Transit and Civil Rights

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Los Angeles' Bus Riders Union protests LA Metro's fare hike in Union Station. Source: Streetsblog USA


Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination against racial or ethnic groups (so called “protected classes”) by any federal financial recipient and is enforced by U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) civil rights regulations[1] which provides that “[n]o person or group of persons shall be discriminated against with regard to the routing, scheduling, or quality of service of transportation service furnished as a part of the project on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Frequency of service, age and quality of vehicles assigned to routes, quality of stations serving different routes, and location of routes may not be determined on the basis of race, color, or national origin”[2] The DOT regulations make clear that even policies or practices that unintentionally produce “disparate impacts” are prohibited. Disparate impact refers to a facially neutral policy or practice that disproportionately affects members of a protected group where the recipient’s policy or practice lacks a substantial legitimate justification and where one or more alternatives would serve the same legitimate objectives but with less disproportionate effect on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

Transit operators must comply with civil rights requirements in making operational decisions about services and in contracting practices and procedures.[3] This includes establishing disadvantaged business enterprises (DBE) hiring programs required by federal regulations.[4] Protected groups include women, Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Pacific Americans, and Asian-Indian Americans. Transit agencies that receive federal funds must submit compliance reports to the FTA every three years. Private individuals may sue transit operators for intentional violations of Title VI, however, the Supreme Court has ruled that they may not sue to enforce the DOT's disparate impact regulations. They may however file an administrative complaint with the FTA, which can take actions including withholding federal funds from the recipient. There have been complaints filed with the FTA regarding the allocation of funds between bus and rail, service and fare changes, and disparities in service and/or equipment, though these have generally been resolved favorably to the transit providers[5]

FTA Guidance

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) provides transit agencies with guidance[6] to ensure compliance with these regulations and that the agency achieves the overarching objective of fair distribution of the adverse impacts of, or burdens associated with its transit programs, policies, and activities. The Circular is intended to ensure that transit providers meet their nondiscrimination Title VI obligations All fixed-route transit providers must adopt quantitative system-wide service standards and policies for each mode including: (1) Vehicle loads (passengers per vehicle or passengers per seat); (2) Vehicle headways (time interval between two vehicles travelling in the same direction on the same route); (3) On-time performance (runs completed as scheduled); and (4) Service availability (distribution of routes in the service area, for example, percentage of population within ¼ mile of a transit stop)[7] Large urban transit agencies (those that operate 50 or more fixed route vehicles in peak service and are located in urbanized areas of 200,000 or more people) must compare these indicators for those census tracts, blocks, block groups, or traffic analysis zones (TAZs) with above average percentages of minority or low-income resident populations with the figures for their service area as a whole.[8]

If any significant system-wide service and fare changes, such as new rail construction to serve suburban commuters or reducing existing bus service, have either a disparate impact on minority populations or a represent a disproportionate burden on low income populations[1] the agency must analyze any actions it can take to minimize, mitigate, or offset any such effects. Typically, this involves a determination whether a higher proportion of minority or low income persons (based on ridership or population data) will be impacted by the change compared to the overall population or ridership in the service area. Changes affecting minority riders may be implemented only if they are substantially justified and there is no less discriminatory alternative.


[1]Note that low-income populations are not a protected class under the statute, though they are covered by agency rules addressing environmental justice (EJ). Although there is an administrative distinction between the required Title VI analysis transit agencies must perform and the EJ analysis conducted as part of NEPA reviews, the impacts on both minority and low income populations from transit service and fare changes are governed by the Title VI Circular.

Further Reading

Transit Cooperative Research Program, Legal Research Digest 7, The Impact of Civil Rights Litigation Under Title VI and Related Laws on Transit Decision Making, June 1997.

A summary of legal decisions related to DOT affirmative action programs for disadvantaged business enterprises (DBEs) and disparate impact regulations. Provides good background information but readers should be cautious since the article is not up to date and legal standards may have changed.

Transit Cooperative Research Program, Legal Research Digest 27, Civil Rights Implications of the Allocation of Funds between Bus and Rail, July 2008.

This report expands on and updates TCRP Legal Research Digest 7 with regards to Title VI requirements. Readers should note that legal standards may have changed since its publication.


  1. 49 C.F.R. § 21.5(b)(2)
  2. 49 CFR part 21, Appendix C, Section (3)(iii).
  3. Transit Cooperative Research Program, Legal Research Digest 7, The Impact of Civil rights Litigation Under Title VI and Related Laws on Transit Decision Making, June 1997
  4. 49 C.F.R. Part 23
  5. Transit Cooperative Research Program, Legal Research Digest 27, Civil Rights Implications of the Allocation of Funds between Bus and Rail, July 2008.
  6. Circular 4702.1B (Title VI Requirements and Guidelines for Federal Transit Administration Recipients), effective October 1, 2012 (77 FR 52116, August 28, 2012).
  7. FTA Circular C 4702.1B, Ch. 4, ¶ 4.
  8. Id. ¶¶ 5 & 6