The National Academies

TCRP H-59 [Active]

Racial Equity, Black America, and Public Transportation

  Project Data
Funds: $249,883
Staff Responsibility: Stephan A. Parker
Research Agency: Thrivance Group LLC
Principal Investigator: Destiny Thomas
Effective Date: 11/15/2021
Completion Date: 2/16/2023



In the United States, the gap between Black Americans and White Americans in terms of wealth, health, and social equity is wide. Many historians and social experts in the fields of sociology, social justice, and now transportation are beginning to understand the magnitude of the role transportation policy, urban planning, and public infrastructure construction—as well as both private and public financing—have played in contributing to these gaps and inequitable outcomes for Black Americans.


Over the past decades, publicly funded transportation projects have had negative impacts on certain segments of the community.  In some cases, whole communities have been destroyed, their buildings razed, and their inhabitants forced to relocate.  As a Vanderbilt Law Review article put it in October 2020, "In states around the country, highway construction displaced Black households and cut the heart and soul out of thriving Black communities as homes, churches, schools, and businesses were destroyed.”  A June 2020 Politico article emphasized the point that, "This is not just an obscure social critique: It’s a finding endorsed by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. In a 2019 research paper that examined the reasons and impact of the Freeway Revolts against urban highway construction, the researchers concluded that the American history of road development systematically shifted prosperity from inner cities to suburbs.” 


Any approach to evaluating equity concerns needs to consider the institutional or organizational structure that contributes to disparate economic and opportunistic outcomes.  This component includes both the public and private sectors.  Public and political institutions both create the disparities and attempts to rectify them.  Without an understanding of the framework that affects social equity from the public sector perspective, any attempt to rectify past, present, and future inequities is going to be difficult. This extends to the private sector as well, including non-profit philanthropic and advocacy organizations.  Some relevant questions are:

  • How does the private sector affect delivery of services and facilities?  
  • How has public policy contributed to maintaining the status quo?
  • Where are the opportunities for structural changes and how can those changes be implemented?



Public transportation agencies in the 21st Century are increasingly committed to the pursuit of new values and principles, including the following:


Policies. Social equity policies for the planning and operations of public transportation systems. This includes the use of technologies in the planning and operations of public transportation systems that ensure each and every user of the system and their communities receives equitable benefits.


Funding. Policies, principles, recommendations, and guidelines for the funding of transportation projects include those focused on the reversal of damage done through public funding of infrastructure projects that severely impacted historically Black communities; through the practice of “redlining” by private financial institutions; and through the siting of hazardous facilities for transit (such as bus maintenance facilities) and other transportation modes where they would inflict damage on Black communities. Public-private-partnership decisions are made far up-stream by those who possess property, capital, and access to power. Public agencies are seeking approaches to redress legacy impacts and shape future prospects of privately controlled public transportation investment decisions.


Systems of accountability. Metrics and standards are being developed to internally and independently ascertain whether progress is being made on approaches, planning, and funding. Such systems of accountability are being developed to be applicable for long range planning, to Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), to statewide agencies, and at both regional and national levels. At the national level, for example, a January 2021 Executive Order “creates a government-wide Justice40 Initiative with the goal of delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities and tracks performance toward that goal through the establishment of an Environmental Justice Scorecard.” Statewide, MPO, and public transportation agency service areas might use an accessibility-based policy evaluation framework for transportation; "access poverty" (defined as the ratio of destinations accessible by public transportation and destinations accessible by automobiles) might be used to measure the inequality of a transportation system.




An overall objective of the transit community is to help develop an enhanced and more inclusive approach to public transportation planning and decision-making that takes into account and acknowledges that public transportation systems of the 21st century have a critical role in addressing and correcting many of the problems caused by a 20th and 21st century transportation sector that severely impacted and in some cases destroyed Black communities in the building of today’s transportation systems and network. The public transportation community recognizes the need to address leadership and implement policies and practices to redress the harm from the past through policies, funding, and systems of accountability.


