Virginia Tech® home

Rethinking the Challenge of Transportation Equity



Authors as Published


Cities across the United States are experimenting with a range of transportation and mobility concepts to improve the accessibility and delivery of transportation services. Nevertheless, securing equitable access for all to these modalities remains a fundamental challenge for transportation organizations, planners and policymakers. Ensuring transportation equity includes addressing unequal and inadequate access to quality, reliable, safe and affordable transport options. A lack of accessible transportation alternatives can limit people’s ability to take advantage of job opportunities, healthcare, social activities and affordable housing. In most American cities, exclusionary zoning policies and land use practices, in tandem with inequities in transportation services, make it hard for poor or low-income individuals, especially racial minorities, to obtain adequate housing, jobs and other opportunities. Even so, rapid technological innovations are currently transforming transportation and responsible public officials must rethink how they approach issues of diversity, equity and inclusion as a result. This essay explores past and current forms of transport inequities and provides suggestions concerning how to address them.

Discrimination in Transportation

From the design of the built environment in cities to how policies are intertwined with planning practices, the exclusion of minorities in housing and transportation is systematic and deep-rooted. The history of transportation, particularly, in the United States has been characterized by discrimination against minority groups. For example, the refusal to treat African Americans as equals to their white counterparts, in the Southern United States especially, long relegated Blacks to segregated sections of public buses. The 20th-century segregationists perpetuated political, cultural and social practices and enforced rules that ensured widespread and systematic discrimination against African Americans. Institutionalized forms of racism, including disinvestment and underinvestment in public transportation for minority neighborhoods, continue to have a disproportionate impact on the ability of those citizens affected to obtain jobs and other economic opportunities. Practices and policies that enable structural inequities and systematic barriers to access have created a condition of broad transportation-related discrimination in the United States (Alexander, 2012; Williams and Collins, 2001).

Throughout the civil rights struggles of the 1950s, 1960s and beyond, many social interest organizations and advocacy groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Urban League and others, have advocated for more equitable transportation and housing policies for historically underserved minority communities. While the enactment of anti-discrimination laws in the 1960s helped in reducing many barriers to transportation access that had long afflicted African Americans, inequalities still exist. More, discrimination in transportation is not limited to race or income. For instance, a recent study in Boston found evidence of adverse gender (as well as racial) disparities in rides offered by transportation network companies (TNCs). The analysis showed that female passengers routinely experienced more expensive and longer routes when compared to male riders. People with disabilities also often confront restrictions in their ability to use public transportation infrastructure and services (McCluskey, 1987).  And, as Sanchez et al. have argued, transportation remedies that were part of landmark civil rights laws enacted in the 1960s were not implemented until the 1990s (2003). Transportation policies and practices have continued directly or indirectly to perpetuate these inequities. To address some of these issues in the delivery of public transportation, since passage of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has mandated that public transportation service providers may not discriminate in providing services on the basis of race, color, national origin or English proficiency (Dumas, 2015).

There is also a spatial dimension to equity and diversity in many cities. For instance, poverty is often concentrated geographically in neighborhoods with disproportionately high minority populations. Planners can address the inequities arising from this fact by strategically linking affordable housing, safety, health care, green space, schools and public transportation options.  Securing sustainable transport alternatives for these populations depends on enactment of planning and policy measures explicitly designed to increase accessibility, mobility choices and multimodal travel options. This sort of integration of land use and transportation system options is essential to overcome the effects of strict zoning restrictions or ordinances, to reduce trip distances and to ensure access to non-motorized travel solutions for these populations. Moreover, and more generally, collaborating with such residents and strategically connecting them to jobs and other opportunities is a prerequisite for greater economic development in their communities.

The Transportation and Land Use Nexus and Inequities 

The implications of zoning and land use for travel behavior and associated housing and life choices are strong. Such linkages are also controversial, considering America’s long history of economic, cultural and geographic provision of housing, school and transportation options along racial lines. Across cities in the United States, there are many examples of compact and mixed-use development options that effectively integrate transportation and land-use policies at different geographic scales (UN-Habitat, 2013). The integration of land use and transportation policies through flex zoning, inclusive housing, multi-use and multimodal transportation planning practices can yield significant benefits for underserved groups. However, it is important to emphasize that such efforts require time and community involvement and buy-in.

