News | February 2, 2023

Building equity through transit

Passengers board a MARTA train in Atlanta. (©Ron Sherman)

Improving transit, from buses and light rail to subways and streetcars, is crucial for the South and the nation to achieve our climate and equity goals.   

SELC has a team dedicated to pursuing policies that promote transit-connected development that can help reduce driving and cut pollution. Hear from several of them below about the intersections of equity and policy as they work at the local, state, and federal levels to build better transit systems for us all, better linking people to the places they need to go and with less dependence on a car.  

With less driving comes less pollution, which is good for the environment and good for people — especially because we know air pollution disproportionately affects communities of color. Less driving also lowers the cost of owning and maintaining a car, a significant portion of household budgets in the driving-dependent South.  

Transit systems that are designed or reconfigured to work for all residents — regardless of race, income, or zip code — are an important tool for advancing equity because they provide additional and more affordable options for people to access everything from jobs and food to healthcare and housing.  

In many communities, transportation systems are rife with inequities due to a lack of funding, poor planning, and discriminatory policies. The struggle for equity in our transportation system has been deeply intertwined with the larger civil rights and environmental justice movements.  

At SELC, supporting transit and other alternatives to driving has long been an integral part of our work. Policies that expand and improve transit service, electrify bus fleets, and incentivize transit use further our efforts to promote climate and environmental justice.  

This Transit Equity Day, SELC staff shared their thoughts on the state of transit and whether equity is increasing in the space.

What makes Rosa Parks and her refusal to accept unequal treatment from Alabama’s public bus system such a vital part of the state’s history of fighting for civil rights? What can the state do to continue the work Ms. Parks started and improve public transit, making it an option for everyone regardless of race, income, or zip code?  

Sarah Stokes, senior attorney

The Montgomery Bus Boycott and court actions that followed are examples of how communities can spark change. One of the ways we in Alabama can invoke change today is by advocating for funding. Thanks to the of windfall of federal money coming to Alabama, the Alabama Legislature now can make the decision to invest in public transit, which would make transit an option for everyone regardless of zip code. 

How is SELC working to improve equity in bus transit? 

Megan Kimball, staff attorney

Eliminating bus fares removes one barrier to accessing transit: affordability. It also incentivizes transit use. Many localities, like Richmond, experimented with fare-free policies during the pandemic and found they increased ridership and reduced conflict over fare collection. Importantly, this shift improves equity by treating local bus systems as a public service, available to all, rather than a paid resource accessible only to those who can afford it. 

What are some of the most pressing changes that must be made for transit systems to evolve into safe spaces and a travel option for more people? 

Kym Meyer, senior attorney and Government Accountability regional leader

More funding is crucial to improving transit systems. In the Southeast we generally prioritize funding new highways over transit systems. As a result, our transit systems do not reach the majority of people who could benefit from them, or are so infrequent in service that they don’t provide meaningful access to jobs and opportunity.  

What is something that people find surprising about transit?  

Brian Gist, senior attorney

Although most of us use some type of transportation every day, we often fail to appreciate its true cost and how much it affects all aspects of our lives. People also need to understand that there are inequities in our access to transportation and what it’s going to take to make improvements. We cannot ask people to drive less if their jobs or affordable housing are not served by high quality public transit.

Learn more about how SELC is moving the South forward with transit and rail.