New York Subway

Public Tran­sit Eq­uity and a Model for Policymakers and Planners

Equity is front and center of the national conversation. It’s about time. I’m encouraged by the efforts of local and national policymakers, organizations, and corporations that are showing their support to help resolve these issues. How legislators act today may dictate equity outcomes years from now, so it’s ideal they are wise with their decisions. Below is an article I previously wrote for the Chicago Policy Review addressing a new equity-focused framework that can be applied to transportation policy.


Millions of people in cities worldwide lack sufficient access to public transit. In the United States, many live in transit deserts, where the demand for transit outweighs supply. Inadequate transit access may limit employment and educational opportunities for residents and is an ongoing issue for legislators.

Authors Saeid Nazari Adli, Subeh Chowdhury, and Yoram Shiftan explore the issue of justice as it relates to transit planning. Past research, the authors suggest, has found that many urban transit systems provide insufficient or unreliable service, and policymakers lack specific tools to assess the equity and accessibility of their transit systems. Thus, the authors’ goals for their analysis are twofold: 1) develop a framework that examines transit accessibility based on income and local geography; and 2) examine how well individual transit systems perform against this framework. Their goal is to allow cities to use this framework to determine whether local transit plans and policies deliver equitable transportation service to their residents.

An ideal framework for transit justice, in the authors’ view, emphasizes that the most underserved populations receive improved transit service and that cities establish an acceptable minimum level of transit accessibility. With this in mind, the authors devised a framework from which legislators could examine their transit systems. This framework, which builds on previous research in the theory of justice and transportation accessibility, is grounded in four core rules: 1) access to public transit is a right — that is, no city resident should be excluded from transportation access; 2) public transit should provide a minimum level of accessibility; for example, access to at least 10 percent of metro area jobs within a 30-minute travel time; 3) public transit should benefit less well-off groups; and 4) a just distribution of transit access adequately serves low-income populations.

To test how well modern cities perform against their framework, the authors analyze existing transit networks in four cities that have considered justice issues in their transportation policies: Auckland, Brisbane, Perth, and Vancouver. These cities also have similar populations and open transit and census data. The authors use several methods to analyze broader transit accessibility, as well as accessibility in relation to household income. The framework necessarily relies on comparisons between cities rather than quantitative benchmarks for individual cities. So, unsurprisingly, they found that city performance varied against different aspects of the framework. For example, Auckland outperformed in regard to minimum transit access, while Vancouver’s system offered low-income groups better service than other systems did.

The authors state that if metropolitan policymakers want a just transit system, then they should prioritize improvement in areas that have low transit accessibility and a large volume of low-income households. Policymakers can do so by studying comparable cities whose transit systems they may emulate. They can apply this four-rule framework to those cities and their own and analyze the rules in which their systems outperform or need improvement. To further develop the framework, the authors indicate that additional research is needed to account for different times of day, job categories, and other modes of transit (such as bicycles) that help residents travel to and from transit stations.

Designing an urban transportation system to equitably serve a large population is an arduous task. Compounding the issue is the fact that many legacy networks were designed decades ago and require significant modifications to meet the needs of today’s urban residents. In the United States, many cities are looking to resolve these issues through redesigned bus networks, as in New York, and rail expansions, as in Chicago and Los Angeles. Ideally, local governments will acknowledge when transit inequities exist in their communities, and then take a holistic, multi-factor approach to improve access. To that end, the four-rule framework provides another model that policymakers may add to their toolkits as they consider how best to provide equitable transit access.

Photo by Victor Rodriguez on Unsplash.

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