In some cases, the issue of where, how and who benefits from such land use changes (i.e., gentrification) can become controversial. In previously underserved and marginalized communities with limited housing stock, initiatives designed to ensure the availability of mass transit have become hot-bottom local political issues. Continued changes in the spatial distribution of mass transit systems in the U.S. due to the development of new mobility options and the expansion of older systems is rapidly changing the population mix of once Black-dominated inner-city neighborhoods. Washington D.C., Seattle, Portland, New York and other metropolitan cities have seen increased investment in public transportation and the development of more accessible travel options, which have resulted in issues of gentrification and displacement in once predominantly African-American neighborhoods. This process has displaced lower-income residents and people of color in many affected neighborhoods as rents have risen with the influx of wealthier residents. Those relocating to these neighborhoods have done so in part because of transit-induced neighborhood revitalization (Pollack, Bluestone and Billingham, 2010).

The public dialogue on gentrification should address the issue of spreading the benefits of high-quality, interconnected public transport options to help bridge the spatial, racial and cultural divides between inner cities and their suburbs. The planning challenge is that of effectively linking neighborhoods and jobs.

Disparities in Funding Public Transportation Versus Transport Infrastructure

Public transportation is generally underfunded in the United States. Public support varies markedly by mode and that fact often has disproportionate impacts on equitable access to transport options. The distribution of federal transportation funds is unevenly distributed between public transportation and road and highway construction and maintenance, creating both structural and institutional inequities in specific groups’ abilities to access safe and reliable transport. Indeed, public transportation systems are woefully underfunded when compared with highway infrastructure. According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, mass transit received 18.68% ($28.942 billion) of Highway Trust Fund (HTF) allocations while highways received 79.31% ($110.985 billion) for the 2008–2017 period (Kirk and Mallett, 2018). Meanwhile, a recent study by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), Who Rides Public Transportationargued that individuals of color comprise the bulk of such riders (60%), with African-Americans constituting the majority of users (24%).

Transportation as a Civil Right

Minority and other historically disenfranchised groups continue to face disproportionate burdens in accessing reliable transportation in today’s transportation environment (Sanchez et al. 2003). Because transportation has a profound impact on people’s lives—it is both a means of sustenance and a prime requirement to engage in daily activities—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has argued that public transit should be considered a civil right. As noted above, the effects of racial discrimination continue to affect transportation availability in cities across America. Historically, transportation funding decisions have not often favored accessibility, diversity or equity as important policy outcomes. As a result, the economic externalities arising from past planning decisions have frequently led to suboptimal and inequitable outcomes, including social costs related to traffic fatalities, pollution and congestion that have often severely affected already disadvantaged groups (Duranton and Guerra 2016). The cumulative effects of decades of past social discrimination and inequitable housing, planning and zoning practices left many American cities segregated along racial lines while imposing disproportionate costs on communities of color. This spatial segregation of neighborhoods within urban centers and between inner cities and their suburbs both reflected and has perpetuated deep inequalities in transportation along racial lines.

Technology and Innovation in Transportation

Rapid technological innovation is transforming transportation today, affecting travel behaviors and attitudes. Rideshare, bike-share and carpool platforms are quickly reshaping the way people access, deliver and manage transportation services. Technology offers new opportunities for planners and policymakers to address historical structural and institutional gaps and barriers to accessible and affordable transportation. The implication of these changes for planners is that they must incorporate measures for diversity and inclusiveness in the design and delivery of transportation services. To do so, they must also recognize that current transportation planning and policy is governed by a rule-based structure ill-suited to today’s emerging mobility systems. Also, while opportunities for transportation technologies today are manifold, planners must recognize that social biases may infringe on their adoption. Transportation planners need to ensure that today’s new mobility systems will not simply be employed in ways that maintain or reinforce existing social and institutional barriers that perpetuate inequalities (O’Neil, 2016).  To ensure equity and inclusion, transportation policymakers and planners should include criteria for evaluating the outcomes of their efforts in such terms while also encouraging purposeful dialogue and public participation in planning processes.

