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Transit Equity Starts at Home, Not in Washington

A federal law has done little to advance transportation fairness for low-income communities. Progress is up to local leaders.

People wait at a bus stop in Boston.
People wait at a bus stop in Boston.
(AP/Stephan Savoia)
Questions of fairness have always been central to public transit. Decisions about whether to raise fares or cut service or about the geography of transit expansion have enormous bearing on who has access to affordable transportation. But transit leaders often sidestep conversations about equity by pointing to their agency's compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which was signed into law 54 years ago.

Thanks to Title VI, the Federal Transit Administration requires recipients of federal transit funding to comply with a series of requirements that strive to limit negative impacts on communities of color. However, as we conclude in our recent report, "Inclusive Transit: Advancing Equity Through Improved Access and Opportunity," Title VI has done very little to advance transportation equity. It's a passive, malleable policy, the specifics of which are often left to the discretion of transit-agency governing bodies. This creates enough wiggle room for agencies to effectively render compliance meaningless, whether by malice or accident. As a result, projects that have a disparate impact on low-income communities of color can still receive a rubber stamp from the FTA.

In 2016, for example, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority cut its late-night transit service, leaving Bostonians working in third-shift industries without a transit option. Despite the fact that almost 60 percent of late-night transit riders were low-income and nearly 50 percent were people of color, this was deemed legally permissible because of the way MBTA conducted its Title VI analysis -- by examining how bus cuts would affect the entire population of Boston, not specifically the people who lived and worked near the routes being cut. And because legal challenges to Title VI violations generally require evidence of mal-intent, civic watchdogs in Boston had little legal recourse.

Federal law also hasn't kept transit agencies across the country from overspending on rail lines that serve small numbers of high-income suburbanites and airport travelers while underspending on transit for working-class urban residents. In 2009, for example, community advocates sought to stop the San Francisco region's Bay Area Rapid Transit from building a half-billion-dollar rail connection to Oakland's airport. They argued that the airport project was the wrong priority during the depths of the economic recession, when bus fares were rising and service was being cut throughout the Bay Area. Citing Title VI, the FTA blocked the use of federal stimulus funds for the project, instead directing them toward maintaining existing bus and train service. But this victory was short-lived; months later, BART's board of directors voted to use another source of funding to build the rail connector.

Across the country, progress on transportation equity is being made only when local leaders confront the issue. Leadership has come from outside advocacy groups and within transit agencies themselves. After the MBTA slashed late-night bus service in Boston, for example, the local advocacy group TransitMatters spent two years rallying against the cuts and developing an alternative plan. In September, the MBTA will debut a new "late night bus" pilot, informed in part by TransitMatters' analysis.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the same advocates who lost the battle of the Oakland Airport Connector proved successful in convincing BART to prioritize investment in areas where large numbers of people already rely on transit. This year, BART's board voted down a $1.6 billion rail extension to the affluent suburb of Livermore, preserving funds that can be used to modernize train service for all of the system's 400,000 riders.

The Seattle Department of Transportation has changed its processes and hired staff so that transit projects' impact on communities of color are kept in mind throughout planning and policymaking, not just near the end of a project. And San Francisco's Municipal Transit Authority has adopted a "service equity strategy" to increase light-rail and bus service in underserved neighborhoods.

Improvements to public transportation networks have enormous capacity to strengthen access to opportunities for people of color and residents of low-income communities. But Title VI requirements are simply not a sufficient tool for the job. Our most vulnerable communities will continue to lose out until more transit agencies start developing policies that prioritize equity in decision-making -- rather than simply checking a box.

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