Advancing Transportation Equity in the Bay Area

By Robert Young, B.S. Candidate, Electrical Engineering, Stanford

Public transportation is a critical provider of opportunity for low-income and marginalized communities. This is particularly true in the San Francisco Bay Area, where low-income riders make up 54% of public transit ridership [1]. However, Bay Area public transit has been criticized as insufficient and expensive. If low-income and marginalized communities are supposed to be supported by public transportation, then what does this poor transportation quality mean for their quality of life? What problems contribute to inequality in the Bay Area transportation system, and how can transportation providers solve them?

Understanding Transportation Equity

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is responsible for coordinating transportation across the Bay Area. The MTC has focused its equity analysis on “communities of concern,” which they define as:

“census tracts having either 1) significant concentrations of both low-income and minority residents, or 2) significant concentrations of any four or more of the following: minority persons, low-income persons below 200% of the federal poverty level (about $44,000 per year for a family of four), persons with Limited English Proficiency, zero-vehicle households, seniors aged 75 and over, persons with a disability, single-parent families, and housing units occupied by renters paying more than 50% of household income on rent.” [2]

By MTC analysis, 20% of the Bay Area population lives in communities of concern, as shown in Figure 1. Although residents of communities of concern are more likely than the general population to commute by public transit, more than two thirds still commute by car [3].

For communities of concern, access to transportation also means access to jobs, education, and health care. Research at Harvard has shown that shorter commute times serve as strong predictors of upward social mobility.[4] This means that isolated communities are left stagnating in the Bay Area’s economic boom, while connected communities are better equipped to take advantage of socioeconomic opportunities at a larger scale.

Figure 1. Locations of MTC-defined “communities of concern” in the Bay Area [5].

Figure 1. Locations of MTC-defined “communities of concern” in the Bay Area [5].


Existing Challenges

Although the importance of reliable and efficient transportation for communities of concern is undeniable, the transportation challenges facing them are numerous.

The lack of affordable housing for low-income communities impacts these communities’ access to transportation. While the MTC reported that 82% of low-income Bay Area residents worked within their county of residence between 2006 and 2010 (compared to 73% of higher-income residents), this might not be the case for long [6]. Bay Area low-income jobs have grown with the region’s booming economy, but housing for low-income residents has been pushed outward from the urban economic centers. Roundtrip commutes lasting several hours are becoming increasingly common for low-income workers [7]. And these long commutes hold serious consequences for commuters’ health and happiness.

Transit services themselves also fail to meet the needs of communities of concern. For example, Caltrain has been criticized as catering only to high-income riders, particularly through its fare structure. High-income riders are far more likely to use discounted monthly or corporate Go passes, while low-income riders are left with the relatively costly one-way tickets or day passes [8].

Yet barriers to transportation also extend past purely economic concerns. In the SUS Seminar, Stephen Zoepf discussed his groundbreaking report that ridehailing services like Uber and Lyft contributed to substantial racial and economic discrimination. Zoepf published a paper in 2016 that revealed that riders with black-sounding names were cancelled on by Uber and Lyft drivers more than twice as often as riders with white-sounding names [9]. Even without racial discrimination, ridehailing services take ridership away from public transit, reducing funding and political support for important transportation services [10].

As autonomous vehicles become more widespread in the technological nexus of Silicon Valley, they, too, hold important equity considerations. Past ridehailing service providers have largely ignored the needs of the disabled community, one third of which report having inadequate transportation options [11]. But new autonomous vehicles are often taking the form of larger SUVs, potentially triggering legal requirements for ADA accessibility and new hope for better transportation access for the disabled [12].

Potential Solutions

A majority of the proposed equity-focused improvements to Bay Area transportation are centered on income inequality rather than social issues. In January 2018, the MTC proposed a “required opt-in” program for Bay Area transit agencies to grant low-income riders a 20% or 50% reduced fare. The program would apply to the five largest regional transit agencies that don’t already offer a reduced fare for low-income riders. However, the program’s $16 million price tag has led to concerns over service cuts or price increases for higher-income riders [13].

The San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) endorses this program as well as more systemic changes to Bay Area transit. Their recommendations include the development of a regional reduced fare pass that works across Bay Area transit agencies, like Seattle’s ORCA LIFT. They also recommend simplifying the process to apply for reduced fare and improving the usability of the Clipper card for low-income riders [14].

Inevitably, additions to the physical infrastructure of Bay Area transportation will be necessary. In order to meet sustainability and equity goals, these additions should be focused on public transit rather than cars. Lawmakers must consider service for communities of concern in planning the locations and formats of public transportation expansion. They must also consider the relationship between transit and affordable housing, in order to limit the impacts of transit on accelerating gentrification [15].

More broadly, Bay Area transit agencies must consider transportation from the viewpoint of users in communities of concern. Interviews and community engagement would likely reveal the relative importance of different transportation barriers impacting marginalized riders. Pilot programs should then seek to address these concerns in targeted settings, and successful programs should be replicated across the Bay Area. While the challenge of equitable transportation is certainly intimidating, conquering it is vital to the diversity and long-term economic and social success of the Bay Area. Local transit agencies will need to act boldly to create a more equitable transportation system that serves everyone, regardless of color, ability, or wealth.


[1] Arielle Fleisher, “Making Bay Area transit affordable for those who need it most,” San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, 26 June 2017, accessed from

[2] Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Association of Bay Area Governments, “Plan Bay Area Equity Analysis Report,” July 2013, pES-2, accessed from

[3] MTA, “Plan Bay Area Equity Analysis Report,” 2013, p3-8.

[4] Mikayla Bouchard, “Transportation emerges as crucial to escaping poverty,” New York Times, 7 May 2015, accessed from

[5] MTC, “Plan Bay Area Equity Analysis Report,” 2017, Map 1.

[6] MTC, “Plan Bay Area Equity Analysis Report,” 2013, p3-9.

[7] Mary Newman, Nate Sheidlower, and Pablo De La Hoya, “Some Bay Area workers commute for hours for the sake of affordable rent,” 13 December 2016, accessed from

[8] Adina Levin, “Caltrain fare study update shows equity problems,” 7 December 2017, accessed from

[9] Yanbo Ge, Christopher R. Knittel, Don MacKenzie, and Stephen Zoepf, “Racial and gender discrimination in transportation network companies,” National Bureau of Economic Research, October 2016, accessed from

[10] Tracey Lindeman, “Ride-hailing is deepening social and economic inequity in the US,” Motherboard, 10 February 2018, accessed from

[11] Bryan Casey, “A Loophole large enough to drive an autonomous vehicle through,” Stanford Law Review, December 2016, accessed from

[12] Casey, “A Loophole large enough to drive an autonomous vehicle through,” December 2016.

[13] Adina Levin, “MTC committees review limited means-based fare proposal,” Green Caltrain, 15 January 2018, accessed from

[14] Fleisher, “Making Bay Area transit more affordable for those who need it most,” 26 June 2017.

[15] Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal, “Transit-oriented development? More like transit rider displacement,” Los Angeles Times, 20 February 2018, accessed from