6 Principles for a Transit System That Makes Your City More Fair and Just

If your transit agency is neglecting the basics of good bus service, it's failing to advance social equity. Photo: David Meyer
If your transit agency is neglecting the basics of good bus service, it's failing to advance social equity. Photo: David Meyer

Transit should be a great social equalizer. Owning, fueling, maintaining, and insuring a car is expensive. Transit fares are not. Buses and trains should provide good access to jobs, education, and all the stuff of city life for people who can’t afford the costs of cars.

In many cities, however, transit’s potential to advance economic fairness is held in check because resources are distributed inequitably. The racial discrimination of redlining is still etched into cities in the form of segregation, household wealth disparities, and public service provision. Unless policy makers intentionally set out to use transit as a tool of social equity, it can just as easily exacerbate longstanding racial and economic disparities.

In a new report, TransitCenter lays out six principles for transit agencies to be a force for social inclusion [PDF]. Here’s a summary of the recommendations.

1. Prioritize transit service for the people who need it most 

When transit agencies cater to well-to-do suburbs at the expense of poorer city neighborhoods, it’s a fundamentally unfair misallocation of resources. And it’s very common.

Commuter rail investments like the Long Island Railroad’s $12 billion East Side Access project shift resources away from high-ridership bus and train service to relatively low-ridership peak-hour rail service between office districts and affluent suburbs.

The particulars will vary according to the local context, and not every suburban belt is wealthier than the city core. But in many regions, suburban interests are overrepresented in transit agency leadership, skewing policy to favor well-off commuters from bedroom communities.

Decisions about major capital investment may also be dictated by property owners or other narrow constituencies whose interests don’t align with providing good transit to people who need it. In New Orleans, for instance, the RTA has prioritized expensive streetcar routes in central, tourist-heavy districts at the expense of bus routes that serve residential neighborhoods, resulting in clear racial disparities.

“More than 40 percent of white residents in New Orleans have access to frequent transit at rush hour or better, while only 20 percent of black residents do,” TransitCenter reports.

A map of segregation in New Orleans contrasted with a map of frequent transit service. Images via TransitCenter
Maps via TransitCenter

One agency that seems to be getting it right is San Francisco’s Muni, which has set out to improve transit access to jobs, health care, and food for neighborhoods with a large share of low-income residents or people of color.

2. Fair revenue, fair fares

Transit agencies also need to ensure fare structures don’t penalize poor people. TransitCenter recommends funding transit budgets with progressive sources of revenue to the extent possible. Property taxes, for example, are fairer than sales taxes.

For transit agencies that do rely on regressive revenue sources like sales tax, it’s all the more important to ensure that service works well for low-income communities.

Some American transit agencies are taking the further step of restructuring fares to give lower-income riders a discount. Seattle’s King County Metro, for example, runs a program called ORCA LIFT that offers people earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold a single-ride fare of $1.50, 40 percent less than the standard $2.50. Portland’s TriMet is launching a similar program this summer.

3. Plan and operate inclusively

Holding public meetings for the sake of checking off the “public engagement” box is not enough. To reach people who’ve been historically marginalized and may feel skeptical of the process, TransitCenter recommends that agencies team up with existing civic and neighborhood organizations to host meetings.

Some agencies have gotten more creative. The Maryland Transit Administration ran an “Info Bus” where staff could meet with riders and explain the redesigned bus system, BaltimoreLink. The Boston Transportation Department hosted a mobile “Ideas on the Street” workshop in 31 neighborhoods to gather feedback for its long-range transportation plan.

Sincere public engagement not only incorporates local knowledge to improve transit initiatives by tapping into hyper-local knowledge, TransitCenter says, it also helps increase public support for those improvements.

Transit agencies also need to be inclusive in recruitment and hiring. A 2007 review published by the Transportation Research Board found a dearth of women and minorities in transit leadership positions. TransitCenter recommends implementing racial diversity as a hiring criterion, especially for executive roles.

4. Plan for housing affordability

Transit agencies don’t control most of the land within walking distance of stops and stations, but they can still use their influence to prevent transit improvements from increasing displacement pressures on vulnerable communities.

TransitCenter recommends transit agencies identify where there’s a displacement risk — usually places that were historically redlined. Then, when planning a project, transit agencies should advocate for greater density, lower parking requirements, and below-market rate housing in nearby development.

Transit agencies should also resist the tendency to favor large rail-oriented capital projects — which can cause more upward pressure on property values — over bus service improvements.

5. Support construction jobs in low-income communities

When transit agencies are planning big construction projects, they should hire from local neighborhoods and give preference in contracting to minority- and women-owned businesses.

