Supporting Underserved Communities in Advancing Equitable Mobility

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Given the historical inequalities that low-income communities and communities of color have faced in the U.S., transportation equity envisions a future where all individuals, regardless of their life circumstances, have the mobility options needed to thrive. Download the full literature review of NITC research in transportation equity here, or you can download our two-page summary here.

In a series of NITC Research Roadmaps, we surveyed a decade of contributions across six areas of transportation research funded by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities (NITC).

Equity in Infrastructure

Many infrastructure-focused NITC reports offer a cost-benefit analysis of updating infrastructure to address transportation inequities. For example, approximately 30% of transit riders rely heavily on cash, and an examination of automated payment systems for public transit found it increased access and was operationally cost-effective to retain cash payment options on buses. 

Another dimension of infrastructure explored is transportation planning for optimizing accessibility to areas outside of large urban cities. One study examined the impact of transportation infrastructure and economic growth in Collin County, Texas on quality of life outcomes for residents. Although employment opportunities were increasing in the fast-growing Dallas suburb, poor and outdated transportation infrastructure prevented residents from accessing the full benefits of the economic "boom." For similar issues in rural regions, NITC work has empowered a network of planners in western gateway and natural amenity region (GNAR) communities. Rapid growth in tourism has caused unique transportation challenges for rural residents and access to amenities.

Finally, two NITC projects addressed transportation equity at bus stops. One study found that improved bus stop features (e.g. shelters, curb cutouts, access ramps, and benches) increased ridership and reduced demand for ADA paratransit. The authors conclude that physical features of bus stops are fundamental to equitable access, particularly for riders with mobility-based disabilities, and should not be treated as "amenities." Another ranked the "livability" of bus stops in Eugene, Oregon to explore what factors impacted people's choice to use public transportation, most notably a location in a quiet area, access to pedestrian paths that connect to other areas in the city, safety, and protection from adverse weather.


Other studies of transit fare equity found that fares based on distance traveled would benefit low-income individuals, older populations, and communities of color. However, this outcome was found to be geographically uneven, so that distance-based fare structures might have a negative impact if they live on the outskirts of urban areas. Planners and policy-makers need to eliminate common barriers to equitable public transit access, including improving both tactile and verbal information at stops and onboard, adding sidewalks and crosswalks to areas surrounding stops, and promptly removing snow on sidewalks and in crosswalks around stops.

Technology-based concerns have been explored in several studies, including transportation limitations for older adults which found that while the COVID-19 pandemic improved technology use for many older adults, barriers still exist for low-income older adults who are less likely to use the Internet or technology to access transportation resources. Policy strategies could support older adults’ transportation independence through education, and increased access to affordable door-to-door transportation options such as ride-hailing services and vanpooling. Another project examined the use of ridehail services linking clients to nonprofit services and found that some clients did not have access to a smartphone or credit card, both of which are necessary for using ridehail services.

There are also accessibility concerns around cycling in urban areas and using bikeshare programs. One NITC project found that women and cyclists of color face challenges like personal safety concerns, gendered harassment, parenting, racial profiling, lack of women and minorities in both cycling culture and in city and transportation planning meetings. Updated infrastructure such as protected bike lanes, bikeshare stations, and street lighting could help mitigate some of these concerns. Another study examined equitable access to bikeshare programs across the U.S. and reported several barriers for low-income and minority populations, including programmatic costs, technology-dependent payment systems, and poor or nonexistent investment in infrastructure in those neighborhoods. Increased education and outreach in multiple languages, standardized rental structures, and low-income fare programs could overcome some of these barriers.


NITC research has a strong focus on safety, including physical safety while biking, walking, and riding transit and those concerns further exacerbated by racism and gendered/sexual harassment. One study on collision and non-collision incidents involving buses found that the majority of incidents occurred at “stop segments” of bus routes: stop signs, intersections, and bus stops. Both types of incidents were higher at route turns, and the most severe (e.g., a bus hitting a pedestrian) occurred most frequently at intersections. Researchers recommend updating infrastructure to improve safety, including additional street lighting and lighting at transit stops, new or repaired sidewalks and crosswalks, and barriers near bus stops to maintain space between pedestrians and moving buses. They also recommend improved pedestrian warning technologies at crosswalks and bus stops to alert pedestrians of buses turning, pulling in or out, or deploying ramps.

