Urban Equity blogs

Adding Social Equity to Transit Metrics and Programs

Image via Toronto Transport Guy Flickr

Social equity was not taught in urban planning school back in day and has not been reflected in the planning, and let alone in the transit profession. All the while, I began to observe through readings and lived experiences. It is something that has frustrated me for quite some time.

Shin-pei Tsay was on the latest TransLoc Movement podcast episode where she recanted her lived experience growing up and what she visualized within the transportation world and in public spaces. One point with the podcast triggered my thoughts. While social metrics have not been part of the discussion regarding metrics, I look to the evaluation of transit projects and moreover performance metrics. In the transit world, these are service standards and guidelines.


Service standards and guidelines are policy documents at transit agencies that are meant to set performance metrics and evaluations for the good of improving service and implementation. Many of the metrics determine efficiency and effectiveness of operations as well as span of service and stop distances for service typology (ie bus rapid transit, industrial service).

Transit systems in the United States incorporate a Title VI Equity Impact Analysis. Title VI is similar to our Canadian Charters of Rights and Freedoms. The American Public Transit Association (APTA) held a roundtable to highlight peer agencies methods for performing an equity impact analysis. Several themes stood out:

  • No one size all approach for conducting an analysis
  • Various sources and data that agencies use to conduct an analysis
  • There are multiple tools agencies use to perform an analysis
  • Public outreach is a key component
  • Agencies may enhance their transit equity reports by integrating information and goals that go beyond the strict focus of Title VI
  • Spend time to define key terms because they shape the resulting analysis
  • If the analysis reveal a disparate impact , additional analysis and documentation are required.
(From Effective Practices in Title VI Transit Equity Analysis for Major Transit Service and Fare Changes p4)

Planning new services do consider the risks and rewards beyond the numbers. While many transit agencies do consult the public on service changes, many decisions are based solely on performance metrics and efficiencies. But more can and should be done says Zak Accuardi in Next City stated Title VI is broken and wrote how transit leaders can fix it. For now, transit compliance to any civil rights regulations and laws is deemed meaningless.

Ruble and Chenicoff summarize graduate school research (video below) on bringing a human dimension to transit planning equity and mobility.

Social Equity in Public Transit

Decision makers should strive to go beyond checking the box. Social equity has greater effects based on land use, income levels, and ability. There needs to be a human dimension to planning major transportation projects as well as providing bus service and fare programs. Equity has been an afterthought. Policies and procedures should be changed to address this.

For example, after evaluating service standards and guidelines utilized in several major municipal and regional agencies, only King County Metro in Washington State was the most progressive. Within their guidelines, King County Metro planners determine service levels by “scoring all corridors using six measures addressing land use, social equity and geographic value”. The measurements set to used to set service levels related to social equity include percent of boardings in low income tracts and percent of boardings in minority census tracts.

In Denver, they moved their Transit Equity Manager from the Civil Rights division to the Agency’s Transit Oriented Communities Division in the Planning Department. The ability to engage a wide array of stakeholders can provide benefits to the agency.

Transit agencies, their boards and elected officials must realize it takes multi-dimensional strategic thinking. It requires going over and above what is legislated to improve accessibility and mobility for those in communities of colour. It is the types of organizational moves in Seattle and Denver that promotes equity and inclusivity. Canadian transit agencies must recognize and follow suit.

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