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ModeShift Episode 5: Transit that works for everyone

Learn how the lack of quality transit affects the most vulnerable, and how cities are building more equitable public mobility.

Via Transportation •

We’ve been sold on the idea that a car is the ultimate freedom. But that’s only true for people who can afford it. A system that relies on owning a personal car is not a system that provides freedom to everyone – it’s a system that disproportionately penalizes people of color, people with limited income, or people with disabilities. So how do we build an affordable, reliable transit system that works for everyone? In this episode, Andrei and Tiffany dig into the many ways we can incorporate equity into our transportation planning. They’ll cover a wide range of angles: land use, housing, transit choice, and anti-displacement. 


Listen to ModeShift on Apple, Spotify, or anywhere you listen to podcasts. 


Andrei Greenawalt: There's a whole generation of urban planners who got their start in the late eighties and nineties playing Sim City. It's a game that allows you to build a community from the ground up. And Chad Ballentine, he is a proud member of that generation.

Chad Ballentine: I've built, I don't know how many cities back in the old days when it was a really, really basic game. I spent hours doing that. And so I've always been very interested in land use and roads and all that other stuff.

Andrei Greenawalt: Today, Chad lives in Austin, Texas. It's a city that's doubling its population every two decades. And sometimes that constant change can feel like a game of Sim City unfolding in real time.

Chad Ballentine: It's mind boggling to really think through. As I look out to my window in our downtown offices, I see barely any buildings that were here when I first moved here. And it's a new city, it's a new landscape at all times, and it's constantly growing and evolving.

Andrei Greenawalt: Chad heads up demand response and innovative mobility at the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, also known as Cap Metro. And he is constantly thinking about all the ways that Austin can better use technology to power shared rides and improve bike services for the city's 2 million residents. He moved to Austin 16 years ago, and the near doubling of population since then has brought some stark socioeconomic changes.

Chad Ballentine: My $92,000 house several years ago, is no longer here. That's just not a thing in Austin anymore.

Tiffany Chu: Hold up. Did I hear that right? A $92,000 house?

Andrei Greenawalt: I know. It made me do a double take too. And for context, today in Austin, the median home prices $624,000. And that is a trend we are seeing all across cities in America. Both housing prices and rents are soaring, and as a result, lots of people are getting pushed further and further from good transit options.

Chad Ballentine: There's a lot of difficulties, because when transit is really robust and a great high quality, highly frequent service, you generally are located near more expensive housing. And so the better access you have to transit, usually the more expensive the housing is. And you can always find affordable, more affordable housing the further you go out of the city, the further away you are from grocery stores, the further you are away from doctors and offices and everything else. And so it's spatial relationship that is really hard to quantify a lot, and it's really a problem that's hard to fix.

Tiffany Chu: It's like a really bad game of Sim City.

Andrei Greenawalt: Exactly. And Austin had a clear choice. It needed to expand the transit system drastically to keep up with population growth, while also closing the economic divide, not worsening it.

Chad Ballentine: And so finally in 2019, we were like, "Let's do something big. Let's stop doing these little things. Stop asking for some small, this rail line or this one bus line, let's go for an entire network, a whole program that's going to really work for everybody."

Tiffany Chu: I'm Tiffany Chu.

Andrei Greenawalt: And I'm Andrei Greenawalt. This is ModeShift.

Tiffany Chu: A show about the past, present and future of how we move.

Andrei Greenawalt: Tiffany, I'm curious, did you play Sim City growing up?

Tiffany Chu: Yes, of course. Like any budding architect, it was a prerequisite for you to do that as a kid. Did you?

Andrei Greenawalt: I didn't. I'm almost embarrassed to say that. And when Chad brought it up, I was trying to follow along, but I hadn't actually ever played Sim City. I was only into sports games. I don't know, do you have a sense of why it's so popular with folks in this space and kind of why it came up in the interview with Chad?

Tiffany Chu: Well, yeah. Any urban planner basically does this for a job, where you have to figure out where the roads go and then you had to figure out what areas you want to zone for what functions. And you build power stations and a town hall and you got to connect them all, and all your citizens and residents have to be happy. And it's obviously not realistic in many ways, but there is actually a highly relevant piece of that game, which is it really taught about the importance of land use and housing.

Andrei Greenawalt: Oh, land use and housing. I feel like these two issues keep coming up again and again in these conversations that we're having about transportation and how all three of them are linked.

And it was definitely a key theme in our conversation with transit expert Jerome Horne.

Jerome Horne: Every great transportation plan is also a land use plan, or every great land use plan is a transportation plan. And we need to marry those two together, because they're so important. If we want people to ride the bus or use the train, they need to be able to get to it easily.

Andrei Greenawalt: You've heard Jerome in prior episodes, and the point he's making here, it may sound simple and obvious, but I think it's actually one that's too often overlooked. If you want people to ride transit, they need to be able to get to it. And I think that means at least two things. First, for the last hundred years or so, your access to transit has depended on whether you're lucky enough to live near a subway or bus stop with reliable service. And the second thing it means is that when we build transit lines without much thought about how they impact housing or land use, over time that directly affects who can access the new transit option.

Jerome Horne: One of the things that sort of always happens, if you build a new transit line, people want to live near it. And that term gentrification, neighborhood redevelopment, that could happen. And so we need to look at ways of how do we mitigate displacing existing residents, because yes, housing and the housing crisis is very real and we need to be able to marry those two things together with access to good transit and good housing without disrupting residents living in their neighborhoods. And we've seen a lot of disadvantage in particularly black and brown neighborhoods.

Andrei Greenawalt: In prior episodes, we've talked about the total dominance of the car in the United States and the negative impacts that's had. For example, that transportation's the number one cause of greenhouse gas emissions, or that it is the second highest expense for American families. In that dynamic, it disproportionately impacts those who are low income, and people of color, those with disabilities.

Tiffany Chu: And there's of course a long history in this nation of transportation decisions made that harmed low income and black and brown communities in our cities, perhaps the most obvious of which are the literal tearing apart and dividing of certain neighborhoods to build highways.

Andrei Greenawalt: Exactly. But I think there's maybe been less widespread focus on how we've actually designed and planned our transit systems and the ways that has led to inequities as well. And that's what Jerome is talking about here, and the focus of our episode today.

Jerome Horne: For example, we can look at the light rail systems in Denver and Dallas. They were built more recently in the last three decades or so over time. And a lot of, if you look at the systems and how they're laid out, they are designed for commuter rail from the suburbs into center city, but they don't serve a lot of the inner city neighborhoods or crosstown neighborhoods that really need access to transit.

And you sort of see this mismatch between the rail and how it was planned, and the existing bus system that feeds into or doesn't feed into the rail. And often communities of color, black and brown, low income neighborhoods might just have a bus, or if they have access to rail, it's not the same access that white or wealthier communities have or people from the suburbs may have, to have that nice rail infrastructure and investment.

And as we're moving forward with these large capital investments, whether it's bus rapid transit, light rail, or extensions of metro lines, you need to really think about who we're making that investment for and why.

Andrei Greenawalt: Tiffany, in an earlier episode we heard from your boss, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, talk about her plan to mix equity and economic mobility and transit. When you guys are sitting down and talking through these issues, how are you thinking about connecting transit access, housing affordability, and land use policy? I imagine that's got to be not that easy to do.

Tiffany Chu: Yeah, it's really hard. And one way that the mayor tackles it is she's constantly asking with her line of questioning, who is this policy benefiting? Which communities in Boston need the most help, and should they be at the table? And how can we better center our residents and their experience? I think one thing we found functionally is that just by putting people who have historically been in silos in the same room for a regular recurring meeting, for example, our housing chief, our transportation chief, and our planning chief, and I think that was not something that was done before, that in itself, just breaking down those barriers have been really helpful and I could see that also happening in Austin.

I bet there's probably a lot of really meaty discussions at Cap Metro and the City of Austin need to be having and their regional agency on a regular basis. And I wonder how they're doing that over there too.

Andrei Greenawalt: Yeah, I think when we were starting to put this series together, we were not planning on featuring Austin, but it just kept coming up in interview after interview when we asked people what are the most interesting places in America that are doing cool things to advance mobility and transit? And we learned that these themes were front and center in the lead up to November, 2020. That is when voters had a chance to approve more than $7 billion in transit expansion.