The objective of this research project is to understand and document the extent of the damage that has been done to Black communities as a result of transportation decisions and actions, demonstrate a methodology to estimate how much it would cost to redress those damages, and provide tools for elected officials and other stakeholder groups to engage effectively in the arena of transportation policy, planning, and funding at all levels of government. 






Accomplishment of the project objective will entail delivery of at least the following products:


Product 1. Review economic, health, and social impacts.  Review the literature and summarize common practices of the 20th and 21st centuries that had significant economic, health, and social impacts on the African diaspora in the United States and the racial gaps that emerged as a result of transportation inequities, deliberate actions, policies, and projects that were key catalysts leading to the beginning of the dissolution of “ladders of opportunity” for the African diaspora. The historical inequities review should draw not only from the public transportation field but include data and literature from other disciplines including legal studies (for example, the Bus Riders Union case in Los Angeles that led to a consent decree); urban studies; and social and demographic studies to provide insights into the depth, breadth, and origins of the gaps. Highlight the role that transportation, especially public transportation, has played in the creation of the gaps (for example, cases of failed regional transportation ballot initiatives and the extent to which racism toward Blacks or Black-majority communities contributes to these ballot failures); nuances in the evolution and maintenance of segregation; and contemporary practices and policies, including public transportation policing practices, fare evasion, and fare enforcement. While it is important to acknowledge that inequitable outcomes in public transportation affect other vulnerable groups, the Black experience should be highlighted.


Product 2. Demonstrate a methodology that can or has been used by public transportation agencies to estimate the level of investment required over a 20-year planning period to meet equity goals for communities of the African diaspora that were destroyed or severely impacted by racially biased policies, practices, and programs. The methodology (or methodologies) should include the closing of disparities in accessibility; be applicable in urban and rural settings; and ideally be applicable at varying levels of geography.


Product 3. Community engagement materials. Develop a manual for use by community organizers or other non-technical laypersons to open a dialog with communities and nonprofit organizations on issues of equity disparity in public transportation and redress the impacts of past discriminatory policies and actions. The manual should include a variety of tools for stakeholders and other groups to engage effectively in the arena of transportation policy, planning, and funding at all levels of government.  


Product 4. Primer for elected officials. Prepare a detailed outline and a report that can be used by elected officials (e.g., bullet points, under 25 pages, full color, illustrated) to address issues of equity disparity in public transportation and redress the impacts of past discriminatory policies and actions. 



Product 5. Implementation outreach. Present results at appropriate events (for example, Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, American Public Transportation Association, TRB, Intelligent Transportation Society of America, National Urban League, NAACP, and National League of Cities).


The research plan has built in appropriate checkpoints with the TCRP project panel including, at a minimum, (1) a kick-off teleconference meeting to be held within 1 month of the contract’s execution date and (2) web-enabled teleconferences tied to panel review and/or TCRP approval of interim deliverables.


The final deliverables will include (1) a review of economic, health, and social impacts of past transportation policies and practices; (2) a methodology (or methodologies) that can be used to calculate an estimated investment in public transportation over a 20-year planning period to meet equity goals; (3) community outreach materials; (4) a primer for elected officials; and (5) a final report that documents the entire project, including (a) an executive summary that outlines the research results; (b) a companion PowerPoint; (c) recommendations of needs and priorities for additional related research; and (d) a stand-alone technical memorandum titled “Implementation of Research Findings and Products”.




STATUS: Research in progress. A pre-publication of Product 1 (of 4) was posted Friday, 26 August 2022 and appeared in TRB Weekly on Tuesday, 30 August 2022. Racial Equity, Black America, and Public Transportation, Volume 1: A Review of Economic, Health, and Social Impacts |The National Academies Press was published Friday, 7 October 2022 and appears in TRB Weekly on Tuesday, 11 October 2022. Additional volumes are in preparation.



To create a link to this page, use this URL: http://apps.trb.org/cmsfeed/TRBNetProjectDisplay.asp?ProjectID=5071