Another study explored the effect of drivers’ attitudes toward bicyclists on their self-reported safety behaviors, and found that survey respondents with a pro-driver implicit bias were associated with anti-bicyclist explicit attitudes. Recommendations to improve bicyclist safety include increasing the number of designated/protected bike lanes and clarifying passing laws for drivers passing cyclists.

Historical Inequities

Our transportation research has studied gentrification, neighborhood development and change, and impacts on historically underrepresented communities, including Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, immigrants, and people with disabilities. In a report on gentrification and neighborhood displacement that compared case studies in two low-income Latino neighborhoods (Fruitvale Transit Village in Oakland, CA and MacArthur Park METRO Transit-Oriented Development in Los Angeles, CA), researchers found that transit-oriented development projects have the ability to lead neighborhood revitalization projects. When planned with equitable outcomes in mind, these investments have the potential to increase access to regional transportation systems and affordable housing and social services, as well as support local Latino-owned businesses. Project developers should take guidance from community members so that transit projects build upon neighborhood assets and existing capital.


Overall, NITC research demonstrates that increasing the representation of communities of color, underserved populations, and women in city and transportation decision-making can effect the greatest positive outcomes for those communities.

What are the impacts of our research on advancing equitable mobility opportunities and investments? Learn more about some impact stories below.

Moving to a cashless transit system will leave some riders behind. To prevent that, keeping a cash on-board option may be most cost effective.

Our multi-year study on automated transit fare collection offers a key finding that won't surprise you: despite the convenience, the rush toward cashless fare systems has created barriers for lower-income riders seeking to use transit. Results from focus groups, surveys, and a review of current transit agency practices suggest that continuing to accept cash is a crucial way to keep transit accessible. However, dealing with cash has drawbacks: it’s time intensive and expensive. Using a detailed cost-benefit model, the research team, lead by PSU's Aaron Golub, explored the costs for agencies to maintain some cash options and found that some simple approaches can be quite effective. The best bang for the agency's buck? Cash collection on board buses.

"Around the same time as this study, we were in the middle of purchasing and implementing our first electronic fare collection system. We had already decided to take a more customer-centric approach: instead of going completely cash-free, we determined that we were going to take on the costs of making sure our service remained accessible to all riders. It was good to see, in the research, a lot of the things that we were intuitively feeling turned out to be true. The cost-benefit analysis shows that the cost isn't as great as you think; by doing the equity mitigations, you might end up with higher ridership and offset the revenue loss. When you're looking at 10 different systems and you need to justify to the board, the general manager, the community, why you're spending money a certain way – it's really helpful to have research like this that shows that the costs are not some huge amount. When equity is cheap to obtain, it's really easy to justify doing that."
-Andrew Martin, Lane Transit District

Learn more about Applying an Equity Lens to Automated Payment Solutions for Public Transportation, led by Aaron Golub of Portland State University. 

Boardings increased 5.9% after improvements were made to bus stops in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Co-funded by the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) and NITC, this research demonstrates that bus stop improvements make it possible for patrons with mobility-related disabilities to use regular bus service instead of paratransit service, and that they were actually doing so. By facilitating access to the entire transit system network, instead of having to rely on costly single point ADA paratransit, the stop improvements were shown to vastly increase these patrons' access to opportunities and destinations. The researchers found a 5.9% increase in boardings after improvements were made to a series of bus stops in Salt Lake City, Utah - compared to only a 1.7% overall increase in boarding at stops in a control group that were not improved. The bus stop improvements – which include adding shelters and seating as well as stronger compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – also correlated with a decrease in ADA paratransit demand in the area. This informed bus stop planning in Salt Lake City (UTA), Denver (RTD), and beyond.

