Social Equity in Transit: Toward social and environmental justice in transportation

Torrey Lyons, University of Utah


Much of the literature on transit focuses on very fine-grained aspects of the industry, often neglecting the important foundation of why the service is even provided in the first place. Transit service is supported by local governments with aid from larger bodies to provide a more diverse transportation network that serves as many needs of the public as possible. While transit agencies tend to focus on ridership as a measure of performance, this can skip over an important aspect of the agency’s function: providing opportunity to those that have little or no access to other modes of transportation. 

This three paper dissertation explores equity in transportation. First I test the theory that improved transit service affects regional economies by moderating the effect of spatial mismatch on poverty and unemployment. In the second paper I establish a novel method for quantitatively assessing transit agencies’ efficacy in promoting social equity through transit service. Finally, a qualitative study determines transit agency policies and practices which lead to equitable transit systems. 

Photo by jferrer,


They key implication of this research for practice is the potential to add additional performance measures of transit agencies. Common knowledge in transit practice and research is that ridership is the paramount metric against which all agencies are measured. This can be problematic because it leads to service planning decisions that cater to the discretionary rider. Discretionary riders are those with other means of transportation beyond transit, typically with access to a personal automobile. These riders have been the focus of transit agency for some time because they offer the largest potential gains for ridership if service becomes more attractive to the point where they might to choose to ride transit over making the trip by auto. However, with the dominance of ridership as the most important performance measurement of transit agencies, and agency decisions to accommodate discretionary riders with service decisions, this brings up questions of equity. If service decisions are being made solely with choice riders in mind, potentially at the expense of transit dependent riders, there can certainly be issues of fairness.

One simple explanation for the the dominance of ridership as an all-important performance measure is the fact that it is easy to measure. Automated person counters (APCs) have made figures reliable and easily comparable. What if, however, other important facets of transit agency performance were made to be more easily measured. The creation of the Transit Equity Index (TEI) will provide transit agencies the ability to comprehensively measure how proposed changes to service will affect their efficacy in promoting social equity. This tool will help agencies and policy makers understand how they can shape transit service in a way that is both effective for spurring ridership and equitable for all users.

Project Details

Project Type:
Project Status:
End Date:
April 10,2019
UTC Grant Cycle:
NITC 16 Dissertation Fellowships 2018
UTC Funding: