The goal of this study is to develop and apply a new method for assessing social equity impacts of distance-based public transit fares. Shifting to a distance-based fare structure can disproportionately favor or penalize different subgroups of a population based on variations in settlement patterns, travel needs, and most importantly, transit use. According to federal law, such disparities must be evaluated by the transit agency, but the area-based techniques identified by the Federal Transit Authority for assessing discrimination fail to account for disparities in distances travelled by transit users. This means that transit agencies currently lack guidelines for assessing the social equity impacts of replacing flat fare with distance-based fare structures.
Our solution is to incorporate a joint ordinal-continuous model of trip generation and distance travelled into a GIS Decision Support System. The system enables a transit planner to visualize and compare estimated distances travelled and transit-cost maps for different population profiles and fare structures. We apply the method to a case study in the Wasatch Front, Utah, where the Utah Transit Authority is exploring a switch to a distance-based fare structure. The analysis reveals that overall distance-based fares benefit low-income, elderly, and non-white populations. However, the effect is geographically uneven, and may be negative for members of these groups living on the urban fringe. The research discusses a potential conflict between policies designed to promote equity and those intended to increase discretionary ridership. For example, increasing fares for longdistance discretionary riders travelling from suburban light-rail stations to the central business district may have a negative impact on ridership, despite being economically more efficient through cost-recapturing. At the same time, reducing fares for short-distance trips that are currently too expensive compared to private automobile travel may attract new riders. A full cost-benefit analysis sensitive to heterogeneous price elasticity is recommended for future research. It is also noted that the research findings are dependent on the current spatial distributions of population segments and travel patterns. The equity benefits of distance-based fares are primarily derived from residential clustering of low-income and minority groups in more compact urban areas near the center of the city. Demographic trends, such as inner-city gentrification and suburban aging-in-place, may impose increased travel demands on lowincome and elderly riders, nullifying future equity gains made by a transition to distance-based fares.