Defining an Equity Strategy
Transit agencies often describe their mission in terms of operating safe and efficient service. Committing to equity requires that transit leaders ask: How can agencies optimize their service to help people who have been marginalized thrive?
To break the cycle of marginalization, agencies must engage more deeply with the communities they serve, collect more and different kinds of information about how people use (or are unable to use) their services, and structure themselves to deliver transit improvements that advance equity. When transit agencies accept furthering equity as their mission and do the hard work that this mission requires, they can build trust with their riders and make cities more just.
The Urban Sustainability Directors Network identities four forms of equity, each relevant to the transit industry:
- Procedural equity – inclusive, accessible, authentic engagement and representation in process to develop or implement programs or policies.
- Distributional equity – programs, plans, and policies result in fair distribution of benefits and burdens across all segments of a community, prioritizing those with highest need.
- Structural equity – decision-makers institutionalize accountability; decisions are made with recognition of historical, cultural and institutional dynamics and structures that have routinely advantaged privileged groups in society and resulted in chronic, cumulative disadvantage for subordinated groups.
- Restorative equity — present decisions and investments right past actions that overburdened certain groups of people, ending marginalization. Restorative equity is an advanced goal, enabled by sustained success on the other three forms of equity, and should be the ultimate target of an equity strategy. Pillar 3, which asks agencies to identify past harms and claim responsibility for them, is the first step in achieving restorative equity.
These dimensions are not alternative pathways toward equity, but essential and mutually reinforcing steps on one path. Many policies prioritize resources for those with the greatest needs (distributional equity), but to achieve lasting impacts, policy should be influenced by the people it aims to help (procedural equity), public officials must be accountable for upholding those policies (structural equity), and the scope of action should reverse effects of past decisions that perpetuate disadvantage (restorative equity). Each of these dimensions of equity should factor into agency service planning, budgeting, policymaking, policing, hiring, and other significant decisions.
This four-point framework is embedded throughout this paper’s findings and recommendations, which include actions that advance equity along each of these dimensions.
Because an equity focus requires agencies to work differently than they have before, many find it useful to define a new approach, sometimes in a standalone equity platform.
Any equity strategy must be grounded in local conditions and informed by riders, community-based organizations, and agency staff, including frontline workers; we do not intend to offer a one-size-fits-all template. However, our review of agency equity documents suggests that most meaningful approaches to transportation equity rest on five fundamental pillars.
- Articulate a vision of an equitable transportation system and explain why resources must be prioritized to benefit people who have been marginalized.
- Connect transportation to other aspects of people’s lives, recognizing that transportation exists within broader inequities.
- Acknowledge that past transportation decisions have deepened inequity.
- Measure equitable outcomes for people and the neighborhoods where they live and work.
- Create processes for the people most affected by agency actions to exert meaningful influence over agency decisions.
Pillar 1: Articulate a vision of an equitable transportation system and explain why resources must be prioritized to benefit people who have been marginalized.
Acknowledge that specific groups of people have been historically and are currently marginalized, assert that transportation policy should seek to end this marginalization, and provide a positive vision of equitable access.
Each agency must begin by describing and documenting what an equitable transportation system looks like: a system that everyone — especially people who have faced marginalization — can use to access what they need to thrive. Attaining this goal requires prioritizing resources to meet the needs of people with disabilities, people with low incomes, people of color, and others marginalized by disinvestment, segregation, and other forms of discrimination in transportation policy.
This framing should be complemented with data disaggregated by demographics (including race, ethnicity, and income) that convey existing conditions and demonstrate disparities between groups of people. The agency should then measure progress toward equity against benchmarks. At present, there is no widely accepted, standardized way to measure the overall equity of a transit system, but several agencies use a mix of indicators to guide decision-making. (See Pillar 4 for a more detailed discussion.)
Example: LA Metro’s Equity Platform defines inequity and identifies who faces harmful disparities: “Access to opportunity should be a core objective of public decision-making, public investment, and public service – and transportation is an essential lever to enabling that access… Inequity exists when there are fundamental differences in access to opportunity, not just with respect to where you begin, but in your capacity to improve from that starting position. Historically and currently, race and class have largely defined where these disparities are most concentrated: in poor, minority communities throughout LA County. Age, gender, disability, and residency also can expand or constrain opportunities.”
