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Moving to Equity: Addressing Inequitable Effects of Transportation Policies on Minorities

Authors: Thomas W. Sanchez, Rich Stolz, Jacinta S. Ma
Date Published: June 01, 2003

A joint report of The Civil Rights Project and the Center for Community Change that identifies surface transportation policies’ inequitable effects.
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Executive Summary

Americans are increasingly mobile and ever more reliant on automobiles for meeting their travel needs, largely due to transportation policies adopted after World War II that emphasized highway development over public transportation. These and other transportation policies have had inequitable effects on minority and low-income populations, often restricting their ability to access social and economic opportunities, including job opportunities, education, health care services, places of worship, and other places such as grocery stores. Transportation policies limit access to opportunities through direct effects, such as inequitable costs, and indirect effects, such as residential segregation. The indirect effects are caused in part by the combined effects of transportation policies and land use practices.

This report identifies surface transportation policies' inequitable effects. It examines existing research in the area and highlights the critical need for more research and data collection related to the impact of transportation policies on minority and low-income communities. It also makes recommendations to address the racial injustices created by transportation policies.


U.S. Transportation Policy in Historical Context

Historically, although issues related to transportation were integral to the civil rights movement of the 1960s—embodied in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Freedom Rides—the civil rights implications of transportation policies were largely ignored until the 1990s. Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, it was common practice to construct major highways through low-income and minority communities. Similar policies and practices continue today and have led to destruction of thriving neighborhoods, eviction of minorities, and negative health effects.


In the 1990s, the primary federal transportation funding law, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), changed the way funding was allocated and began to erode the long-standing preference for highway funding. In addition, ISTEA dramatically changed the way transportation projects were planned in metropolitan areas, providing significant responsibility and some funding to Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs). Building on these changes when ISTEA expired, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) mandated increased public involvement in state and regional transportation planning. It also established grant programs to help serve the transportation needs of minority and low-income communities. TEA-21 is scheduled to expire on September 30, 2003, providing lawmakers an opportunity to make even more improvements and address the continuing inequities that minority and low-income communities experience.


Demographic Realities

Some general demographic facts provide a basis for understanding how transportation, race, poverty, and geography intersect. Although America's population is 69 percent white, 12 percent African American, 12.5 percent Latino, and 3.6 percent Asian American, the composition of major cities and urban areas is quite different. Almost half of the 100 largest cities have predominantly minority populations, while whites live mostly in the suburbs.

Disparities in poverty levels remain between whites and minorities. Whites have a poverty rate of only 5 percent, compared with 22 percent for African Americans, 20 percent for Latinos, and 10 percent for Asian Americans.

Nationally, public transportation users are disproportionately minorities with low to moderate incomes. Overall, public transit users are 45 percent white, 31 percent African American, and 18 percent Latino/Hispanic. In urban areas, African Americans and Latinos together comprise 54 percent of public transportation users (62% of bus riders, 35% of subway riders, and 29% of commuter rail riders.) Twenty-eight percent of public transportation users have incomes of $15,000 or less, and 55 percent have incomes between $15,000 and $50,000. Only 17 percent have incomes above $50,000. Just 7 percent of white households do not own a car, compared with 24 percent of African-American households, 17 percent of Latino households, and 13 percent of Asian-American households.


High Transportation Expenditures and Inequities in Transportation Funding

Transportation costs are particularly burdensome for low-income households, which devote greater proportions of their incomes to transportation-related expenses than do higher-income households. In 1998, those in the lowest income quintile, making $11,943 or less, spent 36 percent of their household budget on transportation, compared with those in the highest income quintile, making $60,535 or more, who spent only 14 percent.

Transportation expenditures continue to rise, reducing the amount low-income households have to spend on housing, food, health care, insurance, education, and other needs. The costs of car ownership can make it difficult to afford to purchase a home, and cars quickly depreciate compared with real property. Between 1992 and 2000, households with incomes of less than $20,000 saw the amount of their income spent on transportation increase by 36.5 percent or more (households with incomes between $5,000 and $9,999 spent 57 percent more on transportation than they did in 1992). In comparison, households with incomes of $70,000 and above only spent 16.8 percent more on transportation expenses than they did in 1992.

There are significant inequities between bus service, which tends to serve more low-income riders and rail service, which tends to serve higher-income riders. These inequities pale in comparison to the differences between governmental financial and political support for highway systems and for public transit systems. Many transportation planners and policymakers, concerned primarily with the needs of suburban commuters, have focused on constructing highways and commuter rail lines that do little to serve the needs of minority and low-income communities that depend on public transportation.

