King County Metro (Seattle, WA), North Link project
Interviewee: Maha Jahshan, Public Engagement Planner
Sound Transit in the Seattle region set out to construct three new Link light-rail stations in the northern part of the city by 2021. Changes to the King County Metro bus network and increased access to alternative modes of transit will accompany the construction of these stations. The bus network changes include 40 bus routes which will streamline and directly serve the stations of the North Link project.
The North Link project is especially important for building north to south connections for residents of Seattle and for local east to west connections across town. Increases in development and gentrification have displaced people outside of the center of the City, forcing many Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities to move to areas with poor transit access. The project area remains a large transit hub as many hospitals, universities, and businesses employ BIPOC communities who rely on transit to get to their place of employment or access services.
Outreach and engagement for the project included translating information to seven languages, giving technical briefings, assembling ethnic media and social media, hosting in-language meetings with community groups, and compensating community-based organizations (CBOs) to conduct focus groups and engagement. In addition, a Mobility Board made up of diverse community members helped co-create the service change proposal with the transit agency project team and a Partner Review Board made up of institutions, large CBOs, and partner agencies also reviewed the proposal. The project is a collaboration between several agencies including King County Metro, Seattle DOT, Sound Transit, Community Transit, WashDOT.
Metro Transit (Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN), Better Bus Stops
Interviewees: Berry Farrington, Senior Planner; Anna Flintoft, Urban Design Manager; Cyndi Harper, Manager of Route Planning
As Metro Transit, the transit operator for the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, was planning the Green Line light-rail project, advocates and elected officials argued that the agency was focused on transit extensions into the suburbs while neglecting the bus experience in urban areas. In response, Metro Transit agreed to build additional bus shelters in racially concentrated areas of poverty, calling it the Better Bus Stops program. Metro Transit’s outreach approach for this program exemplifies community process that changed agency decisions.
Metro Transit secured a $3.26 million federal grant for the bus stops work through the US DOT’s Ladders of Opportunity program in 2014. Ten percent of the grant budget went to community engagement. Metro Transit contracted with one entity, a “Community Engagement Team” (made up of two citywide nonprofits and a program of the University of Minnesota). The CET then subgranted to 11 community-based organizations (CBOs) who led engagement in different neighborhoods; the selections were made by a committee of community leaders.
This approach simplified procurement and relationships for Metro Transit, which worked directly with large citywide nonprofits with which it had established relationships. To quote Metro Transit’s own report on the project: “As an intermediary, the CET offered relationships, trust, and access to community partners that otherwise would not have been available to Metro Transit to create a deeper pool of subcontract applicants.”
The CBOs conducted outreach through a range of activities, including tabling at community events, door-knocking, and focus groups. Riders were asked for their thoughts on shelter placement, design, features, community assets of historic significance, and how Metro Transit could advance regional equity. As a result of CBO involvement, Metro Transit was able to get feedback from a sample representative of bus riders; the demographics of the survey results were similar to the demographics of bus riders in terms of age, gender, Hispanic ethnicity, and race. Twenty percent of respondents reported having a disability, and 57% of survey respondents heard about the survey through a CBO.
Interviewees reported that hearing directly from riders “changed the conversation at Metro Transit” and revealed to the agency how important certain amenities, including seating and shelters, were to riders. As a result of the project, Metro Transit changed its standards for bus shelter siting. Before Better Bus Stops, 40 boardings/day were needed to justify a shelter in Minneapolis or St. Paul, compared to 25/day in the suburbs, where service frequency was lower and riders were assumed to wait longer for the bus. However, riders engaged in the project argued that this was unfair. The agency’s Department of Strategic Initiatives also analyzed data from a University of Minnesota study and found no evidence of longer wait times in suburban areas.
Engagement also changed the agency’s approach to shelter design. Before the project, the agency’s philosophy was that any stop that qualified for a shelter should receive the largest shelter possible. Riders with disabilities pointed out that Metro Transit frequently placed large shelters on narrow sidewalks that made it difficult to pass. As a result, the agency developed a narrow shelter design. The agency also developed a new internal process for shelter placement, circulating design drawings of proposed shelters through the bus operations department for feedback.
Since the conclusion of the federal grant, the project has evolved into a program for the agency’s full service area. As of January 2020, the agency has added 135 shelters and upgraded another 78 with light or heat. (There are about 950 shelters in the system.) In racially concentrated areas of poverty, roughly two-thirds of boardings now take place at stops with shelters — similar to the results across the system.