Example: Oakland’s Bicycle Plan provides a positive vision of equitable access and identifies groups facing disparities: “Equity means that your identity as an Oaklander has no detrimental effect on the distribution of resources, opportunities, and outcomes for you as a resident… Some groups of Oaklanders face greater vulnerabilities and disparities in the transportation system. The more groups a person identifies with, the greater the disparity. These groups include: People of color, women, people of no and low income, people with limited English proficiency, people with disabilities, children and seniors, single parents, people who don’t own cars or do not drive.”
Note: An equity strategy should outline how to prioritize the needs of people who have been marginalized from the transportation system, and to repair past and current harms. The purpose should be achieving a transit system that provides service proportional to need — not “equal” service to all. Elected officials sometimes call for “geographic equity,” arguing that a particular jurisdiction, like a city or county, deserves transit service that is proportional to the amount of tax revenue that it contributes to an agency. This concept does not belong in a transit agency’s equity strategy.
Pillar 2: Connect transportation to other aspects of people’s lives, recognizing that transportation exists within broader inequities.
Situate marginalization from transportation resources within a larger understanding of systemic inequity. Identify how transportation interacts with other systems (i.e. policing, housing, education, politics, public health) to multiply inequitable outcomes and account for those interactions in policy and processes.
An equitable society guarantees fair treatment, just distribution of resources, opportunity, and advancement for people and communities based on need and potential to benefit. Transportation can help advance equity, but transportation exists within and alongside other systems that also affect equity. To paraphrase the writer and activist Audre Lorde, “single-issue” solutions will always fall short because people do not live single-issue lives.
Transportation equity strategies should recognize how injustices like housing segregation and unaffordability, lack of quality schools, and racist policing interact with the transportation system. Transit agencies do not have sole responsibility or power to address all harms but should acknowledge the experience of transit riders and highlight the role of other actors in ending marginalization. Agency initiatives that don’t consider these realities will fail to improve how riders and communities interact with the transit system. Agencies should seek to adopt metrics that account for systemic inequity.
As one example, metrics like travel time or the number of jobs one can access on transit in an hour, while valuable, are incomplete and often do not represent the nuance in how people navigate public space. Local knowledge of dangerous areas (for example, streets where women are more likely to experience harassment, or areas that cross gang boundaries) can lead people to take longer, more circuitous routes. This knowledge should be incorporated into project planning.
Some cities have developed indicators that transportation agencies can use to better understand the whole picture of inequity. For example, Oakland’s Department of Race and Equity tracks 72 separate measures, ranging from housing (e.g. overcrowding, or whether residents have complete plumbing facilities) to public health, to transportation-related measures like bus frequency and ADA curb ramps. Academic researchers, community foundations, and others have developed similar measures in other regions.
After reviewing these types of indicators, transportation agencies should adapt their metrics in light of them. For example, access-to-opportunity measures often focus on jobs access and don’t account for the quality of pedestrian infrastructure. These measures can be retrofitted to incorporate ADA accessibility and access to SNAP-eligible grocery stores, parks, health care, and other essential destinations.
Example: The Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure aims for every household to have “access [to] fresh fruits and vegetables within 20 minutes travel of home, without the requirement of a private vehicle,” and strives to ensure that the “combined cost of transportation, housing and energy does not exceed 45% of household income for any income group.”
Example: Oakland’s Bicycle Plan incorporated survey results showing that compared to the citywide average, people of color in four neighborhoods were more likely to cite being stopped by police or robbed as barriers to bicycle use. It also cited police data to show that Black residents represented 60% of Oaklanders stopped by police while biking, despite being only 25% of city residents.
Pillar 3: Acknowledge past transportation decisions that have deepened inequity.
Nearly every American city bears a history of racist and exclusionary urban planning exemplified by redlining, urban renewal, and disruptive highway construction. But discriminatory and harmful urban policies aren’t ancient history, nor can transit agencies dismiss their role in creating and perpetuating them. Agencies must acknowledge their own actions that may have bred distrust and marginalization of riders. These include, and are not limited to:
- Violence, harassment, and biased enforcement by transit police.,
- Service cuts and cancelled projects whose harms fall on communities of color, like the 2015 cancellation of the Red Line in Baltimore, Maryland.
- Business disruption and displacement caused by large-scale transit projects.
By accounting for past harm in equity strategy documents and elsewhere, agencies show transparency and a willingness to be held accountable. These acknowledgments will help move projects forward and provide a path for agencies to build toward restorative equity.
