UT research paper identifies six areas where transit agencies can bolster equity

July 16, 2021
The paper’s authors state there is a need to understand the broad range of approaches used by transit agencies to pursue equity-related goals.

A new paper published July 15 in the Transportation Research Record examines practices used by eight transit providers across the United States and identifies six categories that could be employed to advance equity within transit organizations, as well as within the communities they serve.

Alex Karner, assistant professor of community and regional planning at The University of Texas at Austin and the study’s lead author, with co-author and community and regional planning graduate student Kaylyn Levine, write in the paper that federal requirements to assess how changes in service or fares impact the community can be too general.

“Many of the established practices for understanding and advancing public transit equity focus on precise quantitative measurements that are disconnected from riders’ day-to-day experiences,” said Karner. “In transit, equity goes far beyond simply assessing how service is distributed. We wanted to lift up practices that agencies were using to create fairer and more just public transit systems.”

Karner and Levine examined practices utilized by Capital Metro in Austin; the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District; LINK Houston, an equity-oriented nonprofit organization in Houston; the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County; the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority; the Massachusetts Department of Transportation; Tri-County Metropolitan District of Oregon (TriMet) and rabbittransit, a rural transit provider in southeast Pennsylvania.

The agencies have deployed wider ranging approaches to equity and the authors write in the paper that comparatively little is known “about the broad range of these equity-advancing practices relative to the more common public engagement and quantitative assessments.”

The six practices studied for the paper include:

  • Establishing advisory committees to provide more formal, regular and specialized channels for public input than can be achieved through traditional meetings;
  • Partnering with advocacy organizations, which can overcome barriers to public involvement and include hard-to-reach populations;
  • Incorporating equity into capital planning to ensure that transit vehicles, maintenance and system expansions equitably benefit population groups;
  • Planning with other regional transportation agencies that are often a critical venue for equity-related conversations that cross regional boundaries, covering issues such as gentrification, housing affordability, commuter-oriented public transit and other issues;
  • Using ride-hailing and microtransit solutions, where appropriate, to facilitate public transit use and reduce gaps in service; and
  • Creating an equity culture by altering hiring, contracting and organizational practices to better weave equity principles throughout an entire agency.

The paper also assesses each method, offering insight into its limitations and opportunities by assessing real-world implementation as employed by the eight public transit organizations included in the report. A release accompanying the publication of the paper highlighted the successful work of TriMet’s “Transit Equity Advisory Committee” in advocating for a reduced-fare program and decriminalized fare evasion, as well as TriMet’s subsequent creation of a dedicated Department of Equity, Inclusion and Community Affairs to assist with its equity-related goals.

“At the end of the day, transportation equity is about fairness,” Karner said. “There are many ways that public transit agencies can pursue this goal. Our key result is that the agencies doing the most in this space have made it their mission to incorporate equity into all aspects of their day-to-day operations. And they are the most likely to succeed.”

The paper was completed in collaboration with partners at the Federal Transit Administration and a community advisory group assembled to provide input on the broader research effort. Free access to “Equity Advancing Practices at Public Transit Agencies in the United States” is being provided for a limited time.

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.