The transportation industry has been on the front lines of COVID-19 disruptions and the emergence of new travel patterns. The pandemic’s impact, however, has been distributed unevenly across different sectors and demographic groups. Inequalities embedded in our transportation system have become clear to many observers, as has the important stabilizing role played by public transit agencies.37
Throughout the worst surges and business closures, these agencies provided critical access to mobility for millions of “essential workers,” often low-income and minority travelers, who continued to report to hospitals, grocery stores, warehouses, and other critical sites daily. The situation highlighted new opportunities for transit and mobility agencies to address broader societal challenges, from growing transportation insecurity to the looming impacts of climate change on vulnerable populations and society at large.
To achieve a sustainable post-COVID-19 recovery while meeting equity goals, transportation agencies should make a strategic commitment to real change. Holistic, multimodal approaches can advance these objectives—and should be accompanied by meaningful performance metrics to measure success and guarantee accountability.
A renewed focus on equity
Equitable transportation systems offer travelers fair access and opportunities, eliminating historical and systemic barriers. True equity includes physical accessibility, of course, but also the types of destinations available to travelers and the freedom to use modes that best fit their abilities and preferences. People today have more mobility options than ever before, and public agencies can play a critical role in ensuring these options benefit all travelers.
There’s a business case to be made for prioritizing equity in transportation. A Harvard study found that low-income communities with greater access to jobs within a 15-minute commute have higher upward economic mobility.38
The federal government’s Justice40 initiative directs federal agencies—including the US Department of Transportation—to collaborate with states and local communities to deliver at least 40% of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.39 IRA includes US$3.2 billion for the Neighborhood Access and Equity program to improve walkability, safety, and affordable transportation projects. DOT’s Reconnecting Communities Pilot program will provide US$1 billion over five years to reconnect communities that were previously cut off from economic opportunities by transportation infrastructure. This focus, when combined with new funding opportunities, makes the case for pursuing inclusive mobility innovations more compelling and more urgent.
The federal government has provided several tools to help identify communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution, including EPA’s environmental justice screening and mapping tool, EJSCREEN; the Council on Environmental Quality’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, CEJST, which provides socioeconomic, environmental and climate information at the census tract level; the Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) Areas of Persistent Poverty and Historically Disadvantaged Communities map; and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s Environmental Justice Index (EJI), which measures the cumulative health impacts of environmental burden.
For its part, DOT has developed an agency-specific definition of “disadvantaged community status.”40 Among common tools used in DOT discretionary grant programs are the Transportation Disadvantaged Census Tracts, which can be used to map project areas to determine levels of disadvantage according to DOT’s Justice40 definition. As Christopher Coes, DOT’s assistant secretary for Transportation Policy, says, “What we now have is the government finally asking the fundamental question of the data that we have: How do we take X number of census tracts that have been designated as disadvantaged and move them to [becoming] thriving American communities?”41
At the state level, the California State Transportation Agency’s Climate Action Plan for Transportation Infrastructure outlines several strategies, frameworks, and action steps. For instance, Caltrans, the state transportation department, is developing an equity index to measure transportation plans’ impacts on various demographic groups.
Caltrans has also sought community and stakeholder input on the environmental, accessibility, and socioeconomic indicators it uses to evaluate transportation projects. This process allows stakeholders to share data and evaluate projects from a health and equity perspective by layering and weighing indicators from disparate sources, such as nonwhite and/or Hispanic population percentage, concentration of diesel particulates and incidence of traffic fatalities and injuries. Its intent is to prioritize projects with the most significant social equity benefits.
Until the 1960s, most sidewalks in America lacked a “curb cut,” that tiny slope that seamlessly connects the sidewalk to the street. Curb cuts were scarce until wheelchair activists took protest signs and hammers to sidewalks around the country. Such actions created positive change for everyone who uses sidewalks.42
To ensure that everyone with a stake in the outcome is intentionally included in the design process, leading jurisdictions are spearheading more inclusive and collaborative approaches.