Example: On the 25th anniversary of the opening of LA Metro’s Green Line (now known as the C train), the agency posted an article on its official blog recounting how the rail line was built as part of a freeway project that bulldozed homes in communities of color, and that the rail project itself had several “compromises” in its design that made it less useful to riders. These included the rail line’s placement in the freeway median (which exposes riders to noise and air pollution), and routing that stops short of key destinations. The post identified extensions of the line that would fix some of the design flaws.
Example: In June 2020 (as widespread racial justice demonstrations were taking place in the U.S.), King County Metro announced it would no longer provide buses to transport law enforcement officers to and from protests or demonstrations, and would not provide buses to transport arrested protesters. In a statement, General Manager Rob Gannon said that “our conversations and reflections in recent days remind us of the role that law enforcement has played historically in our nation and continues to represent for many within the communities we are most called to serve… it is not appropriate for a transit agency to deliver high numbers of law enforcement officers to a demonstration or protest.”
Pillar 4: Measure equitable outcomes for people and the neighborhoods where they live and work.
Track outcomes of the transportation system for people who depend on transit and people facing marginalization wherever they live in the region, and for neighborhoods with a high concentration of residents who depend on transit or who face marginalization.
To measure progress towards equitable transit, agencies must define and measure outcomes for people and the communities in which they live and work. Transit agencies need at least two types of metrics:
- Place- or neighborhood-focused measures show how the benefits and harms of transportation accrue to areas with many residents of color or residents with low incomes. Neighborhood-focused measures often show outcomes for defined areas of need (the definition varies by agency but may be based on factors such as the proportion of residents who have low incomes, are not white, or lack access to a vehicle) against the region as a whole. An example of a neighborhood-focused measure is, “How reliable is bus service in racially concentrated areas of poverty?”
- Person-focused measures show how benefits and harms of transportation accrue to people of certain identities, aggregating across residential locations. An example of a person-focused measure is, “How reliable is bus service for the average Black bus commuter?”
Place- or neighborhood-focused measures
Place- or neighborhood-focused measures assess transportation outcomes in areas where many residents are BIPOC or have low incomes. These areas tend to have faced disinvestment historically and have concentrated need for investment now; neighborhood-focused measures help make the case for equitable, place-based investments.
Several transit agencies define areas of need using a mix of Census, transit agency, and other data. For example, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority has defined eight “equity neighborhoods” based on income, private vehicle ownership, race, and ethnicity. According to agency policy, service should improve in these neighborhoods at least as much as in the system as a whole. SFMTA issues a biannual report showing how transit performance has changed in those neighborhoods and identifying improvements to make (see example below).
Neighborhood-Focused Metrics from SFMTA Muni Equity Service Strategy:
SFMTA’s Muni Equity Service Strategy commits the agency to “assess Muni service performance in select low income and minority neighborhoods, identify major Muni transit-related challenges impacting selected neighborhoods with community stakeholder outreach, and develop strategies to address the major challenges. … SFMTA shall develop performance targets for each strategy based on peer Muni route performance and track progress compared to baseline conditions, performance targets, and year-over-year progress.
“Performance metrics will include:
- On-Time Performance
- Service Gaps
- Crowding (also serves as a proxy for pass-ups)
- Capacity Utilization
- Travel Times to/from key destinations such as the nearest grocery store, nearest medical facility, City College, downtown, and nearest major park
- Customer satisfaction information
Metrics will include data by time of day (including midday and late evening). Where available, data will be evaluated for conditions within the neighborhood, as well as the route as a whole.”
The SFMTA prioritizes service improvements in the eight equity neighborhoods, as well as on 15 routes with a large proportion of riders with disabilities and senior citizens. This slide from a 2018 presentation shows how the agency works to identify needs in equity neighborhoods and make service improvements accordingly.
Other agencies that have used neighborhood-based equity measures to guide capital investments or service decisions include Metro Transit in Minneapolis-St. Paul and TriMet in Portland, Oregon. Geographic measures can also assess harms. For example, TriMet measures whether older, more-polluting buses are disproportionately located in equity neighborhoods. (The Metro Transit and TriMet examples are case studies later in this report.)
Transit investments outside of equity neighborhoods can improve outcomes within those neighborhoods. For example, a bus lane or rail tunnel in a congested downtown area can improve travel times for riders who don’t live downtown, but travel through it.
Person-focused measures show transportation outcomes for groups of people, regardless of where they live. Person-focused measures are necessary to design and evaluate programs intended to improve outcomes for marginalized groups of people. Relying only on neighborhood-focused metrics obscures the needs of, for example, a Black family living in a predominantly white neighborhood.
