Justice, Exclusion, and Equity: An Analysis of 48 U.S. Metropolitan Areas

Recent working paper

Injustice in transportation services experienced by disadvantaged demographic groups account for much of these groups’ social exclusion.

HoustonOppUnfortunately, there is little agreement in the field about what theoretical foundation should be the basis of measures of the justice of transportation services, limiting the ability of transportation professionals to remedy the issues. Accordingly, there is a need for an improved measure of the justice of the distribution of transportation services, which relates to the effectiveness of transportation services for all members of disadvantaged groups rather than for only segregated members of these disadvantaged groups. To this end potential measures of distributive justice, based on the accessibility to jobs provided by various modes, are evaluated in 48 of the top 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. The purpose of the study is to inform recommendations for appropriate use of each measure.

Measuring the transportation needs of people with developmental disabilities: A means to social inclusion (free version)

“Measuring the transportation needs of people with developmental disabilities: A means to social inclusion” is now available online. The “free” link provides free access, and is valid until May 31, 2017

Recently published:



One of the major causes of social exclusion for people with developmental disability (PDD) is the inability to access different activities due to inadequate transportation services.


This research paper identifies transportation needs, and reasons for unmet, but desired untaken trips of adults with developmental disabilities in Hennepin County, Minnesota. We hypothesize that PDD cannot make trips they want to make due to personal and neighborhood characteristics.


A survey measuring existing travel behavior and unmet transportation needs of PDD (N=114) was conducted. The survey included both demographic and attitudinal questions as well as a travel diary to record both actual and desired but untaken trips. Logistic regression analyses were conducted to determine reasons associated with their inability to make desired, but untaken trips.


Most respondents did not live independently. More than half of the surveyed population worked every day and recreation trips occurred at least once a week for about two-thirds of the population. About 46 percent were unable to make trips they needed to make. Public transit posed physical and intellectual difficulties, however the presence of public transit in neighborhoods decreased odds of not making trips. Concerns about Paratransit services were also reported.


Findings from this study can be of value to transportation engineers and planners interested in shedding light on the needs of a marginalized group that is rarely studied and have special transport needs that should be met to ensure their social inclusion in society.

The cost of equity: Assessing transit accessibility and social disparity using total travel cost

Recent working paper

Number of jobs accessible by transit based solely on travel time and solely on fare
Number of jobs accessible by transit based solely on travel time and solely on fare

Social equity is increasingly incorporated as a long-term objective into urban transportation plans. Researchers used accessibility measures to assess equity issues, such as determining the amount of jobs reachable by marginalized groups within a defined travel time threshold and compare these measures across socioeconomic categories. However, allocating public transit resources in an equitable manner is not only related to travel time, but also related to the out-of- pocket cost of transit fares, which can represent a major barrier to accessibility for many disadvantaged groups. Therefore, this research proposes a set of new accessibility measures that incorporates both travel time and transit fares. It then applies those measures to determine whether people residing in socially disadvantaged neighborhoods in Montreal, Canada experience the same levels of transit accessibility as those living in other neighborhoods. Results are presented in terms of regional accessibility and trends by social indicator decile. Travel time accessibility measures estimate a higher number of jobs that can be reached compared to combined travel time and cost measures. However, the degree and impact of these measures varies across the social deciles. Compared to other groups in the region, residents of socially disadvantaged areas have more equitable accessibility to jobs using transit; this is reflected in smaller decreases in accessibility when fare costs are included. Generating new measures of accessibility combining travel time and transit fares provides more accurate measures that can be easily communicated by transportation planners and engineers to policy makers and the public since it translates accessibility measures to a dollar value.

Keywords: Equity, Job accessibility, Transit fare, Travel time. Cost

Using principles of justice to assess the modal equity of regional transportation plans

My friends Karel Martens and Aaron Golub just published: Using principles of justice to assess the modal equity of regional transportation plans. Journal of Transport Geography
Volume 41, December 2014, Pages 10–20


While equity has been an important consideration for transportation planning agencies in the U.S. following the passage of Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI specifically) and the subsequent Department of Transportation directives, there is little guidance on how to assess the distribution of benefits generated by transport investment programs. As a result, the distribution of these benefits has received relatively little attention in transportation planning, compared to transport-related burdens. Drawing on philosophies of social justice, we present an equity assessment of the distribution of accessibility in order to define the rate of “access poverty” among the population. We then apply this analysis to regional transportation plan scenarios from the San Francisco Bay Area, focusing on measures of differences between public transit and automobile access. The analysis shows that virtually all neighborhoods suffer from substantial gaps between car and public transport-based accessibility, but that the two proposed transportation investment programs reduce access poverty compared to the “no project” scenario. We also investigate how access and access poverty rates vary by demographic groups and map low-income communities within access impoverished areas, which could be the subject of further focused investments.

