In June, TransitCenter released the Transit Equity Dashboard. The dashboard uses maps and graphs to show how transit access varies by race, class, and other demographic factors in 6 major urban regions. TransitCenter Senior Research Associate Mary Buchanan led the development of the dashboard. In this episode, Mary explains the importance of access to opportunity metrics, and how these metrics can be used to measure equity. Mary also shares major findings from the dashboard, and explains how this type of data can bolster advocacy efforts for more equitable service. Ron Thompson is Policy Officer at Greater Greater Washington. Ron joins us to reflect on what the dashboard tells us about inequitable transit access in the DC region. In particular, he describes the East-West divide in the city, and how it affects access to hospitals for Black and Latinx residents.
In June, TransitCenter released the Transit Equity Dashboard. The dashboard uses maps and graphs to show how transit access varies by race, class, and other demographic factors in 6 major urban regions.
TransitCenter Senior Research Associate Mary Buchanan led the development of the dashboard. In this episode, Mary explains the importance of access to opportunity metrics, and how these metrics can be used to measure equity. Mary also shares major findings from the dashboard, and explains how this type of data can bolster advocacy efforts for more equitable service.
Ron Thompson is Policy Officer at Greater Greater Washington. Ron joins us to reflect on what the dashboard tells us about inequitable transit access in the DC region. In particular, he describes the East-West divide in the city, and how it affects access to hospitals for Black and Latinx residents.
“The data illuminates that in many US regions, the transit systems are providing more access to white people compared to people of color, while at the same time in those cities we know that the demand is much higher from people of color for transit.” - Mary Buchanan
To access the Transit Equity Dashboard, click here.
To view a video tutorial of the dashboard, click here.
For more on Greater Greater Washington, click here.
For more on TransitCenter, visit us here.
Hosted by Kapish Singla
Edited by Ali Lemer and Kapish Singla
Produced by TransitCenter
Music: “Comma” - Blue Dot Sessions
Disclaimer: Political views raised by guests on the podcast do not reflect the views of TransitCenter.
Kapish From TransitCenter, I'm Kapish Singla. This is High Frequency. In season two of high frequency, we're having conversations on how cities and transportation agencies are learning from past mistakes and remedying inequities in transit. How well does transit connect people to jobs, hospitals, schools? These are questions about access to opportunity or the ease with which transit allows people to reach important places in their lives. And it's these questions that TransitCenter's Transit Equity Dashboard answers through the lens of racial equity. Using maps and graphs. the dashboard measures how transit access and travel times vary by race, class and other demographic factors in six major urban regions. In most cities, the dashboard finds that white people can access more opportunities by transit than Black and Latinx people. In New York, for example, the average white resident can reach over nine hundred and fifty six thousand jobs by transit in forty-five minutes. By contrast, the average Black New Yorker can only reach five hundred twelve thousand jobs. These disparities reflect longstanding discrimination in both transportation and land-use policy. By measuring the results of past segregation, the dashboard can help transit agencies and local governments make better, more equitable decisions that close gaps in transit access. This episode is two parts. First, you'll hear my conversation with Mary Buchanan, Senior Research Associate at TransitCenter. Mary, in conjunction with several research institutions, develop the dashboard using general transit feed specification or GTFS data. Mary and I talk about why these metrics matter and how they improve on other transit metrics. And in part two, I interview Ron Thompson, Policy Officer at Greater Greater Washington. I speak with Ron of GGW about what the equity dashboard illuminates about D.C. transit system.
Kapish Mary, you've been a lead researcher working on an equity dashboard called Tracking Transit Equity in US Cities. Can you give us an overview of what that dashboard is?
Mary This dashboard measures how well transit networks in major U.S. cities connect people to essential destinations to them, the things that they need in their lives to thrive. So jobs, healthcare service, school, amenities, parks, et cetera. This dashboard looks at different metrics, like how many jobs can somebody get to within a limited time frame on public transit? How many jobs can they get to if they have a limited budget to spend on transit fares? The dashboard is illuminating existing disparities in access on public transit to essential destinations by measuring transit outcomes for different groups of people, including for Black people, Asian people, Latinx people, people living in poverty, and single mothers. We built this tool because this sort of metric that looks at how transit connects people to destinations, what I'll refer to as access to opportunity metrics have become newly possible because of advances in how transit agencies store and publish data on their transit service.
Kapish Mary, I want to take a step back to talk about Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which for decades has been the primary way transit agencies assess whether their networks are serving people equitably. Can you talk to us about how a Title VI analysis works and share some of the limitations of that process?