Person- and neighborhood-focused measures can be calculated from the same data sources, but person-focused measures require an extra step to rearrange spatial data into population groups. Because of their simpler methodology, neighborhood-focused measures are sometimes used instead of person-focused measures, even if the latter is more appropriate.
One common set of person-focused measures are “access to opportunity” metrics, which calculate how many jobs (or how many high-quality jobs), grocery stores, parks, or other destinations a person can reach on public transit in a certain amount of time, or how many people have access to frequent transit service. Miami-Dade County analyzed its bus network redesign by measuring the number of jobs that the average person, average person in poverty, average person of color, and average person without a vehicle could reach on transit, before and after the redesign.
Travel diaries and Census journey-to-work data capture individual travel behavior and are common sources for person-focused measures. But they are biased toward commuting trips and long trips, a segment of all trips that people take and one in which wealthier people are overrepresented. Anonymized location data generated from smartphone apps captures trips of all purposes and distances. These location-based services (LBS) datasets can be merged with demographic data to measure how different groups of people travel, more completely and accurately than common sources. (However, there are concerns that they underrepresent older adults and non-English speakers who are less likely to have smartphones.) LBS datasets have not yet been applied to create person-focused equity measures; however both the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and Los Angeles Metro have created other measures with LBS datasets (these examples are discussed in the case studies).
Person-focused measures can convey impacts that neighborhood-focused metrics cannot. For example, while neighborhood-focused metrics can evaluate whether a new light-rail line improves transit access to jobs along the route, they don’t capture whether residents with low incomes are displaced as the area becomes desirable to more affluent people. Only person-focused measures can determine whether people with low incomes enjoy better access thanks to the new light-rail service.
Person-focused measures also capture the needs of communities of people that don’t map onto a defined geography. For example, focus groups conducted by the Portland Bureau of Transportation in Albina, a historically Black but quickly gentrifying neighborhood, convinced the department to move a planned bike lane off a street where many Black cultural institutions were sited. Planners learned that many Black Portlanders had been displaced from Albina, but continued to use (and drive to) the cultural institutions on the street. Qualitative engagement led planners to recognize the presence of a diaspora community.
Pillar 5: Create processes for the people most affected by agency actions to express their interests and influence agency decisions.
Advancing equity requires shifting some decision-making power to the people who will be affected. Public transit riders should have opportunities to influence transit agency decisions, transparency from the agency about why choices are made, and venues to hold decision-makers accountable.
Most transit agencies solicit public input in multiple ways, including open public comment at agency board meetings and public meetings and open houses to provide information and answer questions about specific projects and planning processes. By their nature, these typically fail to generate representative input from many riders or community members. Long meetings are challenging to attend for many people, and it can be unclear what impact public feedback has on decisions. Such meetings are often poorly attended, and when attendance is high it is often because organized interests have encouraged participation.
Agencies should seek public input in multiple ways:
- Surveys and mobile engagement (such as tabling at community events) that can gather input from a large number of people, but on a limited number of questions.
- Focus groups and facilitated discussion with community members, which can gather deep, nuanced input but which are not always generalizable.
- Formal advisory committees that allow community-based groups to provide input on plans, projects, policies, and budgets. At their best, these can allow for the development of lasting relationships between agency staff and community leaders.
However, it is critically important that transit agencies adopt culture and processes so that riders and community members have meaningful influence over agency decisions. It is self-defeating to improve engagement if agency decisionmakers regularly disregard public input. There should be an understanding within an agency that major decisions have not been truly “vetted” if staff have not conducted a high-quality engagement process. Community members who have been engaged should be told how their feedback was used, or why it was not.
Example: TriMet’s Transit Equity Advisory Committee includes representatives from 16 organizations working with transit-reliant populations, youth, community colleges, housing, and advocacy groups, as well as a TriMet board member (which ensures that committee members are heard by agency leadership). The TEAC meets monthly and allows TriMet to brief and get input on projects, initiatives, and studies that could influence the equitable provision of service. In 2020, 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.
Example: The Metro Transit Minneapolis Better Bus Stops program advanced procedural equity by providing funding to community organizations to conduct outreach, ensuring that participants reflected neighborhood demographics. Program managers communicated clearly how input was used to make decisions and made internal cross-departmental policy changes reflecting the lessons learned from the program. Importantly, the program also led to more equitable outcomes, by deliberately improving bus shelters in racially concentrated areas of poverty.