Now only if we could do that for the whole country, hmm?

Road Fees Don’t Hurt the Poor as Much as You Might Think

Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities says: Road Fees Don’t Hurt the Poor as Much as You Might Think – :

“Altshuler bases his position on a couple surveys conducted in metro areas that have adopted HOT lanes in the recent past. One was done in San Diego circa 2001. At that time, about 80 percent of low-income respondents agreed with the concept that people should be able to use an express lane on Interstate 15 for a fee — a greater percentage of agreement than people from high-income brackets (70 percent). Additionally, two thirds of people who didn’t even use the lanes still supported them.

A similar survey was done in 2006 in Minnesota. That work showed a 60 percent approval rate for HOT lanes on Interstate 394. A stronger analysis of this corridor, done by Tyler Patterson and David Levinson [PDF], found that income levels did predict use of the express lane (with higher-income drivers using them more often), but that lower-income drivers could also benefit from the shift of traffic out of the free lanes (as well as always having the express option in a time crunch).

(And a far more recent survey, released in April, showed that two-thirds of people making less than $50,000 a year said they’d use express toll lanes — the same percentage as people making more than that.)”

My comprehensive review of the topic is: Levinson, David (2010) Equity Effects of Road Pricing: A Review. Transport Reviews 30(1) 33-57.

The NCHRP had a report on this as well: Equity of Evolving Transportation Finance Mechanisms.

A key point is that HOT lanes also enable freeway BRT where it might otherwise be unaffordable to construct. The express lanes are uncongested and can be used by buses to maintain speed. An example is the I-35W corridor (Orange Line) south of downtown Minneapolis, which is not complete (Lake Street Station is still missing, e.g.), but has a BRT station at 46th.

The Commanding Heights

Marin Civic Center
Marin Civic Center

Reihan Salam at NRO questions the Kotkin hypothesis, asking: “Are people choosing low-density metropolitan areas — or did rising prices in high-density metropolitan areas [like Marin County, in the Bay Area pictured -ed.] drive the population shift?”
What is cause, and what is effect, is not immediately obvious. There are trade-offs. High-density areas are naturally more expensive (due to greater demand, otherwise they would not be high-density). High-density areas are also typically formed by physical constraint, meaning less supply. They are also more regulated due to their higher density. Density naturally produces more regulation because density naturally produces more externalities [See tomorrow’s post]. Even expensive metro areas have inexpensive housing in places, it just tends to be either lower quality, or in less desirable neighborhoods.
I wrote Height limits produce a positive externality recently, to which the technology/urbanist/libertarian blogger Timothy Lee tweeted (but I took more than a month to respond to, since I don’t live on Twitter), and I replied (this is reformatted for presentation, but I think captures what was said in the right sequence)…:

You don’t think there’s a shortage of space near multi-line transit stops like Metro Center and Gallery Place/Chinatown?

The higher you build there, the shorter you build elsewhere. There is plenty of land in DC that could be denser at less than 10 stories.

why does taller buildings one place mean shorter buildings elsewhere? There is a region-wide housing shortage.

Regional demand is largely fixed. Someone who can’t get in block X will be far more likely to locate in block Y than Charlotte.

you don’t think real estate prices affect migration between metro areas?

not much. People have jobs before they migrate. Firms locate for lots of reasons, but a shortage of hsg in a small dtwn no.
there is plenty of moderately priced real estate in metro DC, SFO and elsewhere, how else could poor people live there?
Only if the savings on the labor costs outweigh the savings on economies of agglomeration. This indicates few e of a.

I recommend amazon.com/Gated-City-Kin…

I read Avent and Glaeser, I believe they overstate e of a. The more important point is full social costs. New dev. should pay.

Firms move to save on labor costs (which are connected to housing costs) all the time.

If everyone paid full social cost, (and compensated losers) build away. In the absence of FSC pricing, we regulate.