Oakland Department of Transportation (Oakland, CA), Strategic Plan, Slow Streets & Master Bike Plan
Interviewee: Ryan Russo, Director of Oakland DOT
When the Oakland Department of Transportation was created in 2016, its founding strategic plan outlined equity as a pillar to drive the agency’s work. Since then OakDOT has worked closely with Oakland’s Department of Race and Equity to increase staff capacity to identify, understand and address structural racism in transportation through professional development and skills training; to conduct equitable community engagement; and to use data as a tool for equity. At OakDOT, equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) competency is treated as a professional skill on par with technical skill development, requiring training and ongoing development. Receiving training to hone competencies that advance equity work are integrated in staff work plans and rewarded through salary bumps and certification pay. Much of OakDOT’s EDI work emphasizes the need for greater recruitment and retention of BIPOC to have more equitable representation across the agency, including at upper management levels.
OakDOT’s recent update to its master Bicycle Plan has been cited as transit equity in action due to the agency’s engagement with community partners to reach marginalized communities, whose participation helped change the narrative around biking while Black and Brown in Oakland. For their community engagement approach, OakDOT met with people in spaces familiar to them (holding 25 mobile workshops) and used new strategies like design charrettes to obtain feedback, rather than solely in traditional public outreach hearings. The agency also used survey data and qualitative data collected with the help of five trusted community-based cycling organizations with Black and Brown membership and leadership. The dynamic, intertwined use of quantitative and qualitative data helped illuminate racial disparities related to police department cycling stops, which was a key finding of the bike plan.
San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (San Francisco, CA), Service Equity Strategy
Interviewee: Sandra Padilla, former Lead on Service Planning
The Muni Service Equity Strategy started in 2016 and is a continuing effort to improve transit service in nine neighborhoods in San Francisco, California. The nine neighborhoods, identified as equity neighborhoods, have shares above citywide averages of people of color, low car ownership, or people with low incomes. The strategy set out to determine critical transit needs in these neighborhoods with high transit reliance and where solutions could be successfully implemented and quickly achieved.
The Muni Service Equity Policy was created in collaboration with the Muni Service Equity Working Group (which SFMTA formed in 2014 and includes government agencies and community-based organizations, or CBOs). The policy mandates a biennial strategy to identify projects that will make service equal or better in equity neighborhoods. In recent years outreach for the two-year strategy included working with CBOs in each neighborhood, multilingual presentations and materials, and meetings held in neighborhood spaces with snacks and childcare.
The strategy is updated every two years and presented to the SFMTA board, ahead of the biennial budget process. The process of updating the strategy every two years allows for communities to experience rapid changes in service, long-term planning and community input, and an opportunity to influence the SFMTA’s budget.
SFMTA used a Caltrans grant and funding from Proposition K, a local sales tax administered by the SF County Transportation Authority, to fund the community outreach efforts for the program in 2017 and 2018.
Seattle Department of Transportation (Seattle, WA), Transportation Equity Workgroup & Transportation Equity Team
Interviewees: Annya Pintak, Manager of Transportation Equity & Laura Lee Sturm, Transportation Access Program Manager
In 2019, Seattle DOT created two workgroups, to engage community leaders outside of the agency and to engage agency staff. Coordination between the external and internal teams is facilitated by the Manager of Transportation Equity who serves as a liaison advocating both internally and externally.
The external group, the Transportation Equity Workgroup (TEW), consist of ten BIPOC community members with personal and professional affiliations to community-based organizations in Seattle. This external workgroup was created to provide specific recommendations and set goals for SDOT’s Transportation Equity Agenda. Members of the TEW were compensated with a $5,000 yearly stipend.
SDOTs internal team, the Transportation Equity Team, consists of 20 agency staff from various departments. The internal team works simultaneously with the external team, providing feedback and recommendations set forth by the TEW on the equity agenda.
Transit Alliance (Miami, FL), Advocate-led Bus Network Redesign
Interviewees: Azhar Chougle, former Executive Director
Miami-Dade County’s bus network redesign (which began in May 2019 and was adopted in October 2020) was an unusual collaboration between Miami-Dade Transit (MDT) and the nonprofit Transit Alliance. Transit Alliance was hired by Miami-Dade county government to lead the redesign, subcontracting Jarrett Walker + Associates to lead technical analysis. Transit Alliance’s approach to public engagement and the use of qualitative information gained from that engagement stand out as lessons that can be applied by other agencies, whether they hire community-based organizations to conduct outreach or rely on in-house capacity.
