Transportation Equity—Says Who?

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MTI researcher explores examples of decision-makers misusing the label “equity” and even doing more harm than good
March 29, 2022
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San José, CA

Along with the upheaval of the pandemic, recent political and social movements have shone a spotlight on issues of equity. But while there is substantial agreement that equity is important— at least in transportation—there is a decided lack of agreement regarding what that means in terms of specific policy outcomes. The latest Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) perspective, Transportation Equity—Says Who?, describes some examples of where the issue of equity in transportation was misused to the point that decision-makers may have wound up hurting the very people they were allegedly trying to help. 

This perspective suggests that equity is in the eye of the beholder. The author argues, “In a politically driven world of transportation policy, this disagreement leaves substantial vulnerabilities for the idea of equity to be hijacked for political purposes. This superficial theft can happen to such an extreme that those claiming the equity mantle are often advocating for an outcome that may more accurately be characterized as preserving the status quo. This happens even when there is almost universal agreement that the status quo is not equitable.” The author posits that this misuse of the issue of equity occurred in three distinct incidents at a transit provider in southern California, which, the author argues, oversimplified and politicized issues of equity in transit, including in regard to congestion pricing and bus routes. 

Equity is a complex issue and there is no single “correct” understanding that can guide transportation professionals through challenging policy decisions. By carefully considering assertions of equity improvements or challenges, especially when there is reason to believe that the outcome may be the opposite of what is being claimed, the transportation industry can ensure policies truly benefit communities and improve mobility for all. 

ABOUT THE MINETA TRANSPORTATION INSTITUTE

At the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) at San Jose State University (SJSU) our mission is to increase mobility for all by improving the safety, efficiency, accessibility, and convenience of our nations’ transportation system. Through research, education, workforce development and technology transfer, we help create a connected world. Founded in 1991, MTI is funded through the US Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security, the California Department of Transportation, and public and private grants, including those made available by the Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017 (SB1). MTI is affiliated with SJSU’s Lucas College and Graduate School of Business.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joshua Schank, a Research Associate at MTI, holds a PhD in Urban Planning from Columbia University and a Master of City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also a Managing Principal at InfraStrategies, and a Senior Fellow in the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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