Examination of state transportation spending priorities reveal another inequity. A body of research suggests that states are spending more resources on transportation needs in non-metropolitan areas than in metropolitan areas. More research examining geographically coded data on spending between cities and other areas would provide us with a better understanding of how transportation spending patterns impact minority and low-income communities.


Indirect Economic and Social Effects Hinder Access to Opportunities

Transportation policies that favor highway development over public transit have several indirect negative effects. For one, such policies encourage housing development increasingly farther away from central cities, which has played an important role in fostering residential segregation and income inequalities. Also, the practice of locating major highways in minority and low-income communities has reduced housing an those areas. Other transportation investments, such as extending a rail line into a community, have made it more difficult for minorities and low-ifcome individuals living there to afford housing because of ensuing property value increases. Individuals displaced by these property value increases commonly have few alternative housing options and may end up living farther away from their jobs and social networks—a problem that is compounded by limited transportation options.

Transportation policies favoring highways over transit  have also helped to create "spatial mismatch"—the disconnect that occurs when new entry-level and low-skill jobs are located on the fringes of urban areas that are inaccessible to central-city residents who need those jobs. Public transportation systems operate most efficiently in densely developed urban areas and do a poor job of serving people who need to reach destinations far from the core downtown area. Also, transit systems often do not adequately serve the needs of minorities and low-income individuals with nontraditional work hours.

Transportation policies can also have indirect negative effects in the areas of health and education: highway construction in minority and low-income communities can impair health through increased pollution, and access to education may be limited by cutbacks in school bus service with no affordable public transit as an alternative.

Many transportation planners and policymakers have failed to recognize the link between transportation and land use policies and the impact of transportation policy on access to social and economic opportunities. Also, they have not recognized the need to take a regional approach in trying to address the inequitable effects of transportation policy.


Unequal Access and Opportunities in the Transportation Construction Industry

Federal transportation spending creates hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars worth of contracts. Although construction projects are often located in or near minority communities, minorities are generally underrepresented in the construction industry or likely concentrated in low-paying jobs. Of the more than 6.25 million people employed in construction, just 7 percent are African Americans and 17 percent are Latinos/Hispanics.

Minorities represent about 28 percent of the population, but according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) they own only 9 percent of construction firms and receive about 5 percent of construction receipts. DOT's Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program works to remedy this inequality by requiring states to allocate a portion of their federal transportation dollars to construction opportunities for small disadvantaged businesses, including those owned and operated by minorities.


Language Barriers

Inequitable transportation policy decisions are often made because minority and low-income individuals and communities are unable to learn about transit options or have little voice in transportation planning because of language barriers or lack of information. Also, like other obstacles to transportation accessibility, language barriers diminish social and economic opportunities by limiting a person's ability to travel (such as by preventing a person from obtaining a drivers' license) and which is exacerbated by their inability to communicate to policymakers and planners about transportation needs.


Minimal Outreach to Minority Communities in the Transportation Planning Process

How transportation policies are decided and who is able to influence those decisions, have played an important role in creating and sustaining the inequities of current transportation policies. State Departments of Transportation and Metropolitan Planning Organizations are responsible for planning transportation in a way that achieves the greatest system efficiency, mobility, and access while addressing environmental and social concerns. Although these agencies are required to seek out and consider the needs of low-income and minority households, there are no effective mechanisms to ensure their compliance with this requirement.


Ineffective Legal Protections and Lack of Accountability

Civil rights laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and environmental laws provide some legal protections for minority communities faced with discriminatory transportation policies. Enforcement of these protections, however, has been limited and should be increased. No generally accepted measures or standards by which to gage whether transportation planning and outcomes of transportation policies are equitable presently exist, and it is extremely difficult to enforce any requirements requiring equitable transportation policies.


Primary Policy Recommendations

In the past decade, federal transportation policies have taken some important steps toward becoming more equitable for minority and low-income individuals and communities. Much more needs to be done, however, and the expiration of TEA-21 provides an opportunity for action.

Implementation of the following recommendations would significantly support moving to equity:

  • Increase funding for public transit and develop new programs and support existing ones that improve minority and low-income individuals' mobility.
  • Establish enforceable standards to measure whether the benefits and burdens of transportation policies are distributed equitably to minority and low-income communities.
  • Increase funding for research that examines transportation equity, and improve data collection to provide a better basis for evaluating the effects of transportation policies, including supporting the need for geographically coded data.
  • Increase funding for enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the National Environmental Policy Act, and improve efforts to enforce them.
  • Recognize the interaction between transportation, land use, and social equity, and support programs that address these effects.

In compliance with the UC Open Access Policy, this report has been made available on eScholarship:

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