Bringing a Human Dimension to Public Transit Planning & Equity in Mobility

by Jan 29, 2019Governance, Mobility

Blair Ruble and William Chernicoff

Blair A. Ruble is a Distinguished Scholar at the Wilson Center.

William Chernicoff is the Sr. Manager for Global Research & Innovation at the Toyota Mobility Foundation.

Who will you meet?

Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.

Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.


Too often, those entrusted with the design and execution of urban public policy in areas such as transportation conceive it as an engineering problem with one ideal solution. The recent study completed by Lubna Anantakarishnan and Antonia-Sophie Gramsamer, graduate students at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), brings issues of social equity to the table, amplifying the ways in which we need to be more modest in our expectations of transportation alternatives and more proactive in defining them.

With consequences that span generations, transportation projects are among the most expensive investments that communities undertake. They can embed existing inequities more deeply into our communities; create new inequities; or, at their best, alleviate some of the more pernicious dimensions of inequality even if only at the margins.

As the authors Anantakarishnan & Gramsamer persuasively contend in their report, transport serves as a significant ‘gateway’ service that can either bolster or erode all of the factors that support a high quality of life. Historically, the process to evaluate equity has been incomplete, time-prohibitive and complex, or retrospective. As a result, transportation planning has tended to exacerbate rather than alleviate existing social inequalities. Often with no ill-intent, planners disadvantage those who rely on public transit the most and make it ever more difficult to connect to employment possibilities across the metropolis.


Consideration of Equity 

Consideration of equity factors at the beginning of the planning process is necessary to ensure outcomes that are more positive. As the authors recommend, during the early planning stages we need to consider and balance the tradeoffs, and systematically ensure minimum levels across each of the various dimensions of the nexus between equity and mobility ( Figure 1 ); which is why the recommendations and resulting equity checklist and framework in this report are so noteworthy.


Figure 1. Performance level approaches


Why This Matters: A Real-World Example

A couple of years ago, a group of graduate students at a notable planning program reacted in frustration to my observations about inequality. They exclaimed that I did not understand. Planning is a technical, rather than a human task. The challenge for planners is that we still do not have the mathematics right. Once we update our underlying decision algorithms, they posited, our improved planning would work well.

Getting our algorithms right, of course, depends on the factors that we want to consider and how we want to weight their value. The factors include not only the default thinking on socio-economic, but gender, age, ability, location, and other concerns. All too often, when approaching mobility, we leave equity out as we seek optimally efficient systems; and, with a growing reliance on public-private partnerships, to maximize profit. As this report underscores, planning for mobility is an enormously complex challenge. Not only are the projects expensive, but they need to provide solutions that will serve future generations.

Look at how many cities rely on rail systems conceived and constructed a century or more ago. How many of our highways were planned and built a half-century ago? These systems continue to serve societies that are profoundly different from whatever their designers could imagine; societies full of human beings who live their lives in ways that were beyond the minds of the planners at the time.

So, if we do not incorporate issues of equity into public transit we will only bake existing inequalities into the future structure of our cities and regions; thereby maximizing — rather than minimizing — their damaging effects on our society. This is why the authors’ case for incorporating equity analysis into planning is so compelling; and why their proposed Equity Checklist is so prescient ( Figure 2).


Figure 2. Stylized equity checklist for transit design and funding


Why Local Details and Different Factors Matter

To use one small illustration, society relies more and more on credit-based electronic payment systems for charging users of transport services – from credit-based and internet-based on-demand transportation, to toll transponders. All are very efficient for everyone; arguably more efficient than cash-based payment systems. This is an example of getting the mathematics right. That is until we recall that somewhere around 75 million adult Americans do not have a single credit card. While 80% of Caucasians have credit cards – which might be considered “complete coverage,” credit card access drops off to 70% of Latinos and just under half of African Americans. By developing transportation systems that depend one way or another on credit rather than cash, we potentially exclude, and therefore drive greater inequity for millions of Americans and hinder use of services that have been built at least in part with public resources.


What Can Happen When Multi-Dimensional Equity Planning Occurs

This is where the planning approach promoted by the authors enters. Accommodation can be made if the problem is considered up front. Columbus, Ohio offers one example of such an effort. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the City a $40 million grant to reimagine mobility throughout the Ohio capital. This federal support has enabled the city to develop a comprehensive, integrated strategy addressing challenges in residential, commercial, freight and downtown districts. The resulting action plan –to be implemented beginning in 2019 and 2020 – incorporates several new technologies, including connected infrastructure, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, an integrated data platform, autonomous vehicles, and more, to advance the mobility of all residents regardless of their socio-economic status. Equity remains an essential consideration for any proposed transit system; no matter how advanced it may be technologically. Moreover, at every stage, planners in Columbus have drawn on the views of residents, community and business leaders, as well as technical experts to ensure that the human dimension of transportation shares pride of place with technical demands. Restated, rather than by simply embracing and balancing equal access and treatment to assume that all will be served (Figure 3), planners have tried to generate equal outcomes by accommodating variable technologies, socio-economic status, and physical location.

