Equity in Transit

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Measuring equity in transportation planning, and in transit planning more specifically, can be difficult because there are several types of equity to consider and many consequences and ramifications for planning decisions. Both the types of equity and the traits of potentially-underserved and disadvantaged populations tend to overlap frequently.

There are two types of transit equity solutions:

  • Programmatic Solutions focus protections and services on disadvantaged groups.
  • Structural changes affect overall policies and planning activities.

Equity Definitions and Traits

Types of Equity

1. Horizontal Equity

Horizontal equity covers the distribution of costs and benefits between individuals and groups equal in ability and need. Under horizontal equity, consumers should get what they pay for and pay for what they get unless subsidies are specifically justified.

2. Vertical Equity (Income and Social Class)

Vertical equity with regard to income and social class is concerned with the distribution of costs and benefits between individuals and groups that differ in these two categories. Policies are "progressive" if they favor these groups and "regressive" if they harm these groups.

3. Vertical Equity (Mobility Need and Ability)

Focusing vertical equity on mobility and need tends the needs of travelers with mobility disadvantages. This type of equity supports universal design.

Traits of Transportation-Disadvantaged People

No one disadvantaged person is the same as another, so many transportation-disadvantaged people exhibit several of these traits:

  • Low income
  • Non-driver/Car-less
  • Disability
  • Limited English proficiency
  • Geographic isolation
  • Caregiver
  • Obligations (Example: Frequent medical treatments)

Equity Metrics

Access Poverty Line

In a 2014 article, Aaron Golub and Karel Martens advocate for what they call the "Access Poverty Line."[1] Golub and Martens argue that access is the best possible metric in measuring transportation equity, and more specifically transit equity. They reach two conclusions: that the gap between car-owning and car-less households should remain within a set maximum level, and within that, there should be a maximum average accessibility. The Access Poverty Line represents the maximum acceptable gap between transit and car accessibility.

Considerations for Disadvantaged Groups

Each of the following metrics suggests inadequate or mismatched transit service among disadvantaged groups:

  • Low mode share
  • Low per-capita linked trips
  • Longer transit travel times
  • Higher transit travel cost
  • Overcrowding
  • Long actual maximal headways
  • Low per-capita line and stop density

This is particularly important for low-income families that are car-less and are thereby often transit-dependent.  While a rider with modal choice may be sensitive to a longer travel time or a higher out-of-pocket cost, someone who is transit dependent will continue to bear that burden on transit, regardless of that situation’s implicit fairness.

Summary Table of Transit Network Characteristics and Equity Metrics

The following chart is adapted from Kramer and Goldstein's article "Meeting the Public's Need for Transit Options: Characteristics of Socially Equitable Transit Networks."[2] Equity measures that involve setting performance targets often require a public involvement process.

Transit Network Characteristic Metrics and Strategies
Radial vs.

Multidirectional Networks

A more equitable transit network has a lower peak to off-peak level of service ratio.
Mode: Rail vs. Bus Compare modal distributions for different trip markets.
Speed of Transit Crowded or congested bus routes can be improved using Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and/or some of its characteristics: signal priority, all-door boarding, dedicated or semi-dedicated lanes, etc.
Stop Spacing Balance objectives of speed and walk distance depending on type of service needed.
Frequency and Span Ensure a core network of frequent, all-day service to cover areas of high demand.
Reliability Measure and improve headway spacing and on-time arrivals.
Capacity Measure levels of crowding.
Cost Identify trip patterns of lower-income populations and adjust fares to ensure these trips' affordability.


Unless otherwise noted, this page is adapted from and largely summarizes Todd Littman (2019) "Evaluating Transportation Equity."

  1. Aaron Golub and Karel Martens (2014). "Using principles of justice to assess the modal equity of regional transportation plans." Journal of Transport Geography. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jtrangeo.2014.07.014
  2. Kramer, Anna, and Alexandra Goldstein (2015). "Meeting the Public's Need for Transit Options: Characteristics of Socially Equitable Transit Networks." ITE Journal.