Reporter (Yvonne): Two transit ballot measures are moving forward in Austin after being approved by voters. The money from these two ballot measures will go to things like bike lanes, sidewalks, light rail, and more rapid bus surface.

Andrei Greenawalt: Proposition A funded Project Connect, an ambitious network that includes 19 miles of light rail lines, a subway, expanded bus service and on demand transit. And Proposition B set aside $460 million in bonds for new bike lanes, sidewalks and urban trails.

Reporter (Bryce): Now, both of these measures are ones that city leaders have pushed and supported all along, knowing that Austin is one of the country's fastest growing cities. Last night, the CEO for Capital Metro told me he knows there's a lot of work that lies ahead, but he's ready to get started and committed to delivering Project Connect on time and on budget. So a lot of changes on track after these votes. Yvonne?

Reporter (Yvonne): You're right. Nice pun by the way, Bryce.

Tiffany Chu: So this is a big deal.

Andrei Greenawalt: Yeah, it's a really big deal.

Tiffany Chu: I know that Austin voters rejected a transit expansion twice in the last decade and a half, and I even remember going on a work trip several years ago and seeing a bunch of anti light rail signs. What made this time different?

Andrei Greenawalt: Yeah, I think we learned a few things talking to people.

One is that Austin is much younger than it was in the past, and these younger voters, they care a lot about climate change, which is the selling point of the package. Also the 2020 election, it brought historic turnout, and so sending these younger diverse voters who supported the measures to the ballot box.

Two, Austin funded a really broad set of initiatives, which appealed to a wide set of voters.

And three, they took community feedback on draft proposals and they made changes as a result. And that's how some of the forward thinking equity considerations made their way into the plan. Here's Cap Metro's Chad Ballentine again.

Chad Ballentine: We did a lot of outreach. We really tried to make sure that we brought people into the room, disadvantaged communities that aren't typically in the room where decisions are being made, and brought them in, had them really give their input and their feedback. And we listened and changed the plan. We were very open about changing and adjusting things if what they were coming to us were valid concerns, things like that. There's a huge equity component that grew out of that.

Andrei Greenawalt: When you say equity was incorporated, can you just talk more about what does that mean exactly?

Chad Ballentine: We devoted $300 million of looking at equity initiatives. And it wasn't specifically defined as, "Oh, this will be a million for here, two million for this, and that kind of thing." We set it aside and said, "We know we're going to need money to address the equity concerns that we're going to be creating by putting in infrastructure and rail stations and those kinds of things."

I don't think it's a secret or I think it's really well known that when you put in that kind of transit infrastructure, people want to live near there. And when people want to live near somewhere, housing prices do increase. And so the $300 million set aside was put there along with an advisory group who is made up of people who are in economically disadvantaged areas, I think it's like 90% minority membership in the group, so that folks who are experiencing a lot of the pressures of gentrification are going to be at the table telling us how to spend the money or even directing how that money's going to be spent.

And it can be spent in many ways. So loans for affordable housing or for other types of alternative housing types of projects. I mean, it's really up to that group, which I thought was really good too, because you don't want a bunch of people in a transit authority saying, "This is what we think is going to fight gentrification or keep equitable housing or increase opportunities for smaller businesses, local businesses, that kind of thing." So we want to make sure that we don't just not displace people, but we actually make their lives better. Not just mitigate the damages that we're doing, but actually make things better for folks.

Tiffany Chu: So there are a couple things that Chad mentioned which stood out to me. One of them is representation, making sure it's not just transit authorities, who don't always look like the majority of riders, decide what equity means. There's a really big movement right now trying to get the boards of various transit agencies across the country to have riders on the board or make sure that their board members do ride transit regularly, because that was not always the case.

And the second thing that stood out to me is this expression of anti-displacement, actively making investments that bring equity into all decisions and trying to understand that not every community needs the same solution.

Andrei Greenawalt: Yeah. If you go to the Austin City government website, they actually call that $300 million investment anti-displacement. That's exactly how it was framed in the ballot initiative. And that carve out, it'll be used to support affordable housing along key new transit routes, and they're going to try to use it to make sure that all populations have access to multiple modes of transportation.