6. Decriminalize fare evasion

Heavy-handed enforcement of fare evasion can impose excessive punishment on riders.

A handful of localities and transit agencies have decriminalized fare evasion, including San Francisco and Cleveland. Decriminalization doesn’t mean that fare evasion is allowed, just that it is treated as a civil offense where the penalty is a fine, not a criminal charge.

TransitCenter recommends using transit agency staff rather than police to conduct routine fare enforcement. Having armed police officers on transit can intimidate riders and escalate into dangerous situations. TransitCenter also recommends tracking enforcement data by race and income to guard against bias.

  • JZ71

    It takes money to run a transit system. Two and six are at cross purposes to generating revenue, which, in turn, means less service, not more.

  • JoeyBaggs

    Right, but #6 would still imply a civil penalty. Not a criminal one. Traffic fines are civil penalties. Why discriminate against transit riders?

  • JZ71

    Primarily because civil penalties are harder to enforce. If a driver skips traffic court, they can lose their license. If a transit rider skips court, what’s the downside, to them? https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/traffic-enforcement-court-collections-continue-to-drop-in-post-ferguson/article_e289b576-7d5d-5b1e-a5ab-676561c1a848.html

  • djx

    You’re using Ferguson, MO, where the law enforcement basically viewed poor people as targets to shakedown (“ticket”) for revenue for the town, as an example?


    It’s right there in the article: “policing for profit.”

  • JZ71

    You’re not answering the question – if fare evasion is decriminalized, what motivation does a fare cheat have for showing up to court?

  • Eric

    7. Not one penny of sales tax (highly regressive) revenues should be spent on highways or other auto subsidies.

  • newtonmarunner

    For the most part, I agree with these suggestions — not that I’m a transit expert like Angie.

    I do think East Side Access — if integrated into the bus/subway network with integrated fare zoning, EMUs, high all-day frequency, etc. such that LIRR is a hybrid super-express subway/regional rail will make ESA worthwhile. Many in Eastern Queens and Hempstead will stand to benefit.

    I also think that in many cities — namely the legacy transit cities but also places like Baltimore, LA, Seattle — railstituting is seen as a capacity/operating efficiencies upgrade such as regional rail, Boston’s Green Line Extension, NYC’s 2nd Ave. Subway, etc. Where rail extensions become problematic is when they neither upgrade capacity nor operating efficiencies or preclude projects of greater transportation value. DC’s H St. Streetcar, DeBlasio’s BQX, Cuomo’s Backwards AirTrain, Boston’s South Coast Rail and South Station Expansion, LIRR’s 3-tracking the Main Line from Floral Park to Hicksville, BART’s Extension to Barryessa, etc. are all examples of negative transportation value projects.

  • FlamingoFresh

    Public transit across the US is not for profit. It’s for providing a service and often subsidized. If you ‘re against reducing a fare for someone who does not have the income or any other option to get around because it results in smaller returns then you’re not operating with the correct mindset. It’s providing a basic service of mobility for individuals at an affordable fare.

  • JZ71

    Most transit services are already heavily subsidized, to the tune of 80%+. When a person pays a $2.50 fare, they’re receiving $12.50 in actual value/cost. That other $10.00 is already being picked up by the taxpayers. If you think that public transit should be free, or that the subsidy for all riders should be greater, let’s have that discussion. But, no, just being “poor” should not entitle to you to even more subsidies, a bigger discount than every other rider. The fares are already very “affordable”, and cheaper than any other option, other than biking or walking.

  • JZ71

    Look at any transit system’s operating budget. They receive $X in revenue each year and are able to operate Y hours of service. They have to pay for fuel, tires and maintenance. They have to pay their employees.
    It’s pretty simple, less revenue = less service. The ONLY way to reduce fares AND maintain (or expand) service is to get more money from the taxpayers!

  • kastigar

    How does the fare cheat get to court? Public transit?

  • Sar Wash

    Absolutely wrong. People who are willing to work, save, and pay more should have better amenities than those who do not. Areas with high tourist need should have more services than those without the need. Sales taxes are much more fair and broad-based than property taxes as property taxes unfairly targeted homeowners, who are already contributing more to the community. We MUST crackdown on fare evaders; they are thieves who undermine the existence of transit and should be in prison. Poor people should be encouraged to live where they can afford, not to seek subsidies from taxpayers.

  • Sar Wash


  • Wanderer

    With a few exceptions (high priced BART, New York City) American transit agencies get much less than half of their operating costs from fares. None of the capital costs are covered by fares. There are places–like San Jose–where fares cover less than 10% of operating costs, and it’s questionable how much the agency is netting above the cost of fare collection.

