The Unequal Commute: Examining inequities in four metro areas’ transportation systems

Source: Christina Stacy, Alena Stern, Kristin Blagg, Yipeng Su, Eleanor Noble, Macy Rainer, and Richard Ezike, Urban Institute, October 6, 2020

All people need high-quality, reliable, and safe transportation to reach jobs, resources, and services. But that kind of transportation is not equally accessible to all.

In many cities, white, highly educated, and high-income residents have greater access to public transportation, and wealth differences by race and ethnicity make it easier for white residents to purchase a car, allowing for increased access to jobs. Public transit that is inaccessible for elderly people and people with disabilities can leave transit-dependent residents stranded. And a lack of transit options, particularly at off-peak hours, means that people who work irregular schedules often have no safe or affordable way to get to work.

Policymakers can reduce disparities in access to opportunity through targeted investments, but many decisionmakers lack clear definitions and measures of equity needed to make these choices. To inform stakeholders making transportation decisions, we created a set of metrics analyzing transportation equity for neighborhoods — which we approximate with census block groups — within four metropolitan regions: Baltimore, Maryland; Lansing, Michigan;  Nashville, Tennessee; and Seattle, Washington. These regions represent four distinct types in terms of sprawl, fiscal health, transportation infrastructure, population growth, and housing costs.

For each, we calculated the time it takes residents across the metro area to get to opportunities such as jobs, schools, libraries, and hospitals via both public transit and automobile, and we used those times to create an access to opportunity measure. With these new metrics, we’ve highlighted disparities in access to jobs and analyzed how these opportunities differ by race and ethnicity and for night-shift workers.