The network redesign was prompted by the poor reach of the previous bus network. Only 10% of county residents had access to frequent transit. The final plan emphasizes a grid of frequent bus routes, doubling the number of residents within a 5-minute walk to a bus arriving at least every 15 minutes. The proportion of Black county residents within walking distance of frequent transit will go from 9% to 31%.
Transit Alliance’s approach to building public understanding and buy-in to the network redesign was cognizant of how an earlier MDT attempt to redesign its network had fallen short. The group took a narrative-driven approach that could explain to media, decisionmakers, and riders that the bus system was failing and specific kinds of change would be necessary to build ridership and better serve Miami. The transit agency was initially resistant to an approach that admitted past failures, but County Mayor Carlos Gimenez was strongly supportive.
Transit Alliance focused public engagement in communities of color, where there was historic mistrust of county government. According to Transit Alliance, three months of sustained engagement–primarily listening–were necessary to build trust in these areas. Government’s historic tendency when confronted by community mistrust is to “retreat and move to friendly ground; [instead] we double down and do more” engagement, Chougle said. The information gained through this engagement was used to inform the network redesign. According to Chougle, “every time a decision was being made solely by data, [we] interrupted” to bring in knowledge learned through engagement. Instead of “data-driven” decisions, Transit Alliance says, design should be “data-informed.”
The consultant JW+A developed access-to-opportunity and “access to frequent transit” measures that Transit Alliance used to demonstrate the inequity of existing transit and the possibilities of a redesigned network. This was important because elected officials recognized that there were inequities in the system, but discussion of solutions tended to focus on long-term capital projects. Access-to-opportunity metrics were a powerful way to drive the conversation towards improvements in existing service.
Transit Alliance demonstrated project leadership skills that are a good model for any transit agency leading an equity initiative. When elected officials or other stakeholders challenged elements of the network redesign, Transit Alliance staff began by explaining the rationale behind proposals, instead of immediately appeasing them by changing the design. This helped gain the trust of transit agency staff as well.
TransitMatters (Boston, MA), Advocating for Nighttime Transit Service
Interviewee: Jarred Johnson, Executive Director
In 2019, the MBTA increased bus service during early mornings and late nights by about 140 more trips per week. The improvements resulted from a multi-year, collaborative effort by the MBTA, TransitMatters, and other stakeholders to draw attention to and address needs for nighttime service.
The seed for the service expansion came years earlier from TransitMatters, a nonprofit transit advocacy group in the Boston region. In 2016, TransitMatters was calling on the MBTA to restore and expand late-night service, arguing in Commonwealth Magazine that there was a cost-effective solution to meet the needs of overnight riders. Their “NightBus” concept proposed that the MBTA could add trips every 75 minutes, all night long, on eight existing high-ridership early-morning bus routes. The routes ran through most EJ communities in and around Boston before converging on Copley Square, a central location.
Though MBTA planners were initially unsure of the proposal’s feasibility, TransitMatters’ broader demand caught the attention of the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board. The FMCB directed MBTA staff to research, then respond to, riders’ needs for nighttime service — starting by understanding and building out TransitMatters’ NightBus proposal.
Collaborating with city partners and TransitMatters, the MBTA designed and distributed a survey to ask the public about their overnight travel needs. The survey revealed that low-income workers could benefit from additional service during late-night and early morning periods. Staff from the Cities of Boston and Cambridge engaged directly with employers in their jurisdictions to identify the needs of overnight commuters. The MBTA also analyzed a mix of origin-destination data from multiple sources to get a clear picture of demand patterns throughout the night.
Following these research and outreach efforts, the MBTA drafted a pilot proposal for expanded service, with input from community partners including TransitMatters. In 2018, the FMCB approved pilots that extended bus service later in the night and earlier in the morning. Service improvements included increasing frequency and lengthening span of service on certain early-morning and late-night bus routes, as well as a new overnight route (which strung together other existing routes).
By 2019, the early morning and late-night routes proved to be popular with riders. Responding to the demand that riders demonstrated, the MBTA made 140 weekly trips during those periods permanent.
The overnight service was not continued: low ridership during the pilot had resulted from poor branding and signage, confusing routing that made transfers difficult, and a lack of consideration of safety concerns that riders, particularly women, had with overnight travel. Underestimating the latter outcome led TransitMatters to recognize its own lack of gender diversity, which the organization has worked to address since.