In 2018, the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization (Broward MPO) in Florida started developing a process to evaluate its plans more consistently and comprehensively against Title VI and other federal and state nondiscrimination policies. The goals of this assessment included greater consistency and efficiency in planning as well as more meaningful community outcomes and the proactive identification of potentially adverse impacts. “We wanted to assess equity at all levels of the project life cycle,” says Peter Gies, the agency’s systems planning manager. “We knew that looking at equity through just one lens doesn’t give the full picture.”43
To perform the evaluation, Broward first analyzed demographic data to identify areas with a higher proportion of populations protected under federal nondiscrimination laws as part of a broader environmental justice process.44 This process was complemented by engagement with entities including with Broward MPO’s Citizens Advisory Committee, which provided fact-checking to confirm or refute quantitative findings. The assessment mapped specific “equity areas” in the region, as defined by a composite equity score that can be used to accommodate planning efforts across a variety of regional agencies. The tool is designed to be iterative so that it remains flexible to community input and feedback.45
Balancing equity and innovation
Transportation agencies across the nation are implementing a range of strategies to balance equity and innovation, keeping mobility ecosystems functioning and accessible while encouraging modernization. Successful efforts can be models for government leaders aiming to put principles into practice.
Serving a sprawling 700 square miles, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), faces different challenges than its counterparts in more dense regions, as it must address the needs of constituents in comparatively remote areas while serving a total population expanding faster than its transit infrastructure. DART looked to private transportation companies to fill the gap. In 2018, it launched a pilot first mile/last mile (FM/LM) partnership with Uber to explore ways to increase system access, ridership, and efficiency. The agency has integrated the program as a booking option in its GoPass app, making riders eligible for reduced Uber fares due to their presence in a designated on-demand FM/LM service area.
Needless to say, app-based services cannot be accessed by riders lacking ready access to smartphones, credit cards, or banking abilities. Not to mention those who are simply uncomfortable with new technologies. DART, therefore, needed to find a way to work with private partners to integrate new mobility technologies in a way that would provide FM/LM service to all potential customers. The agency now allows riders to book rides by phone and use multiple payment options, such as loading cash payments into the GoPass Mobile App through retail partners. According to DART’s chief innovation officer, Greg Elsborg, “We’re working to make sure cash-paying customers continue to have the same ease of experience as riders with digital payment methods, and we’re exploring additional opportunities such as upgrading our ticket vending machines to accept cash as well as cards to add digital account balances to our GoPass Tap Cards and Mobile App.”46
A regional approach for equitable innovation
As travel patterns continue to evolve, transportation agencies must reevaluate their plans and methods to keep pace. To reach a consensus on scalable solutions in the long term, transportation agencies should explore integrated and iterative near-term approaches at the regional level, powered by collaboration across the web of ecosystem partners. Local agencies that engage directly with riders can build trust and support for transportation initiatives, while regional agencies can tie together local outcomes to serve broader goals including equity.
The private sector is a key player in mobility innovation; commercial disruptive business models like ride-hailing have highlighted transportation agencies’ inability to adapt quickly to market demands. Ride-hailing companies, for example, owe some of their success to public transportation’s failure to meet the need for rapid, flexible, on-demand service.
Where should public transportation leaders begin in aligning the vast ecosystem of mobility players to address equity, climate, community, and public health concerns? First, they should align their vision and goals for their regions and cultivate support for them. To understand communities’ mobility needs and challenges, it’s important to include leaders whose organizations engage directly with constituents. Next, leaders should evaluate the roles and space between transportation agencies in their regions, understanding which are best positioned to develop and deliver innovative mobility solutions. Finally, regions should move to sustainable funding models, identifying the shortcomings of current structures and finding ways to eliminate them in future initiatives.
Ultimately, technology alone can’t solve the transportation challenges our communities face; the future of mobility will require a transformation of government processes and a better approach to regional transportation planning and management. A functioning, equitable mobility ecosystem demands support from regional and local agencies, private partners, and the community of users.