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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Reconsidering Social Equity in Public Transit


Over the course of this century, public transit systems in the U.S. have lost most of the market share of metropolitan travel to private vehicles. The two principal markets that remain for public transit systems are downtown commuters and transit dependents – people who are too young, too old, too poor, or physically unable to drive. Despite the fact that transit dependents are the steadiest customers for most public transit systems, transit policy has tended to focus on recapturing lost markets through expanded suburban bus, express bus, and fixed rail systems. Such efforts have collectively proven expensive and only marginally effective. At the same time, comparatively less attention and fewer resources tend to be devoted to improving well-patronized transit service in low-income, central-city areas serving a high proportion of transit dependents. This paper explores this issue through an examination of both the evolving demographics of public transit ridership, and the reasons for shifts in transit policies toward attracting automobile users onto buses and trains. We conclude that the growing dissonance between the quality of service provided to inner-city residents who depend on local buses and the level of public resources being spent to attract new transit riders is both economically inefficient and socially inequitable. In light of this, we propose that transportation planners concerned with social justice (and economic efficiency) should re-examine current public transit policies and plans.

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