Each party played an important role in ultimately improving nighttime travel for Boston transit riders. TransitMatters originated the concept, then cultivated the political will and maintained pressure for the change. At the MBTA, the FMCB prioritized the demand; staff responded with thorough outreach and analysis to reinforce their service proposals. The cities of Boston and Cambridge supported outreach to ensure that the needs of their constituents were addressed.
Transportation Choices Coalition (Seattle, WA), Sound Transit and City of Seattle Rainier Valley Transit Oriented Development
Interviewee: Hester Serebrin, Policy Director, Transportation Choices Coalition
In 2018, the Sound Transit Board created an initiative to facilitate the construction of affordable housing on surplus land, originally acquired for construction of light-rail routes in Rainier Valley in Seattle, Washington. The initiative was a collaboration between Sound Transit and the Seattle Housing Authority.
An extensive outreach process for the project set out to determine four things: high-priority sites for construction, uses for commercial/community spaces, density preferences on the sites, and general community support for affordable housing. The outreach included a survey that yielded 945 responses and in-person engagement (six meetings with roughly 100 community members, with an emphasis on limited-English speakers and historically underrepresented groups), conducted via a contract with Puget Sound Sage, a community-based organization. In-person engagement was more successful than the survey at capturing the needs of commonly marginalized groups in Seattle. The in-person outreach found preferences for larger apartments to accommodate bigger families, larger sites for construction, cultural services for the commercial/community spaces, and zero-interest loans.
The Memorandum of Understanding between the two agencies included key priorities determined via the public outreach process and in the fall of 2020 the Sound Transit Board adopted a resolution allowing Sound Transit to transfer the sites to the City of Seattle at no cost for the development of affordable housing.
TriMet (Portland, OR), Equity Index & Transit Equity Advisory Committee
Interviewees: Carl Green, Jr., former Title VI and Equity Programs Administrator; Roberto Guttierez, Senior Project Coordinator (Transit Equity, Inclusion, and Community Affairs Department); Scott Nance, Senior Communications Specialist.
TriMet’s approach to institutionalizing equity is notable for its use of standing external committees, leveraging its Civil Rights Title VI program, development of new metrics and an equity index that measure different aspects of service provision, and the growth of internal capacity to do equity work.
In 2013, TriMet began the development of a quantitative “Equity Index.” The index identifies “equity neighborhoods” by weighing ten factors: people of color, limited English proficiency, youth population, limited vehicle access, affordable housing units, low-income population (200% of federal poverty level), senior population, people with disabilities, low- and medium-wage jobs, and key retail and human/social service destinations.
In 2018, Oregon passed new statewide transportation funding legislation, HB2017, which provides an additional $48 million annually for TriMet; the agency has prioritized service investments in the equity neighborhoods determined by the Index for this additional funding.
TriMet incorporated equity metrics into its 5-year business plan process. In 2017, the agency found that the average age of vehicles on routes serving mostly people of color or people with low incomes was 12 percent older than the average age of the vehicles on the other routes. As a result, the agency retired older buses and examined how it had been assigning vehicles to different depots, and it changed its process to improve this metric in future years.
Objective: Ensure equitable distribution of services and resources across the TriMet system
Measure: Minority and low-income access within five percent or better than non-minority and non-low-income access across different measures:
- Revenue hours provided
- Vehicle loads
- On time performance
- Service availability
- Vehicle assignment
- Stop amenities
Central to TriMet’s equity work is the use of its Transit Equity Advisory Committee, which includes a TriMet board member and representatives from 16 organizations working with transit-reliant populations, youth, community colleges, housing, and advocacy groups. The TEAC meets monthly and is primarily a way for TriMet to brief and get input from community partners on agency projects, initiatives, and research studies that could influence the equitable provision of service. In 2020, for example, TEAC agendas included discussion of changes to the low-income fare enrollment process, proposed bus lane and light-rail extension projects, and changes to transit policing.
Many public agencies have advisory committees that accept input but fail to change agency decision-making. TriMet interviewees say the TEAC stands out because agency leadership sees it as a serious venue to vet draft policies and inform policy conversations. In other words, proposed changes are discussed in committee early enough that meaningful change can result, and agency leadership views TEAC buy-in as important. The presence of an agency board member on the committee creates a conduit to the rest of the board.
According to the interviewees, TriMet has intentionally grown the number of staff assigned to equity-related work, to 20 full-time staff assigned to equity initiatives across multiple departments.