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Six Steps to Make Racial Equity Your Transit Agency’s Priority

With the incoming administration having a key focus on racial justice, transit agencies will have to create more effective plans for racial equity in their systems.

by co:census / November 30, 2020
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Every $1 invested in transit systems can lead to $5 in economic output. This powerful datapoint showcases the importance of transit to economic justice. Transit systems relate to workforce opportunities, options for healthy food and access to education. Since the implementation of Title VI, transit agencies have conducted studies and implemented new policies to ensure people, regardless of their income or the language they speak, can have access to low-cost fares and be an active part of public engagement. Since then, cities have actively conducted reports for Title VI analysis but still require more wide-scale efforts to ensure that social and racial justice are woven into their practices.

“All transit agencies must grapple with committing the resources necessary to effectively identify inequity and address it. In 2020, the mandate to ensure an equitable transportation system is more urgent than ever.” - Mary Buchanan, senior research associate at TransitCenter.

As a policymaker, you can reduce disparities and improve equitable outcomes for residents with limited transit opportunities. By removing an unequal commute, you can increase equitable outcomes for residents in your city — and transit equity has a direct impact on racial justice. According to the Pew Research Center, “Among urban residents, 34 percent of blacks and 27 percent of Hispanics report taking public transit daily or weekly, compared with only 14 percent of whites”.

6 Steps to Designing a More Equitable Transit System

  1. Plan with consideration for housing affordability and improve access to and from affordable housing. According to The Urban Institute’s research and feature titled The Unequal Commute, “Transportation planners must consider that investments in transportation can sometimes cause increases in housing prices and gentrification, which can displace low-income communities.” They go on to cite several academic research findings in their report which, among other things, shed light on the connections between housing affordability and transit equity.

    Transit Center‘s publication titled Inclusive Transit: Advancing Equity Through Improved Access & Opportunity, also states that “Housing and transportation costs can together constitute more than half of household budgets.” The Housing + Transportation (H+T®) Affordability Index has determined that when transportation costs are factored into the equation, the number of affordable neighborhoods in the USA drops to 26 percent, resulting in a net loss of 59,768 neighborhoods that Americans can truly afford. Low income households are usually forced to move into more affordable housing in farther places, in order to afford the trains/buses that get them to the job(s) they need to live in the first place. If transit agencies aim to be more equitable, its success depends on addressing their undeniable correlation to affordable housing.

    Transit Center therefore recommends that transit agencies advocate for greater density, lower parking requirements and below-market rate housing in nearby developments when planning for a project.
     
  2. DOT’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program. According to the DOT’s website, The Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program “is designed to remedy ongoing discrimination and the continuing effects of past discrimination in federally-assisted highway, transit, airport and highway safety financial assistance transportation contracting markets nationwide.” However, a study by The National Academies Sciences Engineering and Medicine found that, as of right now, “DBEs identified by state DOTs and trade associations as successful represent a small share of total certified DBEs in the nation.”

    Therefore it is vital for the program to critically look at how it is planned for and operates. The success of DBEs could help ensure that an equitable share of federal transportation contracting funds are directed to women-owned and minority-owned businesses, which would then increase job opportunities for low-income individuals in the transportation construction industry.
     
  3. Collaborate with historically overlooked communities for deep and meaningful community engagement. Holding public meetings and calling it community engagement is not enough. Agencies should team up with existing civic and neighborhood organizations and activists on the ground to ensure those meetings are efficient. For example, the Maryland Transit Administration aims at involving the community in several ways. They run several advisory council meetings, which include everyday users, operate several community outreach initiatives and even have programs designed specifically for students and youth. The Boston Transportation Department hosted a mobile “Ideas on the Street” workshop in 31 neighborhoods to gather feedback and has been constantly engaging the community for its long-range transportation plan, Go Boston 2030. By including the community in these big decisions, public support and trust is earned, which increases the chances of a city having a more equitable transit authority.

  4. Decriminalize fare evasion. Rely on transit staff instead of police to handle routine fare enforcement. Armed police officers on public transit can intimidate riders. Therefore, Transit Center recommends using transit agency staff rather than police to conduct routine fare enforcement. They also recommend tracking enforcement data by race and income to guard against bias.
     
  5. Prioritize transit service for vulnerable communities. Presently, wealthy suburban interests are overrepresented in transit agency leadership. Although the property owners and investors interests should have a stake in decisions, they should not be the end-all. The users should also have a large say. There should be more investment into research for spatial analysis like this one, which can help to identify and target transit investment to high-need populations. This working population, who ride to and from work, are the lifeline of most businesses. Prioritizing their needs is not only a more equitable route, it is also business savvy.
     
  6. Participate in the Transit Equity Learning Lab. The Transit Equity Learning Lab learning curriculum includes a hands-on approach to collaborative learning for transportation leaders committed to uncovering equitable research practices and applying these within their agency’s model. Participate in four workshops, gather data for analysis and receive final insights reports to enhance your transit agency’s equity initiatives. Applications for the 2021 program open on Dec. 1 and close on Dec. 20.

You can start today by reviewing the co:census Transit Equity Learning Lab, an interactive curriculum with workshops held in collaboration with the Urban Institute and Bellwether Consulting. To get more information on the Learning Lab and apply, please visit here: https://cocensus.io/transit-equity-learning-lab/.


Article co-authored by Tiasia O’Brien and Janelby Ramirez.

Tiasia O'Brien is a third-time social entrepreneur with a decade of professional experience in leading strategic communications, fundraising, business development and public-private initiatives. She is the founder of Seam Social Labs, a mission-driven company working to empower disinvested communities. Seam Social Lab's survey tool, co:census (formerly Synergize Insights) is an inclusive survey and polling software pioneering the collection and analysis of public sentiments for organizations. Our SMS surveys are developed in up to 50 languages and our sentiment analysis provides deep insights on constituent needs, conditions and experiences to deliver transformational outcomes.

Tiasia's experience in working with community-based organizations and small businesses has given her deep insights into the complex nature of economic development. Academically, Tiasia is a qualitative research scientist with an Advanced Diploma in Data Analytics from NYU and an M.A. in Sociology from The New School, where she researched civic and community innovations to resolve social inequalities. Her research examines how models of civic engagement are working for low wealth communities. She coined the term, Civic Gap, which highlights the correlation between wealth and civic engagement. Her recent research focused on post-Great Migration Harlem in the early 1900s political engagement in Sugar Hill and Harlem Proper.


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