‘More equitable’ than before COVID

Before I left the MBTA I made a powerpoint slide (one of hundreds I made over 6 years) for my last Board presentation and on it I wrote, “ Our commitment is that service at the end of the recovery will be more equitable than before COVID”. At the MBTA Board meeting this week the General Manager reaffirmed this commitment.

Hopefully other transit agencies are also currently making this commitment, or being pushed to make this commitment. The Biden Administration is putting transportation central in their equity agenda.  The additional federal funds for transit as part of the American Rescue Plan should stave off service cuts for the short-term, but that doesn’t guarantee service will be ‘more equitable.’ All of this begs the question, what is ‘more equitable’ and how should it be decided, measured, and implemented?

The existing official measure of equity for transit service is a Title VI (of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) equity analysis. The current (2012) Federal Transit Administration Title VI circular sets a process for performing an analysis that measures the equity of changes off the current conditions. This, unfortunately, assumes that the current conditions are equitable. To make service ‘more equitable’, we (agencies and the community) need to acknowledge the ways that the existing service (pre-COVID) is inequitable. This accounting of past, and current, inequitable policies and practices is necessary to build trust between agencies and communities, and to establish the real baseline off which to measure equity improvements.   

Researchers, advocates, and transit agencies have been working for years to develop new ways to measure equity that better approximate equity in access (transportation’s central function). There are numerous versions of access to opportunity measures that, for example, look at the number of destinations people in different neighborhoods can reach in a time budget. The MBTA is working on a competitiveness measure that is based off the idea that transit users should have a trip that is ‘competitive’ with car users making the same trip (adding the component of trip quality).  

After equity is defined and measured, the results of the analysis have to be translated into changes to the transit network (in space) and levels of service (in time) within the very real context of an operating budget, vehicle, and labor constraints. The MBTA already made equity positive changes to respond to different ridership levels by route during the pandemic. There are more than 20 bus routes with more service than before the pandemic to meet social distancing crowding standards. It would be ‘more equitable’ to keep all or some of this additional service on these routes serving low-income communities of color after the need for social distancing recedes. However, that means the MBTA will need to keep other bus routes running with less service, shift funds from other modes, or receive additional operating resources above those needed to replace their lost fare revenue for the considerable future.  (And, of course, work with cities to keep prioritizing buses on streets to make service more efficient.)

Even with the additional federal funds, there are necessary (and hard) decisions facing transit agencies on how to rebuild. More equitable also means decision-making using a collaborative process. Now is the time for realistic conversations between transit riders, advocates, and agencies about how to account for the past, define and measure equity, and make service changes.

Please join me (or let me join you) in making these conversations happen1. Putting all of the service back exactly how it was before COVID is not equitable. To respond to the overlapping crises of public health, economic inequality, and racial injustice we have to rebuild our transit networks as a foundation for a more equitable recovery.

1 If you actually look at the powerpoint slide in question you will see I suggested a simple metric for ‘more equitable’ as measured by percent of service hours serving minority and low-income populations. It is a starting place for a conversation.

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