Mary The Federal Transit Administration requires that transit agencies complete a Title VI analysis before they enact a major change to their fare structure or their transit service. What the analysis requires is that transit agencies demonstrate that the proposed change does not have a disparate impact on people of color. But there are a lot of shortcomings in this guidance from the FTA. Fundamentally, the Title VI requirement is looking at identifying changes that might make the transit system less equitable and attempting to prevent those changes from being made. But it isn't really set up to identify changes that would make the system more equitable and encourage or identify and implement those types of changes. So it's almost assuming that a transit system is at baseline equitable, which is just not really the case. It's not set up to really push or advance equity.
Kapish And how would you say the Transit Equity Dashboard builds on some of the shortcomings of a Title VI analysis?
Mary Another big issue with Title VI is the analysis itself, which does a bad job of modeling at how people are actually taking transit. I refer to it as a proximity analysis because it's basically just looking at who lives close to where some change to the transit service is happening. Who lives near transit service can be quite different from who is benefiting from transit service. So if we think about how if I travel from my home on a bus and then I transfer to a subway to get to midtown Manhattan, if there's a change to the subway service near my job in midtown Manhattan, that would certainly affect me. But this proximity analysis is not set up well to evaluate kind of how that change is affecting me because I live far away from where the changes occurring. Our dashboard has population based metrics so that we're tracking outcomes for different groups of people, regardless of where they live. And understanding that people, regardless of where they live, are also traveling to different destinations around a region. It's really important to actually be tracking outcomes for population groups rather than for neighborhoods, because it feels obvious to say… But people are who transit agencies are serving and not neighborhoods. And so, you know, an equity evaluation should be looking at outcomes for people and different groups of people, including groups that have faced discrimination from transportation planning agencies in the past.
Kapish And what are some of the racial disparities that are shown? What does the data illuminate?
Mary The data illuminates that in many US regions, the transit systems are providing more access to white people compared to people of color, while at the same time in those cities we know that the demand is much higher from people of color for transit. People of color have higher rates of taking transportation, but are not being connected to opportunities to the same level that white people are. So one example that really struck me is in the Washington, D.C. region, our analysis found that the average white person in the region, so regardless of where they live, can access about two hundred and fifty six thousand jobs in forty-five minutes on public transit. And they have the best access of any group that we looked at, even though they are less likely to use transit to get to work than other racial groups are.
Kapish When someone is working with the maps in the equity dashboard, it's clear that some of the disparities are not just transit issues, that some of the disparities owe to discriminatory housing policies into land use practices. With that in mind, what do you think is in the realm and isn't in the realm of transit agencies to address?
Mary Public transit agencies do have some responsibility, for example, in reevaluating their fare policies that are potentially excluding some riders from accessing the really fast and direct regional rail networks or commuter rail networks. And so if transit is meant to be a connector to opportunity, but part of a transit system is too expensive for somebody to access. Then it's excluding people from that opportunity. Access to opportunity is inherently a reflection of the transportation system, which connects people from home to their end destination. But it's also a reflection of housing and land use policies that determine where people live and where those essential destinations are located. So a public transit agency cannot ameliorate all of these disparities that the dashboard shows on its own. There is responsibility on the part of cities to reevaluate racist zoning practices, to work with developers, to bring high density, mixed-use development to areas around transit stations.
Kapish What's your hope for transit agencies when they come across the dashboard?
Mary Our hope is that transit agencies themselves will catch on and conduct these analyzes themselves. The process that we took, the analysis that Dr. Karner and his team developed can be replicated by any transit agency that has a high quality GTFS data, which is most transit agencies, and the capacity to analyze census data, which is most agencies.
Kapish The dashboard is very quantitative and good quantitative data is so key to demanding accountability. How do you hope advocates use this tool?
Mary I think that this information is... It's not necessarily new to transit advocates who work hard to understand and amplify the needs of people in their communities. But the dashboard does provide, importantly, quantitative data points to identify those challenges that riders face. And often transit agencies and decision makers, not just at transit agencies, really respond to quantitative data points. So, you know, I hope that transit advocates are able to bring in this additional information to to strengthen their calls for better service and also to use this as a tracking system. We do have data going back to February of 2020 and we will continue to collect new data points in the future. And so hopefully if transit agencies respond to these findings or to calls from advocates by adjusting their service in ways that is meant to make service more equitable, this dashboard could help demonstrate if those changes are, in fact improving transit equity in the system.
Kapish Thank you so much for your time, Mary.
Mary Thank you.
Kapish Now, Part 2, we’ll take a closer look at one of the cities highlighted in the dashboard – Washington DC – to learn what local advocates took away from the data.
Kapish Ron, as part of your work, with GGW you convene the D.C. Transportation Equity Network, could you get us started by sharing your definition of transit equity?