Clearly Twitter is not a good way to have an academic discussion. Blogs are much, much better. There are several points wrapped up in this:

  • Empirical questions about Intra-urban vs. Inter-urban migration
  • The rights of the property owner vs. the rights of the community
  • Economic productivity (positive externalities?) vs. Pollution/Congestion etc. (negative externalities)
  • Empirical questions about the scarcity of land
  • Empirical questions about what constitutes good urban form
  • Empirical questions about the need to be downtown or simply in the metro area [plenty of suburbs even in DC would be happy to accommodate growth]

In short, I think height limits are not the dominant issue in any US metropolitan areas. This is not to say that regulation does not matter at all, as there are lots of regulations beyond height limits, but that its effect is limited. I discussed this previously in Zoning and Externalities.
If there is value, where are the side payments from otherwise rejected developers? My perhaps cynical view, ‘No side payments, no evidence of super-normal social profits, no evidence of huge value being lost’. While the developer may be losing potential profits, society is not, as those who are negatively affected are not being given compensation to offset the negative effects they would receive were the project to go forward. I realize there are transactions costs limiting the ease of implementing side payments, but surely some institution could arise to facilitate this.
I also wrote on the Limits to agglomeration, suggesting that agglomeration economies arguments are overstated, and in fact it is agglomeration externalities that create density, not (or not so much) vice versa.
DC and New York are both edge cases, being political and financial capitals respectively, both of which at least historically generated important economies of agglomeration.
One of the critical problems here, as with much research is the difference between marginal and average effects. E.g. Clearly transportation matters. If there were no transportation there would be no economic activity. However, that does not mean that a marginal increase in transportation supply will have a significant, or even positive, effect on economic activity, that depends on context. The network is mature, the marginal returns to new investment now are much lower than the historical average returns. Similarly, the marginal returns to density might be much smaller than average returns. Cities exist for a reason. That reason is economies of agglomeration in various forms. That said, where cities are continuing to grow, those economies must be valuable. Where suburbs are growing, the daily face-to-face inter-firm interactions emerging from the classical 19th and early 20th century transit-based downtown has declined relative to the need to be within auto-commuting distance of places that are to be dealt with on a short-term basis. When new cities grow, new patterns of economic activity are forming, and these may be more valuable than incremental changes to mature cities.
All of which is to say cities and their economies are dynamic, and the first order factor is the underlying market economics, while regulations (which are themselves the product of political market preferences) are second order effects.

Equity of Evolving Transportation Finance Mechanisms

Equity of Evolving Transportation Finance Mechanisms

TRB Special Report 303: Equity of Evolving Transportation Finance Mechanisms addresses the equity of alternatives to current transportation finance mechanisms, notably mechanisms based on tolling and road use metering (i.e., road pricing). The committee that developed the report concluded that broad generalizations about the fairness of high-occupancy toll lanes, cordon tolls, and other evolving mechanisms oversimplify the reality and are misleading. The fairness of a given type of finance mechanism depends on how it is structured, what transportation alternatives are offered to users, and which aspects of equity are deemed most important.

The committee identified the various dimensions of equity important for public policy debates about evolving finance mechanisms, proposed specific issues for policy makers to consider when evolving mechanisms are proposed, and identified areas where future research is needed for a better understanding of the equity implications of such mechanisms.

To move beyond superficial analysis, the report calls on policy makers to insist on well-designed studies of transportation finance that yield reliable information about the likely distribution of burdens and benefits, and that facilitate comparison of a given finance strategy with alternatives. In addition, public policy makers who wish to promote equity should engage their constituents and other stakeholders early and often when considering the use of new or unfamiliar transportation finance mechanisms.

The report calls on researchers to explore further how people modify their use of the transportation system in response to changes in prices and services and the consequences of these responses. It also recommends the development of a handbook for state and local governments describing procedures for conducting equity analyses of transportation finance policies.

To inform the development of its report, the committee commissioned four papers. Links to the papers are below:
• The Incidence of Public Finance Schemes
• The Empirical Research on the Social Equity of Gas Taxes, Emissions Fees, and Congestion Charges
• Remediating Inequity in Transportation Finance
• Equity, Pricing, and Surface Transportation Politics

I served on the committee that helped TRB draft the report and learned a lot from colleagues and those who presented to us. Online now is the pre-publication version of the report.