Transportation Equity + Justice:

Why they matter for planning and how to correctly measure them

Glen Weisbrod

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Interest in transportation equity has risen sharply as part of a broader public discussion of disparities in wealth, income, and access to economic opportunities across America. But for transportation agencies, this has raised substantial concern about three related issues:

  1.  just what is meant by transportation equity?
  2.  how should it be measured?
  3.  what kind of goals are appropriate for improving transportation equity?

There are few federal guidelines on how to answer these questions, so state and local agencies have discretion about how they want to address these them. There are also issues to resolve about how to distinguish “equity” from environmental or economic “justice.” So first, let’s establish some general definitions.

In public policy terms, equity can be viewed as the allocation or distribution of transportation improvement “outcomes” – including (a) traveler benefits, (b) access benefits, (c) environmental impacts, and (d) economic impacts. Are they “fair” or “reasonable” in how they are distributed among areas, or among population groups, or among sectors of the economy? Or do some benefit more than others? These are the critical issues for planners. Using an overly narrow view of outcomes can lead to projects with unintended negative results, so planners need ways to capture all of these dimensions – which can be done using TREDIS with the approach discussed below.

Equity is most often defined in terms of “fair share.” That could mean reasonably equal or equivalent shares of public benefits going to all areas or all population groups, when viewed relative to their size. Or alternatively, it could be interpreted in terms of whether those who pay get a commensurate share of the benefits in return, i.e., comparing incidence of benefits to corresponding share of funding burden. But what planners and decision-makers often really want is to ensure that everyone gets some basic or reasonable level of access to transportation services and destinations that represent employment, health care, and education opportunities, at a reasonably affordable cost. In that case, what we are really referring to is “justice” rather than “equity.” (One may refer to “environmental justice” when considering the overall “livability” of environment where people live, or one can refer to “economic justice” when considering the need and desire for everyone to get above household poverty and local economic distress conditions.) TREDIS enables these various measures or views of equity and justice to be evaluated.

There is another aspect to consider when evaluating equity and justice impacts, and that is the time dimension. Economists concerned about benefit-cost analysis talk about “intergenerational equity,” which means ensuring that current people do not get advantage to the detriment of future generations. But there is much more to the time dimension because access to jobs and education today create ladders of opportunity for future upward movement in economic advancement among currently low-income households. And we know that over the 10 to 25-year time span of transportation infrastructure investment plans and programs, much can change in terms of the socio-economic status of families and neighborhoods. That is why it makes sense for transportation investments to be viewed in terms of how they reach to neighborhoods and populations that are currently economically distressed. Ultimately that is how we empower people to make a more just and equitable world for the future. And for this reason, we would never want to use a model that forecasts the race and gender of future jobholders, for that presupposes future racial and gender assignments for various kinds of jobs.

These factors must all be considered when evaluating the equity and justice implications of proposed investments in transportation projects, programs, and policies. TREDIS 6 is the only transportation analysis system that provides applicable metrics to address all of these concerns. This includes three dimensions of benefit distribution:

  1. Who gets improvement in travel characteristics for users (e.g., reduction in travel time or cost, or better safety) among the existing and projected base of travelers?
  2. Who gets improvement in access opportunities (e.g., expanded breadth of job opportunities)? and
  3. Who gets improvement in economic well-being (e.g., raising people above low income/poverty and housing affordability thresholds, and raising areas above unemployment and economic distress thresholds)?

Equity + Justice3For all three questions, this system design makes it possible for us to view the answers in terms of the extent to which benefits go to communities of concern – i.e., populations and areas designated as suffering from relatively poor transportation access, areas of economic distress and higher rates of poverty, and areas of concentration for vulnerable groups such as racial and ethnic minorities and elderly populations.

We can measure transportation impacts in terms of any or all of these views of equity and justice. But there is an important “catch”. For most often, transportation planners consider equity and justice in terms of where the money is spent and projects are located, relative to locations of poverty, economic distress, and vulnerable population groups. There are numerous cases where a new or expanded highway or rail line goes through an economically distressed area, only to find that the true beneficiaries are mostly travelers passing through who originate in and are traveling to areas that are not economically distressed. So that is why it is so important to consider equity and justice in terms of the location of beneficiaries -- defined by the origin and destination patterns of transportation facility users. And that is precisely what TREDIS 6 does, by connecting with origin-destination flow information from travel models.

The unique element of this system is that it is designed to address all aspects of user benefit and access benefit, and it relates them to effects on disadvantaged populations, areas of economic distress, and low-income groups. Even more importantly, it assigns benefits and impacts to the right party, utilizing its new origin-destination tracking features to distinguish those who generate impacts and those who experience them. This approach enables transportation planners to be more effective in their efforts to design, prioritize, and fund projects and programs that can advance equity and justice policy goals.

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