Ron We have a difficulty, I think in American policy, of talking specifically about race. And so when we talk about equity, more often than not, we're talking about how do we craft a policy that achieves outcomes for Black Americans, for Latino Americans, for Asian Americans. How do we achieve reparative policy for communities that have been underinvested in, divested from, disinvested in if we're not starting from a place of “well this particular segment of our population had this very significant harm that was done by policy, that was done by private actors”…And here are the outcomes from that harm. To me, equitable or reparative transportation policy are policies that do several things: they bring resources and investments to those communities that I've talked about… whether it be Indigenous communities, whether it be Black communities. And also is the investment sustained. For example, we gave you a bus line. OK, well, are there other bus lines that we need to bring to this community?
Kapish in June 2021, TransitCenter released an equity dashboard, which includes maps and a story page for a couple of cities, including Washington, D.C. When you looked at the data and the maps in the dashboard, what was your reaction to some of the statistics?
Ron What's so interesting is like, the various filters or layers, for example, access to hospitals. When you look at the Washington region, I know exactly which hospital is where. And that is because on one side of the city…there are an abundance or what feels like an abundance of hospitals, largely most of the affluent and white residents of the Washington region live on this western half and on the eastern side is overwhelmingly Black. It is a high poverty ward. We only have one full service hospital, and it's set to close. So if you live on the eastern side, you're more likely to be Latinx or Black. You're more likely to live in poverty. If you live on the west side, you're more likely to be white and more like to be affluent and you have access to a world that for kids like me growing up, sounds like fantasy, being able to walk to a grocery store, being able to walk to bars and restaurants. And the dashboard really puts into picture that access disparity. The hospital dynamic is one of the strongest displays of the inequities in our region, particularly during the pandemic. Because access to health care was a determining factor in whether or not a person who contracted COVID-19 was able to survive. And when you have people having to make long treks on the bus or on the train to get to a hospital, to get to the emergency room, I think we saw in full detail over the last year and probably continue to see it as the pandemic persists… and until it subsides, you will see those disparities in the quality of life. And the transit dashboard helps to visualize those disparities.
Kapish Transportation planning, broadly speaking, does tend to focus on commute trips, which is, of course important to measure. But I'm wondering if you could expand on why it is important to be talking about access to these other essential destinations like grocery stores and health care and education?
Ron I think it’s important because those are measures of quality of life, access to healthy foods, access to health care. And those are services that are, oftentimes, their provision comes from the private sector. And so transit cannot do it alone because transit is a public service, is a public good. And it can only go so far in solving the issues of access to grocery stores like that is just one piece of the puzzle. And so while transit can serve a role and fill in the gaps until the time comes when there's the same level of abundance and access to health care and grocery stores, it is not a permanent solution. Because if you have thousands of people every day relying on bus service and yes, cities and counties and states can pay to provide this service and subsidize that service – it comes at a cost. And the question is: should the public bear the cost, both in terms of disparities in the quality of life that a person experience and the cost of discrimination? When we hear groceries, particularly large grocers, say, "Oh, we can't open up in this neighborhood because there is a high enough level of disposable income." And we know that income correlates with race in America. That is why seeing those disparities in access live and in color in the dashboard are important, because, again, transit can do a lot, but it can't do it alone.
Kapish What's the work that needs to be done?
Ron Transit was a bridge to opportunity for me. And I was able to attend schools outside of my neighborhood. I was able to see the city in a way that I think a lot of folks my age and from where I'm from didn't get a chance to see and experience. But I think no one sector of our public services can be the balm to our issues of inequality and the disparities of outcomes in our region, in America. And so when I say the dashboard, when I look at it, what does it help me see? It really shows the work that has to be done because we can do so much with transit. We can expand service, we can expand area coverage, we can introduce new routes. We can build new stations. We can, you know, we could do many things. But at the end of the day, I think in the context of the East-West divide, people on the eastern side should be able to have access to the stuff on the western side of the Washington region. But then I go back home to the places that don't have grocery stores and the places that don't have schools that are well resourced. And I think what we really need to be doing is how do we develop communities equitably? How do we expand access to capital so that people are able to start businesses. So I look at the dashboard and say the work that we have to get done, that's what I mean. But I do believe the transit is a catalyst for the changes that we have to make in policy. But it's really up to the elected officials, the appointed officials, to look at this data and figure out and be serious about what needs to be done. And it's up to advocates like myself and others to put the pressure on them to respond to what we've known for years, decades, to respond to this stuff in a serious way.
Kapish Thank you so much for your time, Ron.
Ron Thanks Kapish
Kapish You can find the Transit Equity Dashboard at dashboard.transitcenter.org. I'm your host, Kapish Singla. This episode was edited by Ali Lemer and Kapish Singla. High Frequency is a TransitCenter production. Learn more at transitcenter.org