Getting to Equality: Better Transportation Choices for Underserved Communities

November 13, 2003

A panel of transportation experts convened by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) for a symposium on inequities in transportation resources agreed that better planning is crucial to providing choices for underserved communities.

"Our panel included a wide range of perspectives, from federal representatives to transit advocates," noted AICP Director Rudayna Abdo, AICP. "One thing they could all agree on was the importance of the planning process in making certain our transportation resources are directed in a fair and equitable manner."

The symposium, "Getting to Equity: Better Transportation Choices for Underserved Communities," was held at the National Building Museum on Thursday, November 13, 2003 and was the 5th annual symposium convened by AICP to explore ways of making communities better through planning.

Panelists included:

Dan Tangherlini
Director of the Washington, D.C., Department of Transportation

Tangherlini addressed the experience of underserved communities in Washington, D.C., a city second only to New York City in transit use. Despite the success of D.C.'s Metrorail system, Tangherlini reported that 75 percent of D.C. residents use the city's buses, while only 38 percent use rail.

"The D.C. bus system is making a secret resurgence," Tangherlini said. "Ridership is beginning to set records that were set prior to the existence of the Metro system."

While facing many of the same budget woes as other metropolitan areas in the United States, D.C. has devoted additional funding toward expanding and integrating its public transit system, which Tangherlini says is unusual. When most cities need to cut spending, they look to how they can tighten their transit service, he said. But cutting transit scares away a customer base, causing job losses and a steadily decreasing tax base.

Tangherlini noted that D.C.'s experience shows how planners must be vigilant in keeping transit-oriented development from becoming transit-oriented gentrification. "Handing people another fork at the table does not affect how much they have to eat," he noted.

"Traditionally, transportation engineering has focused on throughput as vehicles-per-hour. When we begin to think in terms of people-per-hour, we begin to democratize the rights of way."

Stephanie Ortoleva
Office of Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Transportation

Ortoleva (left, pictured with Effie Stallsmith, right), presented preliminary research on transportation inequalities affecting women. The U.S. Department of Transportation National Household Travel Survey ( and other transportation studies demonstrate significant differences in women's travel behavior, Ortoleva noted. These differences include variations in "trip chaining," or combining multiple stops (grocery store, dry cleaning, etc.) into one trip to save time.

Often, the disparate impact on women of minor transportation changes is overlooked, Ortoleva observed. "Historically, transportation has both liberated women and restricted them."

For example, establishing toll lanes on highways or toll roads to mitigate congestion and/or raise highway funds might have a greater impact on women drivers who have more limited economic resources and who also engage in more "trip chaining."

Effie Stallsmith
Office of Planning and Environment, Federal Transit Administration

Noting that only 6 percent of welfare recipients own cars, Stallsmith identified transportation as "the single most significant issue in getting and keeping a job."

Stallsmith reviewed the FTA's Jobs Access Reverse Commute (JARC) program that provides 50/50 matching funds to community transit projects for low-income populations. While the program is responsible for a growing number of success stories, eligibility for the funds requires that a community provide significant investment in transit planning. Thus, only the communities that have an existing commitment to transit for low-income workers have tended to receive the funds.

Nancy Jakowitsch
Director of Policy Development, Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP)

Jakowitsch presented some striking statistics regarding transportation inequalities across socio-economic demographics. She reported, for example, that the poorest American households spend nearly 40 percent of take-home pay on transportation. Cancer rates along major highway corridors are as much as 42 percent higher than in other communities. And, while African-Americans account for only 12 percent of the population, they represent 37 percent of pedestrian fatalities.

Jakowitsch noted that more targeted transportation planning is necessary to address these disparities. "Our sense is that if we were able to better target transportation investments to communities with disparate health effects," she said, "we could begin to mitigate those impacts."

Thomas Sanchez
Associate Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning, Virginia Tech's Alexandria Center and Fellow, The Metropolitan Institute

Sanchez explored the relationship between transportation choice and access to affordable housing, noting that limited transportation choices affect where underserved communities live and hence their exposure to certain environmental risks. The need for more targeted transportation resources should be presented as part of a comprehensive welfare-to-work strategy in order to be politically viable, said Sanchez.

"University planning departments and academics should also do more to attract diverse students who are already aware of these issues," he suggested.

Chandra Foreman, AICP
Commissioner, American Institute for Certified Planners and Research Associate, Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR)

Foreman moderated the panel and spoke about the need to bring transit agencies into the development review process early. "The more inclusive our planning process, the better prepared we are to address the inequalities within our current transportation system," she noted.

Foreman also reviewed the American Planning Association's support for reauthorization of the nation's transportation laws based on principles of increased choice, access, equity, flexibility, and livability through planning.