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Experts: Data, Community Trust Needed for Equitable Transit

Research has shown that the Citi Bike bike-share program in New York City is predominantly used by men. How can local areas ensure a public transit system serves everyone? Experts weigh in.

Bike share
For transportation systems — whether bike-share operations, scooter deployments or even public transit — to be equitable, they must serve a wide cross-section of the community, say researchers.
Since it was launched nearly a decade ago, the Citi Bike rent-to-ride cycle program in New York City has been used largely by men.

That’s a problem, as it means the mobility program is not serving a large swath of the population, said Sarah M. Kaufman, associate director of the New York University Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and an urban planning professor.

“If you look at who’s using a system, and it’s not representative of the city’s population in general, you can see that there’s clearly a disconnect,” said Kaufman on Wednesday during an equity discussion organized by the Open Mobility Foundation.

Kaufman added that it’s important to understand, study and advocate for equity in transportation, since many systems don’t do a good job of serving everyone in a community.

In the case of Citi Bike, the diversity of riders did increase during the pandemic when the bike-share became free for essential workers — many of whom happen to be women.

“Women overwhelmingly feel unsafe or experience harassment or assault on public transportation,” said Kaufman. “Those numbers are often much worse for women of color, women who are disabled and trans women. So these experiences leave women — who can afford to — to take alternative modes of transportation … which may or may not be safer, but there is a financial cost and an emotional cost for this experience."

Transportation equity has become a central goal for many local, state and federal transportation agencies. The goal is grounded in the belief that transportation systems should allow "all people, regardless of demographics and ability, to engage with society and get to the places they need to go, and get the services and goods they need,” said Stefanie Brodie, leading researcher at Toole Design Group and former research program specialist with the District Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C.

Achieving more equitable transportation systems requires a deep understanding of communities and access to rich data. Often officials are dependent on Census data, which isn’t always granular or nuanced enough to offer the insights needed to make equitable transportation decisions, researchers say.

“If you’re picking up children at school and then heading to the grocery store, does that trip count as child care, or does it count as errands?” said Kaufman, offering the sort of insight she’d like to see more of in data.

Without enough data, one can't know who's able to use a system effectively and how they use it. Kaufman suggested society needs well-established data standards that pick up on the nuances of how people travel.

This is where the hard, and important, work of community engagement comes in. And having a town hall isn't enough, according to Waffiyyah Murray, program manager for Better Bike Share in Philadelphia. Trust has to be established first.

“You’re building trust. You’re building a relationship with the community, and the residents, and the people that you’re looking to serve,” she explained. “It’s better to take the time to do the engagement and do the project effectively, than having to go back because you’ve done it wrong.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.
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