Why Do Public Transit Systems Ignore the Poor?

Transportation planners have a tough time getting effective metrics for the social equity of their systems.
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(Photo: kwarz/Flickr)

(Photo: kwarz/Flickr)

On Tuesday, Uber announced that it would start sharing data with the City of Boston. The ride-share service will provide quarterly, anonymous data on trip duration, general locations, and hours of ride requests with city officials. These figures will help officials plan roadway projects, analyze traffic patterns for new housing, and generally assess how Boston’s growth is impacting day-to-day driving.

That’s all well and good—and in a planning-progressive city like Boston, this could do wonders—but in a larger context, if Uber is to start sharing driving data, city officials have to more proactively integrate that information into development practices that offer those services to all types of people. Despite all the planning and grandstanding, most cities aren’t all that great at following through on their social-equity plans.

If Uber is to start sharing driving data, city officials have to more proactively integrate that information into development practices that offer those services to all types of people.

A recent study in Transport Policy supports this assertion. Researchers combed through transportation plans from 18 cities in the United States, looking at how often transportation plans include measures to provide better access to essential services for disadvantaged neighborhoodsalongside the usual environmental and economic goals. Their findings show that there’s still work to be done here.

“So many cities are trying to involve different aspects of sustainability to spur economic growth,” says Kevin Manaugh, a geography professor at McGill University, in Canada, and lead author on the study. “Almost all of them have wide goals about how the infrastructure should be equitably distributed, but then nothing is really measured, because there isn’t a clear target for performance measure for many plans.”

Part of the problem, he says, is that a social-justice agenda—is this community being fairly served through public transportation?—is somewhat more difficult to monitor than something like highway congestion or bicycle safety. But Manaugh credits cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and, yes, Boston, for implementing transportation policy that has clear and quantifiable social-equity goals. For example, San Francisco policymakers specifically laid out plans to improve access to low-income job centers, as opposed to simply playing to the booming industry centers.

Manaugh’s study did not investigate the agents powering this innovative approach to transportation policy. “I don’t know how much is the goodwill of the planners, or how much is the advocacy groups,” he admits. Also important to note: There’s a chance that some of these cities could be more even-handed than the results show if they don’t explicitly state their equitable objectives in city plans. But that's just not allthat likely.

“In terms of being able to measure data," Manaugh says, "surveys on trains or buses can get a lot of information about who’s being served and who’s not being served using simple mapping and census data, so that people who are less well off have access to the same economic opportunities.”

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