Three Case Studies on Transit Equity
by Jonathan Zisk
Cities change faster than we give them credit for. At the same time, recent advancements in transportation planning optically achieve change without lessening the pervasive inequities in our infrastructure. Bike lanes, shared micromobility systems, and a fully electrified Northeast Corridor have failed to shift us away from reliance on cars, yet we continue to rest our hopes for the future of urban transportation on their shoulders. An earnest pursuit of transportation equity requires us to iterate on the achievements of planners of the last decades and recalibrate our approach to building equitable cities. I isolate three topics to illustrate places where I see planners’ good intentions going awry in the form of half measures and contradictory projects that reinforce inequitable transportation systems. Work towards transit equity requires that we all interrogate and recalibrate the implicit assumptions in our street designs, neighborhood plans, and policy aspirations.
These topics dance around a concept of transportation equity that I think of in terms of how many people switch to sustainable transportation modes, how safe people are on our streets, and how many jobs people can access by transit. Our efforts toward transit equity need to actually change how people move and how safely they move through our cities. As long as access to a well working car is essential for mobility, it will be impossible to lift millions of Americans out of poverty and stem the tide of climate degradation. Our generation of planners has a remarkable opportunity to build on the work done before us and ask cities to keep changing rapidly, as they always have.
Recent advancements in transportation planning optically achieve change without lessening the pervasive inequities in our infrastructure.
Everyone Should Feel Safe on Complete Streets
My first case study is the story of a lawsuit in Washington, DC, where disability activists accuse the District of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by constructing parking protected bike lanes . The activists highlight how complete streets redesigns fail to welcome all road users into public streetscapes, but rest their case on an assumed right to curb access from private vehicles. Our streets should be amazing to bike and walk on, but should also be amazing to drive on for those who need to. Bike lanes are too often uni-dimensional solutions to our complex problems with street space. We need to think outside of the car lane / bike lane dichotomy and reimagine what it would look like to build spaces that all people can move through equitably.
The plaintiff’s case alleges that the city practices “systemic discrimination … against tens of thousands of people with mobility disabilities with respect to the design of its streets, on-street parking, and particularly in the ongoing redesign of streets to add miles of protected bike lanes” . Their main concern is that DC’s protected bike lanes prevent those with mobility impairments from safely accessing street curbs from vehicles. I am both sympathetic to the plaintiff’s frustrations and concerned by their claim to a personal right to curb access. Sidewalks are the essential public space for travel and socializing, yet their access is almost always limited by personal vehicle parking in our cities. Everyone has the right to step-free access to our public spaces, but no one has the right to curb access in all scenarios. Curbs are crude delineators between car space and pedestrian space but it doesn’t have to be this way. Streets can be for cars and people and cyclists all at the same time.
The lawsuit cites the 17th Street NW protected bike lane as an example of the city’s discriminatory infrastructure projects. I walked along those blocks on a rainy day in January and saw how incongruous they were with their surroundings. The bike lanes are inserted into a busy thoroughfare lined with office buildings and four lanes of traffic. To protect cyclists from that traffic, the bike lanes feature no loading zones or blended turn lanes – necessary measures to preserve the right of way against scofflaw parkers. I understand why those with mobility impairments find curb access so difficult, but I’m dismayed that they blame the bike lanes, and not the four lanes of 30 mph traffic that make unloading so perilous.
The 17th street bike lane (left) makes no room for accessible curb access, but lots of room for through traffic. The 16th street complete streets plaza (right) breaks the dichotomy of bike lane versus car lane and opens the street for all uses at a safe speed. Photos by Jonathan Zisk
One street away, along two blocks of 16th Street, the District recently subdivided a similarly wide boulevard into three road segments that defy classification as car lanes, bike lanes, or sidewalks. The street illustrates what a more equitable redesign of 17th Street could have looked like .
It is within planners’ power to design a “complete” street that welcomes all travel modes into public space – pedestrians, public and private vehicles, and cyclists - even if a century of auto-centric planning has convinced us that streets and curbs are for private vehicles only. 17th Street is designed to do too many things now, including moving cars and cyclists quickly through a downtown core. If one of those tasks is an impediment to access for those with mobility impairments, then surely it’s the cars. The 900 block of 16th Street does all of the same things with one caveat – cars must move slowly and deliberately over it. 16th Street blurs the lines between street spaces, thus making all users safer.
Traffic Enforcement over Traffic Policing
Multimodal street designs have to be paired with equity-focused enforcement measures. However, recent bills that advance racial equity in policing fail to take the safety of vulnerable road users into account. Violations like tampered license plates and burned-out taillights should never require the involvement of the criminal justice system, but now in Philadelphia, they are enforced by no one. We need to work towards a just enforcement of traffic laws for the sake of spatial equity and safety, rather than as a mass surveillance tactic for our police force.
