Essays on People, Place & Purpose

Investing in What Works for America's Communities

Transit’s Role in Building Equitable Communities

by Admin

Transit is about more than getting people from point A to point B – it’s a way to connect people to jobs, education, health care, critical services and more. Transit agencies, planners, and community developers increasingly recognize that boosting access to transit is a powerful tool to increase equity and opportunity in low-income communities. It is a win-win solution for communities and for transit agencies to better serve their ridership—the majority of which are low-income people. This new way of thinking was a major theme at the Rail~Volution 2015 conference, an annual gathering of transportation and community development practitioners. Three innovative new strategies to encourage equitable transit systems garnered particular excitement at the event:

1) Make Fares Fair For All
Accessible transit requires thoughtful consideration of the financial limitations of low-income transit users and the ways they can (or can’t) pay for fares. Several pioneering cities are introducing low-income fare programs for families and individuals living below the federal poverty line, such as ORCA’s (One Regional Card for All) LIFT Program in Seattle, which uses data from the Affordable Care Act to identify and better serve low-income transit riders. Seattle relied on a county-wide system of organizations that enroll residents in health insurance, re-enlisting these organizations as partners to register people for ORCA LIFT. Another program, Transit Access Fund in Greene County, Ohio, distributes travel vouchers to low-income clients based on their job location. The program supports social service agencies in purchasing transit tokens to distribute to clients who would otherwise be unable to access jobs. Based on eligible trips, nonprofit social service agencies are then reimbursed half of their monthly purchased amount. Such programs improve mobility and increase opportunity for people facing financial barriers to transit.

2) Encourage Alternative Mobility Services That Are Truly Shared
It’s no surprise that shared transit options—such as bike sharing, car sharing and ride sharing—are becoming an increasingly important part of the discussion around the future of transit. Shared mobility services can act as valuable additions to a larger transportation network, making it easier for people to reach areas that aren’t well-served by public transit. Many advocates for these services argue that the increased flexibility they provide reduces the need for many people to own cars, saving families an annual expense of around $9,000 per year.

While these new approaches are promising, there is still a long way to go before all can share in their benefits. Most shared mobility services are privatized, and as such are not required or incentivized to serve low-income populations. Carniesha Kwashie from the Better Bike Share Partnership in Philadelphia shared her insights on strategies for ensuring shared mobility services are inclusive to low-income people; for example, allowing cash payments and representing low-income populations in outreach and marketing so they see themselves as part of the shared mobility movement. Advocates envision these services as an ecosystem rather than a competition between different providers in the future—a shift that can benefit underserved communities.

3) Use Data to Measure Transit Equity
Data is a powerful tool for social good and increasing equity. The Transit Equity Advisory Committee at TriMet, a public transportation agency in Portland, Oregon, identified several indicators for measuring an equitable transit system: coverage, reliability of transportation, access to services, frequency, physical accessibility, affordability, who it serves, and connection to opportunities. TriMet determines whether its practices are fair by conducting an “equity analysis” that assesses any fare change or major service change to identify potential impacts on minority and low-income populations. This requires evaluating for disparate impact, the potential effects on minority riders or populations as compared to non-minority riders or populations, and disproportionate burden, the potential effects on low-income populations.

Equitable approaches to transit-oriented development have the potential to benefit multiple stakeholders and in making sure that all residents have access to and are participants in strong and prosperous communities. Making equity a priority in transit is an exciting opportunity to form new partnerships and create ways to make our transportation systems work for the people they serve. Innovations in technology, data collection, and other new standards in transportation are rapidly changing the way we get around, and are important steps in creating truly equitable transit systems.

By Lourdes Vazquez and Amanda Salguero of the Low Income Investment Fund

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Investing in What Works for America’s Communities is a joint project of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Low Income Investment Fund.

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