Public Transit’s Role in Driving Equity in America Forward

February 4 is Transit Equity Day—a day to honor civil rights icon Rosa Parks and reflect on the value of public transportation in advancing racial and social equality, access to opportunity, and civic participation. Commemorating the late civil rights leader’s birthday, Transit Equity Day is a powerful time to look back on the legacy of Rosa Parks—and at the role public transit plays in advancing equity today.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, leading to her arrest, it helped spark the Montgomery bus boycott that eventually led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that determined segregation on public buses to be unconstitutional. Her actions on that day in 1955 all but gave birth to the idea of transit equity.

Today, public transportation continues to play a critical role in advancing racial and social equity, driving political and civic participation, expanding economic and educational opportunities, and increasing mobility for all Americans.

Driving Racial Equity and Equality

Unfortunately, our nation’s transportation infrastructure investments have not always supported racial equity—in fact, quite the opposite, some have used it as a tool that often “promoted systemic racism, impacting generations of African Americans.”

As a result of generations of transportation policies that did not take them into account, many low-income and minority communities have been shut out of the larger economic gains felt in cities nationwide, making transit an issue of economic equality. In fact, in an essay published after his death, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called urban transit systems “a genuine civil rights issue…because the layout of rapid-transit systems determines the accessibility of jobs to the black community.”

For generations, lack of public transit investment has kept low-income and minority communities from accessing the same opportunities as their more well-connected, wealthier, and predominately whiter counterparts. Today, public transportation has a critical role to play in correcting the mistakes of the past and the legacy of historically supporting and advancing racial equity.

Fortunately, local transit agencies are stepping up to the challenge—spurred on in new ways since the pandemic revealed vital needs from those representing one of public transportation’s core ridership demographics. In 2020, when public transit ridership dropped dramatically in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was essential employees and low-income workers who still relied on public transit daily to get to essential jobs that could not be worked from home.

Now, to recognize both the critical role transit plays in connecting these riders with economic opportunities—as well as the role riders themselves play in supporting public transportation—many local transit agencies are re-evaluating their priorities. That includes:

  • Renewing their commitment to providing better service to riders in lower-income neighborhoods with “larger shares of people of color and households without cars.”
  • Adding additional weekend and off-peak service because many of the essential workers still commuting throughout the pandemic were working outside of “normal” peak hours.
  • Reworking bus routes and increasing frequency to better serve historically underserved communities.

In Richmond, Virginia, the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) has gone so far as to stop charging fares to ride the bus. Many transit agencies did the same temporarily at the beginning of the pandemic to protect the health of bus drivers; however, GRTC has said bus rides will remain free through 2025—and public transit systems in Boston, Los Angeles, and Denver are exploring the same option. The free-fare initiative has “helped residents understand the role that transit plays in essential workers’ lives, and its power to correct social wrongs,” according to one GRTC official.

There’s still a long road to go to continue making our service more all-encompassing, but the right investments that expand public transportation throughout all communities—regardless of size, location, demographics, or household income—can help build a more equitable future for all races.

Supporting Civic Engagement

Just as it is helping advance racial and social equity, public transportation can be a literal vehicle for change, helping turn out the vote, supporting advocacy, and driving civic engagement.

In recent years, public transportation has been instrumental in helping get voters to the polls, with public transit agencies from Los Angeles to North Texas to Kansas City, Cleveland, and Charlotte, North Carolina all offering free rides to the polls on Election Day. During the 2020 election in Georgia, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) partnered with Uber to “offer subsidized rides” to nearly 100 polling locations that were impacted by service reductions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

One key to increasing voter turnout and continuing to build a more civically and politically active society lies in increasing public transportation options. Car ownership shouldn’t be a pre-requisite for voting. Access to voting and public transit go hand in hand for millions of Americans.

Expanding Economic Opportunities

This is an easy one. Voices for Public Transit has talked at length about the critical role public transportation plays in connecting Americans with jobs and economic opportunities. This is even more important in the context of racial and social equity.

Where public transit goes, economic investment in local communities follows. That takes the form of new small businesses that are able to take hold and grow along public transit lines; increased mobility for low-income workers to help them participate in the local economy more easily and efficiently; and the continued development of affordable housing near and around public transportation.

To continue advancing economic opportunities for all Americans, it is critical to ensure public transit investment remains strong and addresses these worthy goals. Particularly when it comes to affordable housing, we need to make sure we are continuing to make public transit-oriented communities the rule and not the exception. When low-income workers can spend less of their money on transportation, then that’s more money in their pocket and in local communities—and ultimately, that will help strengthen entire economies nationwide.

This Transit Equity Day, we want to remind everyone that the road to a more equitable future for all Americans may be a long and winding one, but public transportation is helping us get there more quickly and efficiently than ever before.

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