Transportation practitioners should be able to assess the role of science and technology in important public policy and planning issues to address discrimination against women, persons with disabilities and racial minorities. Building a culture of diversity and inclusion is an evolutionary process that will require that transportation planners and organizations work in partnership with various political, economic and educational institutions to build alliances and strategic commitments to achieve equity outcomes. Planning schools across the United States will also have to renew their commitment to recruit minority students to their programs. To make a meaningful impact, universities must undertake an explicit effort to prepare professors and researchers to address equity and diversity issues in planning and policymaking to help alleviate the transportation disparities affecting disenfranchised groups. Twenty-first century transportation practitioners will need to be skilled at collaborating with citizens and advocacy group representatives to plan and mobilize concerted actions to tackle issues of equity, diversity and inclusion within communities.


In summary, transportation inequities have historically been enabled too often because policymakers and planners have failed to discredit the institutional norms and social systems that created those injustices. Planners must be prepared to recognize and address all forms of inequities in transportation. One way of encouraging that outcome is to ensure that planners reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. In addition, transportation planning and policy practices can be tailored to enhance the accessibility and acceptability of public transit systems by providing a range of desirable travel options for all citizens, thereby promoting social justice and inclusion in transportation delivery and decision-making processes. I am confident that a critical first step toward promoting just outcomes in transportation is ensuring the involvement of diverse and underrepresented groups in policy and planning decision making (Fainstein, 2015). Both the workforce and leadership of transportation organizations should reflect the communities they serve. In practice, policymaking and planning decision-makers must consider a wide range of factors known to influence the relative equity of transportation outcomes, from funding structures and service provision mechanisms to leveraging innovative technologies.


Alexander, M. The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2012.

Clark, H. M. “Who Rides Public Transportation,” Transportation Research Board, 2017. Retrieved from Accessed October 24, 2018.

Dumas, R. A. Analyzing transit equity using automatically collected data (Doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology), 2015. Retrieved from Accessed October 24, 2018.

Duranton, G., and Guerra, E. “Developing a common narrative on urban accessibility: An urban planning perspective,” Moving to Access, Washington: D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 2016.

Fainstein, S. S., and DeFilippis, J. (Eds.). Readings in planning theory. Malden, MA: John Wiley and Sons, 2015.

Fuller, M., and Moore, R. The death and life of great American cities. London: Macat International Ltd., 2017, pp. 1–88.

Ge, Y., Knittel, C. R., MacKenzie, D., and Zoepf, S. Racial and gender discrimination in transportation network companies (No. w22776). Washington, DC:  National Bureau of Economic Research, 2016.

Mallett, W. J. Trends in Public Transportation Ridership: Implications for Federal Policy, Congressional Research Service, 2018. Retrieved from Accessed October 22, 2018.

Kirk, R. and Mallett, W.J. Funding and Financing Highways and Public Transportation, Congressional Research Service, 2018.  Retrieved from Accessed October 22, 2018.

MacGillis, A. “The Third Rail,” Places Journal, March 2016.  Retrieved from Accessed October 20, 2018.

McCluskey, M. T. “Rethinking equality and difference: Disability discrimination in public transportation,” Yale Law Journal, (97)5, 1988, pp. 863-880.

McCormick, K. “How Baltimore and Dallas Are Connecting Segregated Neighborhoods to Opportunity.” Planning for Social Equity. 2017. Retrieved from Accessed October 27, 2018.

O’Neil, C. Weapons of math destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. New York: Broadway Books, 2016.

Pollack, S., Bluestone, B., and Billingham, C.  “Maintaining diversity in America’s transit-rich neighborhoods: Tools for equitable neighborhood change,” Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy [Internet]. Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, 2018. Retrieved from Accessed October 27, 2018.

Sanchez, T. W., Stolz, R., and Ma, J. S. “Moving to equity: Addressing inequitable effects of transportation policies on minorities,” Transportation Research Record, (1885), 2003, pp. 104-110.

UN-Habitat. Planning and design for sustainable urban mobility: Global report on human settlements 2013. Oxford, U.K.: Routledge Publishers, 2013.

Williams, D. R., and Collins, C. “Racial residential segregation: a fundamental cause of racial disparities in health,” Public health reports116(5), 2001, pp. 404-416.


Efon Epanty is a Ph.D. student in Planning, Governance, and Globalization (PGG) in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. His research interests include multimodal transit, mobility systems, transportation equity and technology policy. His current research examines the impacts of transportation technologies on public transportation systems. He previously earned a master’s degree in public administration from Virginia Tech and also holds a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Kansas. He has also completed a bachelor of science degree with honors in geography from the University of Buea in Cameroon

Publication Date

October 30, 2018