Editor’s Note. November 20, 2019. We updated this piece to include a downloadable version of the most recent report from Ride New Orleans on the state of transportation options in the city and surrounding regions. Unequal access to reliable transportation is still a major barrier to economic prosperity for low-income families, and cities across the U.S. are still working on fixes, which the report highlights.
Inefficient public transportation systems often leave many low income populations underserved, creating an inequality in access to transit resources and mobility. As a result, cities are updating their transportation policies to create a more fair and balanced system of services to all residents.
Inequality in Transit
A recent report from Texas Southern University discussed the subtle discrimination seen in public transportation systems across the country. While cities no longer segregate passengers based on race or other characteristics, the quality, efficiency and aesthetics of service amenities often vary greatly between low income neighborhoods and more affluent areas, Slate reported.
Many transportation projects are fueled by federal grants, which are filtered through state agencies and deployed at the local level. This can limit the amount of public input on transportation projects collected at the community level, leaving many feeling voiceless in how transportation is provided and improved. The study found discriminatory practices against poorer communities across the country, manifested in a variety of inequalities including:
- Access to transportation routes
- Exposure to air pollution from highways
- Quality of transportation resources
- Ability to reach jobs, education
In New Orleans, for example, a report from the non-profit Ride New Orleans (which can be reviewed and downloaded below) found significant gaps in wait times and the frequency of weekly bus trips between different neighborhoods in the city. The research suggests that inadequate access to high-quality public transportation could be inhibiting certain communities from recovering economically, The Times-Picayune reported.
In King County, Washington, officials are experimenting with a strategy to combat transit equality that goes beyond expanding routes and increasing trip frequency. The initiative will focus on pricing tickets based on passengers’ income levels, The New York Times reported.
As Seattle experienced a tech boom, many new jobs were created in the city causing property values and rents to skyrocket. In fact, between 1999 to 2012, 95 percent of new households in King County reported income levels either above $125,000 a year or less than $33,000. As a result, many workers were forced into outlying suburbs and rely on public transportation for commuting. To ensure these workers are still able to keep their jobs, public transportation had to remain affordable, The New York Times reported.
For public transit riders with a household income of less than 200 percent the federal poverty level Seattle is offering a discount on fares. Passengers on buses, trains and ferries in King County who qualify for the program will pay $1.50 per ride, marking a 50 percent savings. The program went into effect the same day the regional transit provider increased fares for the sixth time since 2008, The New York Times reported.
Officials project the program could provide more affordable services to around 100,000 King County residents. The county is collaborating with health clinics, community colleges, food banks and a variety of nonprofit organizations to enroll residents in the discounted fare program, The New York Times reported.
Learn about the state of public transit in New Orleans and surrounding areas:
Learn how other communities have paid for transit improvements: