Transit Equity in American Cities

After introducing a discussion of mobility justice last week, I planned to highlight a few cities that were doing particularly well at enabling transit equity across racial or economic lines in their cities. While I did not expect to find many cities excelling across the board, I hoped to find some places with best practices that could be used as models along one dimension or another of mobility justice.

What I found instead is that to date, no metrics exist that appear to capture the full picture of mobility justice without leaving out significant elements of the challenge. 

For instance, 99% of San Francisco’s population lives within half a mile of public transit. In one sense, this is a positive development, as a city cannot have accessible transit options unless those options physically travel near people’s homes. However, other authors have pointed out that high housing costs have driven many of the most vulnerable communities in the San Francisco metro area beyond city limits, where transit options become sparser. Furthermore, the fee structure of San Francisco’s public transit can serve to make mobility unaffordable for low-income riders. The region has recognized transit equity as a problem, creating the Bay Area Equity Analysis Report to explore ways to improve access to transit across the region. The report includes proposals such as a region-wide reduced fare pass and a simplified process to apply for reduced fares. Both proposals appear to be positive steps. Their effectiveness at improving access to transit must be evaluated in the coming years.

New York’s subway system is by far the busiest in the nation. Virtually the entire city has either subway or bus service near their home, and the city’s buses and subways provide roughly 7.7 million rides per day. However, the high usage rate is straining the system. In recent decades New York’s subway has been chronically underfunded, and thus subject to increasing delays and needs for repair that limit its usefulness for many city residents. Furthermore, it is unclear how much even a fully functional New York subway could serve as a model for other cities. New York is among a limited number of American cities that grew up before the rise of the automobile. As such, it is more compact as a whole, and its transit system was able to grow with the city in a way that would not be the case for the more sprawling cities investing more heavily in transit in recent years.

A recent study by Greg Griffin and Ipek Nese Sener from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute analyzed transit equity in nine major metro areas across the nation. The authors found that cities like Atlanta and Los Angeles, which have an integrated system of both bus and rail service, are among the most equitable in the nation. However, they cautioned that their study focused primarily on access across incomes, rather than overall access. A city such as Atlanta “may rank low on overall accessibility while doing well in terms of equity by income. Of course, lower transit accessibility overall will undoubtedly impact low-income communities more than others. While their research did not account for such issues, the development of a metric to study transit equity is a valuable contribution to the mobility justice conversation.

On the whole, no city in America is a great model of mobility justice. This is perhaps unsurprising, considering that mobility justice involves the interaction of a wide range of factors such as pricing, changing housing patterns, and planning of effective combinations of rail, bus, bikeshare, and other programs. In each city, adequately meeting this challenge will require significant local engagement with the most impacted communities, and a constant willingness to adapt their system. Plans such as the Bay Area’s Equity Analysis Report are a step in the right direction. As automated vehicles and other new forms of transportation emerge, cities need to be especially attentive to their impacts on marginalized communities.