Public transit and equitable access to employment are intrinsically linked. Lower-paid workers tend to have less likely to have access to cars and—when using transit—often face unreliable service, unequal access, and high costs. In Washington, DC, for instance, an estimated 81 percent (PDF) of bus riders are people of color and 46 percent have low incomes.

The $1.2 trillion federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) passed in 2021 offers localities an opportunity to fund transformative transit investments. But to receive competitive funding, IIJA requires applicants to make data-driven cases about how proposed projects benefit low-income communities and communities of color. Many local applicants face challenges to conducting such analyses, highlighting the need for easy-to-use tools that help public agencies model a project’s equity impacts.

Responding to this need, our team developed a new approach to estimate equity impacts of transit investments. We partnered with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) to assess current and proposed bus priority lanes, which allow buses to bypass traffic congestion. However, priority lanes are often blocked by other vehicles, which has led to debate about for keeping lanes clear while avoiding equity blind spots.

In our models, we used Metro data to show how the proposed priority lane investments would affect the number of jobs accessible to DC residents within 30 minutes by transit. We compared the effectiveness of priority lanes at three different performance levels (clear lanes 50, 75, and 100 percent of the time) to another approach that would increase existing bus line frequency on the same streets by approximately 35 percent without implementing priority lanes (for more information, see our Data@Urban blog post).

Our model shows that, for the average DC resident, more-frequent buses could expand the number of jobs accessible within 30 minutes by almost 30,000—equivalent to a roughly 60 percent increase—largely because of shorter waiting times. Well-enforced and unobstructed priority bus lanes, however, could expand access even more, increasing job accessibility by more than 40,000 jobs for the average resident—equivalent to a roughly 90 percent increase. That’s based on our projection that these lanes could speed up service, getting people to more places faster.

Ensuring that priority bus lanes remain clear of cars and other blockages is crucial. If bus lanes are clear only 75 percent of the time—meaning buses cannot travel faster than traffic for 25 percent of their route—their benefit in terms of average job accessibility would decline by more than half. The benefits decline even further if lanes are clear only half of the time.

Read the full article about equitable investments in transit systems by Alena Stern, Yonah Freemark, Christina Plerhoples Stacy, and Manuel Alcala Kovalski at Urban Institute.