Shyam Kannan: They were very forward thinking in saying, "Well, let's build a multimodal level of service approach. Let's take a look at all these corridors, and we're going to ask about affordable housing, we're going to ask about equity, we're going to ask about health, we're going to ask about freight, we're going to ask about pedestrian movements, we're going to ask about safety, we're going to ask about transit capacity. And toss all these different factors into the hopper and find out where along these corridors the right tool will be applied for the right job, so that we can achieve the goal of moving more people with less cost and less time."

Andrei Greenawalt: That's Shyam Kannan. We heard from him in our prior episode on TransitTech, and he's the transit lead for the engineering services company, HDR. They worked closely with Austin on crafting the Project Connect plan, and that anti-displacement theme was central to making the plan work.

Shyam Kannan: So the city when we were working with them and as they're moving forward, came right out of the gate and said, "No, we want to make sure that whatever investments we make, we've guarded against both physical, social and cultural displacement, because we're making these investments for families that live here today. They need to see a line of sight to their children and their children's children benefiting from these investments, because by golly, they're the ones paying for them."

Andrei Greenawalt: What do you think other cities can learn from Austin's approach? If you were sort of summarizing at a high level, here are the two or three things you need to do if you also care about moving people and achieving more equitable outcomes?

Shyam Kannan: I think one is, Austin was not afraid to get wonky. Right? Maybe it shouldn't be keep Austin weird, it's keep Austin wonky. Leadership there knew that solving these transportation problems is complicated, and it was refreshing to see public leadership engage with what in many cases might be seen as too academic or too complicated for policy. They really engaged with this prioritization model, right? Because they wanted to know, well, if we're spending public dollars, we're the ones setting priorities. Tell us how we can set these priorities.

The second thing is putting equity first, right? That too often equity is an afterthought. It's a "do not harm" standard. And in the worst case it's a "check the box" exercise. But they were courageous enough to come out of the box and say, "Nope. We want to think about affordable housing and equity as we're contemplating the investments, because we want to guard against the ill effects, the sins of our fathers." Put equity first and find ways for everyone to win.

Andrei Greenawalt: At this point, I think it's helpful to ask what does inequity look like? And for some it can look pretty bleak, like a desert. Tiffany, we touched on this idea of transit deserts in our episode on rural transit. What are they?

Tiffany Chu: I would say a transit desert is places where if you don't own a car, you can't do a lot of things that other people who have cars can. You can't go to your job, you can't pick up your kids from school, go to the grocery store, get to the doctor's appointment, and if you go a little bit deeper, even if you can say ride the bus to wherever you're trying to go, if the bus doesn't come or if you miss your bus by a minute, if you're in a transit desert, you might just not have any other options. There might not be other bus routes that are slightly redundant near you, or a train or light rail or bike share. Basically, if you don't own a car, you feel second class.

And there's a quote from one of the inspirational mayors in the world, a former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa. He said, "A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars, it's where the rich use public transportation." And I think this is particularly salient in our discussion here around transit deserts, because these deserts exist all over the country. One analysis from the University of Texas, the Urban Information Lab, they took a look at 52 cities in the US and found 4.5 million people living in areas with no adequate alternative to cars. 4.5 million in transit deserts just in those cities.

Andrei Greenawalt: Wow. And I think some of those areas, they're located really close to transit paradises or I mean, I guess as close as we get to a transit paradise in the United States.

Iraya Corley: I live in a part of Jersey City that's pretty transportation... it's a transportation desert. Although it's at a very kind of central part of Jersey City, the bus lines are not close to my particular block.

Andrei Greenawalt: This is Iraya Corley. She lives just across the water from New York City, where I grew up and also the transit paradise I was referencing a second ago. She grew up in the Bronx and in Brooklyn, and she's been riding the bus alone since she was 10 years old.

Iraya Corley: I loved that with public transportation, I didn't have to rely on anyone. I was really able to just get around when I wanted to. I didn't have to figure out parking or figure any of those other details out.

Andrei Greenawalt: But now, living in Jersey City, which is New Jersey's second biggest city, she doesn't have that same access to freedom of movement that she discovered as a kid.