However, the Columbus experiment is precisely that; at best, it offers a prototype. All too often, planners do not even consider the equity concerns raised by Anantakrishnan and Gramsamer. Planners’ longstanding tone deafness to equity helps to explain why we have plenty of negative examples of derisory policy outcomes in the transportation sphere.


Figure 3. Achieving equity objectives


What Happens When Only One Dimension of Equity is Considered

To illustrate this point, consider the initiation of peak-hour pricing to alleviate traffic congestion on I-66 in Virginia (which is just one of many such projects in the region and the country). To return to the notion that planning is just about getting the mathematics right, the planners and overseers of the I-66 project arguably did so. Their objective was to alleviate traffic congestion on a major commuter route. Given a local political environment in which it is impossible to raise taxes, any solution required a partnership with the private sector. Private sector partners correctly are interested in profit maximization.

The scheme was simple – as modest as calculating algorithms, which evaluated the relationship between price and willingness to pay together with congestion. Raising the price encourages drivers to find alternative routes until traffic flows freely.

Planners and policy makers exempted carpools. To do so, carpools are required to utilize a special transponder that indicates that there are multiple passengers in a vehicle. The transponder requires access to credit, which many potential drivers do not enjoy.

The scheme has worked in its own terms. It appears that the operators got the math right and traffic flows more smoothly even though tolls reported to have reached as high as $40.00 at times. However, worked for whom?

It worked for politicians who improved Route 66 without raising taxes. It worked for the company running the system, which, presumably, will earn a profit. It worked for drivers who have family members, friends, neighbors who share their transportation patterns and, therefore, can carpool. It worked for those with the economic resources to pay the fares. Nevertheless, it has not worked for everyone. We now have the spectacle – and hazard – of drivers pulling over onto the shoulder waiting for the time when tolls are reduced. We have enhanced congestion on other routes, often leading to a potential deterioration in air quality in adjacent neighborhoods. We have people paying more for transportation than their household budgets might support.

All of which leads us back to the perspective of this report. Viewed in isolation, the experience of I-66 precisely accomplished what it intended to. However, it was based on some assumptions that would not have passed muster with our authors. It assumes that everyone can afford price elasticity; it assumes that people have access to reasonable alternative transit modes, and it assumes that those who live the furthest and would benefit the most can afford to pay the tolls. In other words, that everyone is  more or less a  healthy adult with a steady reliable income. Meanwhile, rising housing costs force many people to move from the city and suburban employment centers, only intensifying the spiral of unaffordability. In structuring their partnership with the private sector, a common trend in transportation finance, Virginia planners achieved one goal:  maximizing profitability, but did so at the cost of social equity and arguably welfare (Figure 4).


Figure 4. Project delivery and financing models along a range of public and private sector ownership models


As the framework highlights, equity comprises many dimensions. This can be complicated by the historical context under which the transit systems were developed. For example, U.S. cities have had notable success in ensuring the physical accessibility of transit systems, thanks largely to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. By guaranteeing equal opportunity for individuals the U.S. has become the global leader in barrier-free access. However, these systems only serve a small percentage of the total trips. Compare this to Germany, which has one of the best transportation systems in the world, but until 2013 had no legal requirements for accessibility. While 90% of Germans live within 1 kilometer of public transit and facilities are reliable and modern, trains cannot accommodate wheelchairs, and only half of the train stations are barrier-free. However, unlike more complex questions of equity, with sufficient funding, the solutions here are clear – legislative mandates. In this case, Germany has set a goal of being barrier-free by 2022 and dedicated the resources to accomplish it.

Countries around the world will need to follow suit to ensure they have the transit systems necessary to accommodate the mobility of their future populations, which with few exceptions will dramatically age over the coming 30 years. Ensuring the mobility of this changing population will be critical to its continued productive engagement in society, health, ability to live independently, and overall wellbeing.


How to Take Effective Action

This impending and certain challenge highlights the need for the forward-looking, equity-centered approach facilitated by the Equity Checklist. Much like environmental considerations that have been incorporated over the past 15 years, its use could extend beyond planners at the municipal level to international financial institutions as part of their systematic evaluation of infrastructure loans,.

As Anantakrishnan and Gramsamer argue cogently in this report, equity considerations are not tangential to the success of mobility planning but central to the task of enabling society to move easily to fulfill life’s tasks and society’s missions. Effective transportation planning requires multi-dimensional and long-term thinking precisely because their outcomes shape cities, communities, and human lives for generations ahead. Moreover, because cities are complex and humans fallible, the greater the engagement with the human dimension of mobility the greater the probability that the technical dimension of transit planning will succeed in making our communities more mobile.


Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.


  1. Those interested in this topic may want to read a copy of my paper on Social Equity Impact Assessment. Send me an email; And Tom Sanchez and my books, The Right to Transportation, and Planning as if People Matter: Governing for Social Equity. Karel Martens at Technion U. in Israel has also done substantial work on the topic of equity and justice in transportation, as has Hans Jeekel at the U. of Technology in Eindhoven, both of whom have new books out on the subject. Further, the Transportation Research Board has a new subcommittee on the topic of Equity in Transportation.

  2. To achieve equity in transportation, access to mobility must be level across socioeconomic classes. ADA is essential in any case, and needs implementation at many metropolitan sites. However, the greatest disparity, as of now, comes between those who have access to roadway travel and those who don’t. Those who do live in a different world, in terms of social and professional opportunities, than those who don’t. Entry costs keep many people from the roads, but not enough that they haven’t become terribly over-crowded.

    The solution for both of these issues is to let go of private vehicle use and ride together on a public rideshare transportation system. If implemented to scale across a city’s region, the number of vehicles on the roads can be reduced by 77-90% without reducing transportation. This means that the costs of roadway travel would plummet, making it instantly accessible to lower classes (basically providing the service of Lyft for a fraction of the cost), while clearing excess vehicles from the road, possibly ridding congestion from the roads completely.

    A more full proposal can be read here:

    An important study on this can be found here:

    Electronic fare payments are still at issue here, but nothing demands that there can’t be fare loading machines equipped to receive cash, like those in Chicago’s Ventra system. Also the issue of credit cards being a point of accessibility seems to be overlooking(?) the use of debit cards in the same place.

  3. Re Stephen Boi’s proposal, I’m not seeing how costs would be so reduced as to make, for example, Lyft type services available to all. All public transit requires huge subsidies from governments. Even a well-run diesel bus system only returns about 30% of its operating costs at the farebox. Further, coercing people to give up their privately owned vehicles is tyrannical. Third, tolls on roads/bridges/tunnels and high parking costs are economically regressive for low-income people.

  4. Excellent analysis. Should government agencies adapt for mobility the WIC program’s use of EBT cards? Instead of forcing those who can manage their own affairs to obtain rides from a subsidized carrier, should funds be added to a Mobility EBT card each month? Allow individuals to mingle subsidies and their own funds to best meet their mobility needs?


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read more from

Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology

Middle-Mile Networks: The Middleman of Internet Connectivity

Middle-Mile Networks: The Middleman of Internet Connectivity

The development of public, open-access middle mile infrastructure can expand internet networks closer to unserved and underserved communities while offering equal opportunity for ISPs to link cost effectively to last mile infrastructure. This strategy would connect more Americans to high-speed internet while also driving down prices by increasing competition among local ISPs.

In addition to potentially helping narrow the digital divide, middle mile infrastructure would also provide backup options for networks if one connection pathway fails, and it would help support regional economic development by connecting businesses.

Wildfire Risk Reduction: Connecting the Dots

Wildfire Risk Reduction: Connecting the Dots

One of the most visceral manifestations of the combined problems of urbanization and climate change are the enormous wildfires that engulf areas of the American West. Fire behavior itself is now changing.  Over 120 years of well-intentioned fire suppression have created huge reserves of fuel which, when combined with warmer temperatures and drought-dried landscapes, create unstoppable fires that spread with extreme speed, jump fire-breaks, level entire towns, take lives and destroy hundreds of thousands of acres, even in landscapes that are conditioned to employ fire as part of their reproductive cycle.

ARISE-US recently held a very successful symposium, “Wildfire Risk Reduction – Connecting the Dots”  for wildfire stakeholders – insurers, US Forest Service, engineers, fire awareness NGOs and others – to discuss the issues and their possible solutions.  This article sets out some of the major points to emerge.

Innovating Our Way Out of Crisis

Innovating Our Way Out of Crisis

Whether deep freezes in Texas, wildfires in California, hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, or any other calamity, our innovations today will build the reliable, resilient, equitable, and prosperous grid tomorrow. Innovation, in short, combines the dream of what’s possible with the pragmatism of what’s practical. That’s the big-idea, hard-reality approach that helped transform Texas into the world’s energy powerhouse — from oil and gas to zero-emissions wind, sun, and, soon, geothermal.

It’s time to make the production and consumption of energy faster, smarter, cleaner, more resilient, and more efficient. Business leaders, political leaders, the energy sector, and savvy citizens have the power to put investment and practices in place that support a robust energy innovation ecosystem. So, saddle up.

The Future of Cities

Mayors, planners, futurists, technologists, executives and advocates — hundreds of urban thought leaders publish on Meeting of the Minds. Sign up to follow the future of cities.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Wait! Before You Leave —

Wait! Before You Leave —

Subscribe to receive updates on the Executive Cohort Program!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This