planner, author of Better Buses, Better Cities (Island Press, 2019), and director of research for TransitCenter, a foundation which works to make cities more sustainable and just through better public transit.