Service Equity Analyses

As part of network redesigns and service changes, questions naturally arise about the impacts on and benefits for a community’s most vulnerable members: lower-income residents, young people, minority or immigrant people, the unemployed, and others.

JWA has developed cutting-edge analysis and visualization tools to help agencies and stakeholders understand the potential impacts of a bus network change, especially on vulnerable people.

Many countries are seeing a rising concern with equity in the broadest sense:  How is the public transit network serving marginalized or excluded groups in society? In the U.S., this is often part of a Title VI Service Equity Analysis, though we go farther with the inquiry and the analysis than what is required by Title VI.

JWA has helped clients build trust with diverse groups of stakeholders, by offering transparent and clearly-explained analyses of service proposals. JWA has also helped agencies with outdated or confusing Title VI policies revise them, so that their policies reflect local values and clearly relate to the outcomes people in their community care about.

What Can a Transit Agency Distribute Equitably?

In transit planning conversations it helps to start by clarifying what, exactly, a community wants to distribute equitably.

There are three common answers to this question: Things, Services, and Access.

Many things need to be distributed equitably, like bus shelters, lighting, and other infrastructure.  People benefit from those things being in their neighborhood or along their trip.  But sometimes the right infrastructure improvement for one area isn’t useful in another, because the needs are different.  For example, if a wealthy part of town has a streetcar, it’s easy to say that a disadvantaged area should have a streetcar too.  But the streetcar may not be what the people there need or value.  Jarrett explores this common problem here.

Service should also be distributed equitably, and to measure that we calculate how much public transit a neighborhood has.  How far is the nearest bus stop from you? What kind of transit vehicle serves the stop? These measures are common in U.S. Title VI civil rights analyses. When JWA does these analyses, we always include measures of how frequently service comes, and how many hours and days it is offered.  But even with those additional considerations, the mere presence of service nearby doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s useful.  You could have service that only goes in circles, or doesn’t connect with other routes, or doesn’t take you to job centers, health care or markets.

We must measure not only the equitable distribution of things and services, but also about of access.  How many useful destinations can someone get to in a reasonable amount of time?

This describes people’s access to work, study, shopping, health care, worship, social connections, and the other actions that make a full life. When we measure this we’re not just measuring policy outcomes or feeding a forecast about transit ridership.  We’re measuring transit’s ability to give people freedom and choice in their lives. More about this measure is explained on Jarrett’s blog here.

JWA has devised ways to use access analysis to evaluate transit equity.  We’ve done fine-grained studies of access to places people value: grocery stores, for example, or medical enters.  To be sure we are describing access fairly for all kinds of trips, we capture details like timed connections between infrequent buses or different speeds for different transit lines.

Transit can be used to improve vulnerable people’s access to opportunity, counteracting decisions that have put those people farther from opportunities, such as in the case of Black Americans who have been prevented from settling in transit-efficient neighborhoods by past policies of racial discrimination. We’ve examined how transit can contribute to improving equity or restorative justice, in the larger context of spatial inequity, and in concert with economic development and housing reforms. This has been an important part of our work in highly-segregated U.S. cities like Miami, Richmond and Dallas.

In many of cities where we work, we are joining a conversation about historical or current injustice. People are demanding a more just or equitable city, and want the transit system to be part of that change.  We work from the question, “What can your public transit agency do to address these problems, and how should we measure the results?” Public transit agencies can provide things, services and access to improve equity outcomes, and JWA helps them plan and measure the results.

Measuring transit’s results using access analysis is a fairly new technique, and it is not yet well embedded in federal regulations, agency practices, or journalism. And yet it often seems to be exactly what people are asking for – a description of how transit could offer freedom and opportunity to vulnerable people across our unequal cities and societies.