Iraya Corley: We had one bus that actually ran down my street. The bus was not a New Jersey Transit bus, it's run by a private company. That bus only runs every 30 minutes. I don't think it runs on Sundays. So people who live in a transportation desert, it makes it hard for them to get to work. It makes them hard for them to get to school, it makes it hard for you to go see your loved ones. And let's say you're an elderly person or an actual handicapped person who has a hard time with mobility, living in a transportation desert really hinders you.

Tiffany Chu: This hits on a very important theme that we keep revisiting in this series. We've been sold this idea that a car is the ultimate freedom, but that's only true for people who can afford it. And it often comes at such a high cost, it prevents families from pursuing other dreams. A system that relies on owning a personal car is not a system that provides freedom to everyone. And it's a system that disproportionately penalizes people of color, people with limited income, or people with disabilities.

Andrei Greenawalt: It's a critical point. Your ability to access jobs, education, healthcare, it shouldn't depend on whether you are lucky or rich enough to live next to a transit stop with great reliable service.

And Iraya's story, it doesn't end badly. She, a couple years ago, was able to start taking advantage of a new transit service in her community that was launched by the mayor of Jersey City, that provided on demand shared rides for an affordable fare. And I think we need to invest in all forms of transit, but one benefit of these newer on-demand systems is that every corner can be a bus stop. Your take, Tiffany, it's really similar to how a planning expert named Charles Brown framed it in my discussion with him.

Charles Brown: Yeah, there are pros and cons to any approach or any system. In the auto-centric environment that we've created, it disenfranchises those of whom don't have access to a vehicle. It's not that the car is evil. What is unfortunate is the fact that we have not designed our built environment where you don't need a car to get around.

Andrei Greenawalt: Charles is the CEO of Equitable Cities. That's an organization that works with cities on transportation plans with a specific focus on fairness and inclusiveness. And for him, freedom is a guiding principle for justice. We talked about what that means for transit planning.

Charles Brown: We all should pay the cost, whatever that number is, to ensure that every person in America has access to a mobility option that gets them to a place of employment, a place of health and social services, schools, et cetera. Why? Because that person can feel dignified and hopefully their neighbors and others will give them the respect they deserve by feeling the dignity too that they deserve. So I would love to see that.

When it comes to the ways in which transit isn't equitable, it has a lot to do with some of the performance measures around transit. We often go for higher ridership. Higher ridership usually means focusing in places where there there are higher populations, because that means you target the areas where there's a potential for higher riderships. However, and I'm sure you are aware, what we're noticing is that many of the black, brown and low income people in our society can no longer afford to live in downtown or in places where you have this so-called high population. That means that they are far out into beyond the urban core, and transit just simply isn't as accessible for them.

What we need to do instead is design our systems for those people, not the people who are most proximate to their jobs already. The reason I say that is because you take a place like Chicago, Washington, DC, and many other places where during COVID-19 services were cut. Yes, you saw an overall reduction in transit ridership for all populations, but among those that were black, brown and low income, you didn't see as great of a reduction. What that shows you is that those are the people that need transit the most. And when it comes to determining where we're going to spend our resources, I think they're best spent in the places that need the most. Transit should be no exception.

Andrei Greenawalt: And what's your sense of what that looks like outside of city center cores? Because it's not going to do very many people good if we set up a bus stop, where the bus comes once every hour and most people have to walk half a mile or a mile to get to it. So there are a couple things that we're sort of not doing, that if a lot of cities and suburban areas were doing, would help on this front.

Charles Brown: Yeah, that's a great question. So it goes back when you asked the question about what makes it more equitable? Comfort, frequency of service is part of that answer as well. So when you're looking at the places that are on the sort of outskirts of the urban core, the frequency and the timing of the bus matters just as much. So instead of having 60 minute headways or even longer, ideally what you would do is provide headways every 15 to 30 minutes.

Now that's very expensive, but those are the places that need it most. And so I am about putting people over profit, because I think we can always figure out the profit or the money to pay for these services. Another thing is about comfort and security. Many of these systems don't have bus stop amenities that allow for people of color, women and low income populations and persons with disabilities to wait at these bus stops. You have to think about inclement weather, depending on the part of the country. So a lot of dignity needs to be put into transit, put into biking and walking so it becomes an option that everyone would truly enjoy.