"This project was insightful as we planned the inventory of bus stop amenities for Waukesha Metro Transit and Waukesha County Transit in Wisconsin. In addition, the project assisted our staff articulate potential benefits related to bus stop improvements."
-Planner, Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC)

Learn more about the project The Connection between Investments in Bus Stops, Ridership, and ADA Accessibility, led by Keith Bartholomew of University of Utah.

Marginalized groups face significant barriers to completing household travel surveys.

What is the quality of travel data for underrepresented, marginalized populations? The issues go deeper than creating slicker algorithms: In a world with deep-rooted systemic inequity, transportation professionals must understand contextual factors and approach data collection with sensitivity. Data from travel surveys are used to inform investments and craft urban policies. It is critical that hard-to-reach populations—such as low-income, minority, and transit-dependent people—have their travel behavior accurately reflected. This study explored the current limitations and opportunities in household travel survey methods. 

The research team linked the 2010 Decennial Census population and housing data to an apparent stratified random sample of 6,107 household responses to the 2011 Oregon Household Activity Survey (OHAS) in the Portland metropolitan area. They found that the 2011 OHAS consistently over-represented white households and underrepresented Nonwhite households in the greater Portland area. Researchers found evidence that the OHAS survey methods lack social, cultural, and linguistic applicability for Black, Indigenous and other people of color, as well as low-income populations. Marginalized groups face significant barriers to completing household travel surveys: mistrust of the government; concerns about personal privacy; language difficulties; issues with the construction of the survey questions themselves; and time constraints.

The study offers transportation professionals strategies centered around five themes to improve data collection efforts: increase transparency; protect data and privacy; community engagement; language use; and seeking out alternatives to the one-day travel diary.

I work in a small-medium size MPO in the midwest and we are trying to improve the way we collect and incorporate all public input. This report is helping to inform a grant we are applying for to develop some of our own outreach and data analysis practices related to underrepresented populations.
-Champaign County RPC

Learn more about Developing Data, Models, and Tools to Enhance Transportation Equity, led by Amy Lubitow of Portland State University.

E-bikes offer more inclusive biking culture for people of all ages and abilities.

Widespread adoption of bike commuting could improve public health through increased physical activity and reduced carbon emissions, as well as ease the burden on congested roads. However different lifestyle demands, physical ableness, and varied topography create an unequal playing field that prevents many from replacing their car trips. E-bikes could bridge this gap. If substituted for car use, e-bikes could substantially improve efficiency in the transportation system while creating a more inclusive biking culture for people of all ages and abilities.

“E-bikes and e-cargo bikes give people freedom of mobility while reducing their carbon footprint,” said Jack Todd, the communications director of Bicycle Colorado. “Research from the National Institute for Transportation and Communities shows that people are purchasing e-bikes to replace car trips and travel with heavier loads, greater distances, at an older age or with mobility issues, and to commute to places without worrying about appearing disheveled at their destination. They are a game-changer when it comes to getting people to leave the car at home and choose two wheels instead of four.” Streetsblog

Learn more about the National Electric Bike Owner Survey, led by John MacArthur of Portland State University.

Modeling housing and service providers offers a tool to ease transportation burdens on former offenders in Dallas, TX.

Roughly 2,000 former inmates who return to communities every day in the U.S. face significant transportation burdens getting to and from job interviews and their many required parole-related appointments. To ease their reintegration into society, University of Texas at Arlington researchers partnered with Dallas, Texas reentry broker Unlocking DOORS to develop a unique solution: three computer models that optimize the locations of housing and service providers to ensure that former offenders can actually, realistically, make it everywhere they need to be.

"If I'm able to put in where a guy resides… and it's going to populate for me all the different service providers that are available, the different employers that are available, in either a walkable or easy public transportation spectrum – or even on a bicycle – then we're doing great. I think this is really going to be a game changer for us. We're very excited about it." 
Christina Melton Crain, Unlocking DOORs

Learn more about the project Optimizing Housing and Service Locations to Provide Mobility to Meet the Mandated Obligations for Former Offenders to Improve Community Health and Safety led by Anne Nordberg, University of Texas at Arlington.