Breaking down the transit equity analysis silos

The renewed focus on transportation equity should bring a review of the existing federal Title VI regulations. (In transit circles we usually just say Title VI, but we should say Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 more often to remind ourselves of the work it took to get the law passed and what it represents.)   

The recent Transit Center report on Equity in Practice has a section on the limitations of the current FTA Title VI circular for analyzing the equity of transit agency decisions (page 41). In my mind a fundamental shortcoming is that the analysis process looks at the impact of changes, which assumes the status quo is equitable (or at least acceptable). Another problem is that the equity of fare and service decisions are analyzed at the level of transit agency, not at the regional level. For regions with multiple transit agencies, each agency is analyzing the impact of their decisions, but the riders experience the impacts overall.

Beyond transit, no entity is required to analyze the distribution of all transportation resources (across all modes based on who is using them) at the regional or state level. Transportation decision-making is fragmented between state DOTs, MPOs, transit agencies, and cities and towns; between modes (transit, highways, local roads); between funding sources (federal, state, and local funds); and between types of money (operating and capital). In theory each decision-maker could analyze their own decisions and say they are equitable by their measures, but the sum total of all the decisions aren’t equitably meeting people’s transportation needs.

I started to realize this problem when I was a transit advocate and graduate student in Atlanta. In 2006 the Atlanta MPO (ARC), Georgia DOT, and GRTA (the state agency running commuter buses) adopted a project selection process that weighted congestion relief at 70 percent. Advocates objected because this would shift even more transportation funds away from transit riders reliant on local transit service (MARTA and county agencies) and pedestrians/cyclists. In November 2008 on behalf of Atlanta Transit Riders’ Union, I filed a Title VI complaint against the Atlanta Regional Commission (the MPO) and GRTA.

Transit riders hold signs and speak into a bullhorn in favor of funding for transit
Atlanta transit riders protest service cuts and for state funding of transit, 2008

The complaint argued that weighting congestion relief would disproportionately benefit high-income and white commuters, even in the selection of transit projects. I filed the complaint with FTA. This was before the 2012 revised FTA Title VI circular. Maybe it should have gone to FHWA too.

We applied pressure on FTA, with some help from Congressman John Lewis’s office, to investigate. They finally asked ARC and GRTA to respond and their response stressed that the weighting was ok because they looked at transit and highway projects separately with different methodologies. The official outcome (14 months after it was filed) was FTA said they would do a compliance review of both agencies.

There were positives. The act of filing and the pressure we created did give MARTA (the transit agency) and the City of Atlanta leverage to get decisions to their benefit at the ARC. When the ARC staff meet with us they did agree with some of our concerns. Eventually the congestion weighting in the project selection was changed.

I bring this up 13 years later because, while my understanding of the complexity of transportation policy has increased, the problem of how to challenge the equity of regional/state transportation decision-making remains. With the Biden Administration’s emphasis on equity, hopefully we can rethink how to aggregate decisions in Title VI analysis. For example, all of the federal transportation money (across all modes) going to a state and region analyzed together based (not on the geographic proximity of minority populations to projects) on the usage of the services.

I am interested in your thoughts on how to solve the Title VI silo problem!   

One response to “Breaking down the transit equity analysis silos”

  1. Kuan Butts (@buttsmeister) says :

    Is it correct to assume that Title VI is the “only” way to achieve a mandate of more broad regional analyses (due to your mentioned challenges about the myriad of funding sources for transport-related projects)? If so, I wonder how “regions” are defined.

    It seems like it might help if regions were defined by the MPOs that manage the area within which a given project… maybe? So MTC could have control over projects regardless of the county in the SF Bay Area a project was occurring, for example. I wonder if giving these MPOs more control over projects like this is possible/would expedite the desire to have some more broad context in determine transport project equity.

    I also wonder if, in some ways, this is a result of our ever-expanding urban footprint causing “scope creep” in that areas that should have been the focus of urban-intensive activity have been subsumed into a much, much larger sprawl and that reality is at odds with the original context within which Title VI was developed.

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