UT researchers pinpoint 6 public transportation practices promoting equity

Kevin Vu, News Reporter

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared as part of the August 2 flipbook.

UT researchers identified six practices that can be used by public transit agencies to advance transportation equity, according to a report published in July.

Transportation equity means a more fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of transportation, allowing for lower-income individuals to access those benefits, said Jonathan Brooks, director of policy and planning for LINK Houston, an advocacy group for transportation equity.

“Transportation is the ultimate shared interest; it’s often compared to a circulatory system,” Brooks said. “Public transit, especially local transit with frequent service extended into communities, is fundamental. It’s seen as a central public good and it really provides far beyond the simple dollars and cents around it.”

Kaylyn Levine, a community and regional planning graduate student who worked on the report, said transportation equity comes from the inclusion of marginalized communities so their voices are heard during the public transit planning process.

“I really think that looking at that local built environment and how you access different opportunities using public transit is really important to your quality of life,” Levine said. “Certain groups of people don’t get to experience this access and mobility, so I think it’s just really important work to look at the most vulnerable communities.”

While public transit agencies hold meetings with the public, they are often one-way conversations, Levine said.

“They try to inform the public rather than include them in the planning process,” Levine said.

Levine said based on these shortcomings, she and her adviser, Alex Karner, spoke with staff from eight public transit providers and advocacy groups throughout the United States, asking them questions on how these equity-advancing practices are being implemented.

Levine said through speaking with the agencies, they were able to identify six practices that they believed other public transit agencies nationwide could use while offering benefits and limitations the practices could have: establishing advisory committees, partnering with advocacy organizations, incorporating equity into capital planning, planning with other regional transportation agencies, using ride-hailing and microtransit services and creating an equity culture in the workplace.

“We found that these agencies are really going above and beyond to incorporate equity, justice and fairness in meaningful ways during the planning process,” Levine said. “Without considering the equity impacts of a decision, you’re really just (doing a disservice to) the communities you’re supposed to be serving.”

Jackie Nirenberg, director of community engagement and involvement for the Austin Transit Partnership, said that public transportation is an equity tool that connects people to opportunities and jobs, which was highlighted when people continued to use buses during the height of the pandemic.

“This is a lifeline for people,” Nirenberg said. “These were essential workers, service workers, grocery workers, people who had no choice but to get to work, and the only choice they had was to take (public) transit.”

Nirenberg said Capital Metro has implemented equity-advancing practices by engaging with communities, implementing translation services and launching Project Connect, a comprehensive transit plan that includes building a new rail system in Austin.

“It’s more than building a train, it is actually an opportunity to rethink our community and make it better,” Nirenberg said. “Whether that be creating more hospitable places for people when they board our services, through better station designs or public art opportunities in neighborhoods.”