Fast, Frequent, and Fair: Public Transportation and Equitable Growth

Innovation can revolutionize transportation, but some things will never change.

Marlon Boarnet, chair of the Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis department at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, calls that “truism in transit.”

“If the transit system is working for the most disadvantaged,” he said, “it will usually be working well for everyone else.”

Embraced thoughtfully, new technology can increase transportation options for everyone. So how can city planners and companies ensure that transportation isn’t just growing, but growing fairly? While equitable access has always been the goal of public transportation, rapid growth in cities and an increasingly competitive market ensure that the route to reaching that goal is changing.

There were 35 million bike-share trips in the United States in 2017, up from 320,000 at the beginning of the decade, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials. In just seven months, scooter company Bird celebrated 1 million rides. Competitor Lime was raising money at a $1 billion valuation within 18 months of launch.

These successes represent more than just people embracing alternative methods of transportation — private-sector competition is growing in an industry once dominated by the state.

“Transit was a government market,” Boarnet said. “Now, we need to train people who can think of the private sector, the public sector and the interaction between the two.”

The shifting market is in part due to increased demand for efficient, accessible transportation in rapidly growing urban areas. More than 60 percent of Americans live in cities that take up less than 4 percent of the country’s total land area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 1950, 30 percent of the global population lived in urban areas, the World Health Organization reports. That is projected more than double by 2050, when two out of every three people will live in a city.

What Is Successful, Equitable Public Transportation?

“High frequency, reliability, and good service coupled with good first- and last-mile connections,” Boarnet said. “That will be fundamental, because if we can fix those problems we can really enhance transit effectiveness.”

For some of the nation’s biggest cities, the solution to public transit has long been metro and subway systems. Boston’s first subway tunnels were built at the end of the 19th century and are still in use.

When it comes to sheer volume of passengers, Boarnet said subway systems have the advantage, making them an economic driver in cities. For example, the 10 busiest subway stations in New York City each facilitate 20 million to 64 million passengers every year. The top three stations had more riders than the entire country’s bike-share systems in 2017. Still, subway systems aren’t enough on their own.

“There’s no major city that can get by with just one form of transport,” said Jemilah Magnusson, global communications director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. “Even if you have a great rail system or bus system running, then that’s great but not everyone is living along that corridor.”

The subway may cover the large gap in the middle, but how are passengers getting to and from the station? The first and last mile can be the most difficult parts of a commute for people who don’t live within walking distance of transportation services. Ride-sharing, bike and scooter services are taking off in a previously government-dominated space to facilitate the bookends of a commute.

USC Sol Price School of Public Policy mapped stations in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles to show where bike sharing increases metro access for people outside the existing corridor, and where it is additional access for people within it.

What Does Equitable Growth Look Like?

Equitable growth encourages community participation.

Physically reaching a community with transportation is not the only step in providing equitable options, according to experts.

Hana Creger, environmental equity coordinator at The Greenlining Institute, said equitable growth needs to be purposeful and specific to the needs of each community.

“There has to be, first, a community-driven mobility needs assessment, she said. “Before even developing their transportation plans and making decisions.”

The Greenlining Institute’s Mobility Equity Framework (PDF, 2.4 MB) outlines some best practices for providing transportation, specifically for low-income communities of color. It recommends utilizing community education and brainstorming to find the unmet needs of a particular area — what methods they need, where they need them and when — while ensuring that the community has access to the conversation itself.

Equitable growth includes support for people using new methods.

Planners need to consider not just what the people in a community want but also the most logical option for a specific space. Promoting clean, accessible methods like buses and bikes to facilitate the first and last mile are important, but it must be coupled with infrastructure support.

Are the sidewalks pedestrian-friendly, well-lit and clean? Are there designated spaces for bikers to travel safely? Are there bus lanes to help the flow of traffic and prioritize public transportation over single-occupancy vehicles?

Equitable growth utilizes technology intelligently.

Smartphone technology changed the transportation industry, enabling businesses to enter the market with little overhead cost and leverage existing infrastructure. It also puts the consumer in direct contact with the supplier, granting personal transportation access to anyone with a smartphone — something transportation experts advise cities to embrace.

“You really want to be able to work with new solutions as much as possible and not regulate them out of existence,” Boarnet said.

While innovation can bring transportation to more doorsteps, it also allows companies to disrupt public transportation options to meet their goals. Private corporations don’t work under the same regulations or structure as public departments, and so the same outcomes can’t be expected.

For cities that choose to incorporate new technology into their infrastructure, additional considerations can come up. According to the Pew Research Center, one-third of people earning less than $30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone, making some products unavailable. Technology that requires a credit card or doesn’t include multiple language formats can also exclude people from access.

“There’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution,” Creger said, but staying specific and purposeful can help meet the needs of all communities. “It’s critical that low-income households have access to affordable, reliable, safe and efficient transportation options.”

Share this on social media:

Facebook |   LinkedIn |   Twitter

Citation for this content: USC Sol Price School of Public Policy’s online Executive Master of Urban Planning program