Andrei Greenawalt: I feel like the word equity and equitable, it's thrown around by a lot of people, and I'm not sure everybody means exactly the same thing when they use the term. So I'm just curious, when we say equity, equitable mobility, how do you define that as someone who is working in this space day in and day out?

Charles Brown: In the most basic sense, equity involves trying to understand and give people what they need to enjoy full, healthy lives. But you don't just stop there, because that doesn't get you to the innovative and progressive solutions that you need to address the historical injustices in our society. Equity requires an understanding of the underlying or root causes of inequalities and oppression within our society.

And so racial equity by definition then forces a transformation of the behaviors, the institutions and those systems that disproportionately harm people of color. And it does this by increasing their access to power, redistributing and providing additional resources, and most importantly, eliminating barriers to opportunities in order for those people to survive.

Then it takes you to ability or disability equity, which is about recognizing the needs for persons with disabilities. It takes you to gender equity, which takes a look at how women and those identifying as women or sexual minorities in this country are treated. It takes you to income equity so that you could better realize the needs and opportunities as it relates to low income populations. And it takes you then to a host of other forms of equity, such as process equity or outcome equity. But ultimately what we want to achieve isn't just equity, we're looking for justice.

Andrei Greenawalt: Tiffany, I feel like this is the point in the episode where we have to check in on how we're feeling, how optimistic or pessimistic we feel the future of mobility is. And no question, there is a huge amount of work to be done to provide affordable mobility to everyone in this nation, and that includes overcoming obstacles that have been put in place over many, many decades, if not centuries. I'm wondering, the types of things we're seeing in Austin, do you think that's representative of a bigger and positive shift in transit planning?

Tiffany Chu: Yes. And the reason why I say yes is because I think from a city and transit agency perspective, we're realizing across the country that what we don't invest in before or now, we're just going to have to invest in later if we're trying to be supportive of growth and all the folks who are moving to cities as a national and international trend.

I think from an equity perspective, I am noticing more and more when I see what other cities and agencies are doing that the language of equity is now becoming much more embedded in the planning process. And it's definitely a newer thing that I've found, where many agencies are leading with equity, and making sure that their planners who go and present at public and community meetings are from those communities, speak their language, their families have been there for forever and ever.

And I think there's just a pretty big shift in the discipline of planning, especially in the context of transportation, and all of the ways that we need to rebuild up or just be more fluent in what the community wants from an equity perspective.

Andrei Greenawalt: Yeah, I think what Austin is actually doing is really, really exciting. But of course to get to that point takes really effective conversations and decision making, and that is something that Shyam Kannan said that we should not underestimate, sort of that shift in how decision makers are now taking equity seriously.

Shyam Kannan: A topic that for generations was so rife with conflict, that was almost a conversation stopper, is now a conversation that political leaders, business leaders, policy advocates, the nonprofit community can have in a public meeting, in a boardroom, in an investment committee, and it's taken seriously. I think those three forces give me great optimism for the next generation of transportation, because we're finally able to wrestle with the right questions in a meaningful way. We have a demographic that's going to be making the decisions for the next generation that's not afraid to make decisions that their parents didn't make that. Those are good things.

Andrei Greenawalt: And that marks the end of another episode of ModeShift

Tiffany Chu: Coming up in our final episode of the season, what does building a car free city look like? We'll pull together many of the themes from our last five episodes and ask what it takes to create communities where car dependency is a thing of the past.

Andrei Greenawalt: ModeShift is produced by Via, in partnership with our friends at Post Script Media. Via's technology enables partners to create end-to-end transit systems, from planning better networks and streets to operating efficient, equitable public transit. You can learn more at This show, it's hosted by me, Andrei Greenawalt.

Tiffany Chu: And me, Tiffany Chu. If you like what you hear, please rate and review us in the app of your choice and send a link to the transit nerd in your life. This show is produced by Stephen Lacey, Anne Bailey, Cecily Meza-Martinez, and Dalvin Aboagye of Post Script Media. It's also produced by Francis Cooperman, Andy Ambrosius, and my co-host, Andrei Greenawalt from Via. Sean Marquand composed our theme song. Sean Marquand and Gregg Vilranc mix the show.

Andrei Greenawalt: Thank you so much for sticking with us over these last five episodes. We will catch you next week for the sixth and final episode of this season of ModeShift.