Philadelphia’s Driving Equity Bill is a landmark step towards distancing police from preying on minor vehicular violations, yet it sets a precedent for abolishing any official enforcement of vehicular laws instead of simply distancing police from enforcing those laws . As of March 2022, the bill reclassifies seven vehicle code violations so police officers can no longer use them as a pretext for pulling over a driver. The reclassified vehicle codes include those for broken brake lights, missing inspections or emissions stickers, missing or moved license plates, bumper dents, missing or obstructed headlights, or missing vehicle registration stickers . Before the bill was passed, Black drivers accounted for 72% of the traffic stops in Philadelphia, compared to just 15% for white drivers. However, the arrest rate for Black drivers and for white drivers was equal. This indicates how police are inclined to pull over Black drivers with less certainty for the vehicular crimes that might be committing. Keir Bradford-Grey, Philadelphia’s chief public defender, testified in favor of the bill, noting that “[w]hen [police] stopped white drivers, they were for more legitimate purposes and they actually did things that advanced … public safety measures” .
Councilmember Isaiah Thomas introduced the bill in response to the wave of political reform for racial equity and in light of his own experiences as a Black driver in Philadelphia. The councilmember noted that, “as a coach, I often have a whistle hanging from my mirror. This same motor vehicle code violation initiated the traffic stop that led to Daunte Wright, Philando Castile, and so many others’ deaths” . Councilmember Thomas underscores the immediate importance of distancing police from traffic enforcement in America, but he fails to imagine a future with traffic enforcement with street safety and transit equity in mind.
The political stain of policing in America makes it incredibly difficult to provide adequate protection for vulnerable road users. Philadelphia’s bill is not alone, as other progressive policing reforms are similarly constrained in scope. In July 2022, the DC City Council passed “clean hands” legislation that allows drivers with over $100 in unpaid road violations to renew their licenses . While such legislation is essential for financial equity in our cities, it once again cedes political control over the strategic enforcement of moving violations on our streets. Financial debt should never be a barrier to mobility, but the DC Council didn’t replace the previous restriction on license renewal with any strategy for limiting the registration of drivers who have accrued fines for consistent dangerous driving behavior.
Working towards transportation equity requires us to reimagine how we enforce laws on our roads. Enforcement should protect vulnerable road users and drivers alike. It’s hard to imagine that happening when the enforcers carry weapons and the looming threat of criminal justice involvement. Cities should establish independent public authorities not dissimilar from the Philadelphia Parking Authority to police all matters of road violations. The authorities should have close relationships with existing transportation agencies and return their collections to the improvement of regional transportation systems.
We Know How to Spend Money on Infrastructure
Contrary to popular belief, the United States is very good at spending money on transportation projects. The only problem is that we seldom get anything in return for our investments – no mode shift, no reduction in congestion, no decline in carbon emissions, no safety improvements. Much of this comes in the form of the Federal Government’s relationship with transportation operations. While the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) loves handing out billions for landmark bridges, tunnels, and highway expansions, they decreasingly concern themselves with the day-to-day logistics of transportation in America – from 1980 until 2019, FTA’s contribution to SEPTA’s operating budget dropped from 19 percent in to 5 percent .
After two decades of fighting for scraps of streetscapes, planners need to be willing to challenge existing practices so that we can honor the importance of our public spaces.
Interestingly, the FTA recently dipped more into funding transportation operations that they ever have before. As part of the Covid-19 emergency period, the FTA distributed CARES act funding to transit agencies across the country so that operations would stay afloat during the crisis period. Now that funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) are ready for allocation, the FTA is turning away from transit operations and instead wants to find landmark projects that will make for glowing headlines tomorrow and saccharine ribbon cuttings in 2026. This return to the trend of declining Federal funding for transit operations will bring spectacularly wasteful projects into the headlines and let day-to-day service fall to the wayside again.