    Most transit agencies need fare revenues. But the main revenue issue for most agencies is taxes not fares. I don’t see this as a problem–transit is a public service that deserves public support like non-revenue generating parks, libraries, or schools.

  • Eric

    Sales taxes are much more fair and broad-based than property taxes as property taxes unfairly targeted homeowners, who are already contributing more to the community.

  • Alan

    You know renters pay taxes too, its just a pass through in their rent. Local residents should pay some share of the cost of the local transportation system though probably not the majority. A combination of dedicated sales tax, property tax/general revenue, and fares is appropriate.

  • FlamingoFresh

    Or they can spend less money subsidizing highways and roadway expansions for cars.

  • JZ71

    In many areas, “they” are two different entities, with two separate budgets. Rarely is it easy to shift funds from one budget to another.

  • Sar Wash

    In theory, the cost of property taxes and parcel taxes should be passed fully, efficiently, and automatically from homeowners to renters. In practice, this cannot happen at all in some cities (due to rent control and other anti-homeowner laws) and happens only to a degree even in cities with fair laws. A lease is often written for one or two years, so there is a lag in how quickly you can pass on costs to renters. This is why property tax increases often cause foreclosure, bankruptcy, displacement, and economic recession. We really need a nationwide ban on rent control and on limits in the ability of landlords to increase and adjust rents.

  • Sar Wash


  • Kurt Oehlberg

    People that work, save and pay more overwhelmingly do receive more services. Actually, they receive almost all of the services because they have easier access and greater influence with their representatives.

    Property taxes favor the wealthy and the poor in most cases when it comes a city’s ability to increase revenue (gentrification being the biggest factor that hurts those at the bottom of the income scale). The wealthy can pick-up their phone and call those that determine property tax rates while increasing the tax on those at the bottom it has the possibility of leading to foreclosures.

    There are very few fare evaders. I am not sure what the penalties are but they must be severe enough that the issue is not rampant. Public transit, is public because it relies on the support from taxpayers. What we really need is a tax on motorized vehicles that could be used for public transit. They take up too much space and sit dormant most of the time. Philadelphia’s infrastructure was built for horse and buggies not for cars and trucks.

    Lastly, “poor people should be encouraged to live where thy can afford, not seek subsidies from taxpayers”. I will give you the benefit of the doubt and presume you didn’t think this through very well. The poor overwhelmingly live where they can afford to live, as does everyone else, they just have fewer choices. What type of encouragement do you suggest? Plenty of social science studies have shown that the environment (neighborhood setting) you grow up in impacts your happiness and health outcomes, not to much earning potential.
    No one chooses to be poor (ok, very very few).

  • Kurt Oehlberg

    Hahaha! Why is it wrong?

  • Kurt Oehlberg

    Actually, the third option is to increase efficiency. This may mean cutting some low performing workers, changing routes, using electric vehicles…etc. These are just possible options not necessarily the right options. I do not know how much the state of PA contributes to SEPTA but given the percentage of income tax derived from the economic activity in Philadelphia, it probably is not inline.


How Transit Pays for the Automobile’s Sins

Tony Dutzik is a senior policy analyst with the Frontier Group. An op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post by three professors of urban planning rained on the parade of transit advocates celebrating a new 57-year high in transit ridership. Ridership, the authors wrote, has actually fallen on a per-capita basis since 2008 (as has driving, by the way), as well as outside […]

Transit and Equity Advocate Stephanie Pollack to Lead MassDOT

Stephanie Pollack was one of the first transportation experts who made a serious impression on me. A few weeks after I started working at Streetsblog, at my first Rail~volution conference, she gave a presentation on the complex relationship between transit, gentrification, and car ownership. Her energy, intellectual rigor, and passion for social justice were apparent […]

Should Public Transit Agencies Strive for Profitability?

The fact that transit agencies require public subsidies is often held up by conservatives as a sign of their inferiority to other modes of transportation. But what if we could eliminate the need for a transit subsidy altogether? David Levinson, a.k.a the Transportationist, recently proposed doing just that. His suggestion, in a nutshell, is simply […]

Jarrett Walker: Empty Buses Serve a Purpose

Most transit agencies have been through some version of this scenario: In one part of the city, buses drive around stuffed like sardine tins, while elsewhere they can be all but empty. Car drivers mock the empty buses in low-density parts of the city. Some elected official picks up the banner, demanding that the transit […]

Finding Effective Arguments for Funding Mass Transit

How much should passengers pay for mass transit? What with the financial woes of transit systems around the country, it’s been a hot topic. Today on the Streetsblog Network, we’re looking at the question from a couple of different angles. First, Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic looks at the role of mass transit in […]