For workers in Lansing and Nashville, car-centric cultures have helped limit job accessibility via public transit. Even though the Capital Area Transportation Authority in Lansing offers bus routes and paratransit throughout the urban and rural areas of the metro region and the city was the first to adopt a non-motorized plan, suburban low-wage workers without a car still lack access to jobs concentrated in the central city. In Nashville, rapid population growth has increased traffic congestion, but a local belief that public transportation is unsafe has made new investments challenging.
Transit-dependent workers in Seattle and Baltimore have relatively high access to jobs via public transit. The Seattle region has one of the largest public transit systems in the country and therefore has relatively high access to jobs for low-wage workers via transit both during the day and at night, but region-specific challenges still pose issues for low-wage workers. In Seattle, a surge in its high-income population has created a lack of housing affordability near transit-rich areas, and in Baltimore, residential racial and income segregation makes connecting residents to amenities and opportunity points a challenge.
Our region is growing so fast... It’s a car culture so there’s a reluctance to pay more in taxes even though we are one of the lowest taxed areas, for our population, in the country.
Transportation advocate, Nashville
Some municipalities are considering new mobility technologies like ride sharing for flexible transportation services to serve low-income, transit-dependent late-shift workers. Others have expanded routes to serve late night and early morning workers, like King County and Seattle who partnered to create the “Night Owl bus service.” Although each region’s characteristics will define what improvements are needed, more services like these can ensure that late-shift workers have a safe, reliable way to get to work.
Increasing access to public transit is also important for people with disabilities, who are often transit dependent. Adults with disabilities are twice as likely to have inadequate transportation as adults without disabilities, and transportation challenges cause over half a million people with disabilities to never leave their homes.
Across our four metro regions, very few transit agencies reported any information on wheelchair accessibility, and planners in each region reported that paratransit users felt restricted by the prescheduled pickups and wait times. More information is needed on the accessibility of transit systems because without it, local stakeholders will struggle to identify where investments are most needed.
People of color have less access to safe and affordable transportation
A history of racist planning and policy has shaped the contemporary US transportation landscape, starting with the rise of automobile ownership and the mass construction of federally funded interstate highways beginning in the 1950s. The federal government also subsidized the creation of the suburbs around that time, allowing white households to drive to jobs in the city, while income disparities and racially discriminative lending practices, such as redlining and racially restrictive covenants, restricted home purchase choices for many Black Americans.
Highway construction and ongoing urban renewal efforts from the 1930s to 1970s destroyed and displaced many Black neighborhoods, increasing segregation, isolation, crowding, and clustering of communities of color. In the early 2000s, the gentrification and influx of high-income residents back into many city centers subsequently pushed many low-income residents into car-dependent suburbs.
The residential patterns defined by structural racism are still prevalent today, and the wealth differences between people of color and white, non-Hispanic people give white residents increased housing choice, the ability to live in neighborhoods with higher-quality schools and resources, and a higher likelihood of car ownership. To understand how these disparities affect transportation equity, we looked at gaps in access to jobs for each of the four metropolitan regions broken down by race and ethnicity.
In Seattle and Baltimore, white, non-Hispanic residents are underrepresented in neighborhoods with high spatial mismatch, while Black and Hispanic residents are overrepresented. Displacement of communities of color to the suburbs in Seattle and patterns of racial segregation in the urban core of Baltimore could drive these disparities.
In Nashville and Lansing, the racial composition of high spatial mismatch neighborhoods largely reflect that of the region. Nashville’s large concentration of people of color in the central city where mismatch is the lowest may drive this uniformity by counteracting other factors that lead to worse access generally, whereas Lansing’s representativeness across neighborhoods may be driven by lower rates of racial segregation than most other cities.
Better data are needed to help increase transportation equity and access to opportunity
To some communities, particularly those who have been historically victimized by the transportation planning and decisionmaking process, the transportation system can be viewed as a weapon pointed directly at them.
Anthony Foxx, former secretary of transportation
Civic and community leaders across each of our case study regions told us that equity is rarely at the forefront of decisionmaking; when it is, there is a lack of data to support policies that challenge the status quo. Without quality equity data, local leaders often end up prioritizing routes with high ridership instead of ensuring equitable service for all. Local leaders need data to help make difficult service decisions, and organizers and advocates need data to hold those leaders accountable to improvements in equity.
But data should not be the only input into decisionmaking. Metro-area leaders should make transportation and land use decisions through deep and meaningful community engagement, consulting historically overlooked communities of color, immigrants, and low-income households long before policies are proposed and at every stage of decisionmaking after a policy’s inception.
Transportation policies can help reduce disparities in access to opportunity, but only if they are implemented with equity at the forefront. With these data and with meaningful engagement, communities can hold their leaders accountable and ensure that they center equity in transportation and land use decisionmaking.