As part of their Construction Costs project, Alon Levy has written about a number of our most wasteful projects on the blog Pedestrian Observations . One of Levy’s pieces that I find illustrative of our wasteful transportation spending concerns the relationship between the New Jersey High Speed Rail Improvement Program and Moynihan Train Hall at New York Penn Station. To save business and wealthy riders a total of 100 seconds off their trips, the New Jersey High Speed Rail program spent $450 million to upgrade Amtrak Acela speeds to 150 mph over 16 miles of track north of Princeton Junction. At the same time, Amtrak opened the beautiful Moynihan Train Hall attached to Penn Station. The train hall cost $1.6 billion and shifts Amtrak travelers away from the overcrowded warren of Penn Station. However, the train hall is also across one block west of the old Penn Station platforms, and thus drops travelers a block short of Subway access to the 3 Subway lines on 7th Avenue and 8 Subway lines on 6th Avenue. The time tax penalties of moving Amtrak platforms far outweigh the benefits of speed increases to the south in New Jersey. While the completion of both projects in 2021 should have been a banner achievement for Amtrak, the synergy of the two adds a few minutes to the trips of any Manhattan-bound passengers – surely not what the New Jersey High Speed Rail Improvement Program was meant to achieve.
Despite an interest in spectacular station renovations, Amtrak and its partnering commuter railways have shown no interest in improving operations at their major hubs. Though Moynihan Train Hall was a landmark project for Amtrak, it is soon to be outshined by complete transformations planned for Union Station in DC, Penn Station in Baltimore, the existing Penn Station in New York City, and a further $400 million for renovations at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. None of these projects will expand the capacity of these stations or introduce new train services.
The FTA’s focus on infrastructure over operations permeates the funding climate and thus the ambitions of our transportation agencies. Operations are the key to providing genuine regional connectivity without relying on most Americans to travel in personal vehicles. Until the FTA’s relationship with transit operations shifts in earnest, we will be consigned to a world in which gleaming, new stations serve a dearth of expensive trains for wealthy travelers.
In the last few years I became the resident city planner in any social situation where friends, family, or the dimmest acquaintances shared their observations about the roadways and transit services we all share. My lack of planning credentials notwithstanding, I am always happy to engage, and to many of their surprise, I concede many points. Yes, new bike lanes don’t always achieve the results we have in mind. Yes, drivers take far too many liberties with public space and we do a poor job of policing it. Yes, transit construction prices are quite high for the meager service we receive in return for our investments. The beauty of public space and public money is that everyone has an opinion on how it gets used, and when they see half measures and ineffective action, they call it out. I hope the topics I cover lead to conversations about actions that earnestly improve the spatial equity of our cities and fight climate change. What if bike lanes on arterials are not the best way of allocating road space? I, for one, am less likely to bike when I feel like I’m being used as a human traffic calming device. Likewise, though cities are making policy strides to improve the racial equity of vehicular code enforcement, we are left in a vacuum where a lack of enforcement constitutes its own equity and safety problem. Finally, we need to learn how to spend our meager infrastructure funds on work that promotes access and accessibility over aesthetics. Frequency is freedom, and improvements in operations should always come before expansions in flashy infrastructure and speed upgrades – I would rather have more trains to choose from than a modest speed upgrade along my current trip. After two decades of fighting for scraps of streetscapes, planners need to be willing to challenge existing practices so that we can honor the importance of our public spaces. This process amounts to a critical recalibration of urban design for equity that imagines our streets as comfortable, socially viable, and economically powerful spaces. Philadelphia didn’t institute a cycling plan for the city until 2000, and by 2009 built over 200 miles of cycling lanes. Now that these bike lanes are entrenched in our understanding of what belongs on city streets, we can begin to ask more of them. Every street in the city will be repaved in the next fifty years, so what do we want them to look like?
Creative street use for a “streatery” at Loco Pez, 47th and Baltimore: constructed 2020, demolished 2023. Digital Drawing by Jonathan Zisk
About the Author: Jonathan Zisk
Jonathan is a first-year City Planning student concentrating in Sustainable Transportation and Infrastructure Planning. He is also a content editor at Panorama.
 Kim, Sarah. “Disability Groups File Federal Lawsuit Against D.C. Over Protected Bike Lanes.” DCist (blog), November 23, 2022.
 DC Center for Independent Living; Dupont East Civic Action Association, Dana Bolles, Theodosia Robinson vs. District of Columbia; and Muriel Bowser, in Her Official Capacity, 1:22-cv-03451 (US District Court, District of Columbia. November 21, 2022).
 DCist. “D.C.’s Black Lives Matter Mural Is Gone. The City Plans On Bringing It Back — With New Traffic Lanes.” Accessed January 30, 2023.
 WHYY. “Philly’s Driving Equality Act Takes on Added Importance after Tyre Nichols’s Death, Activists Say.” Accessed February 4, 2023.
 Krzaczek, Katie. “8 Common Traffic Violations No Longer Warrant a Police Stop in Philly.” https://www.inquirer.com, March 3, 2022.
 WHYY. “With Hard-Won Support of Philly’s Top Cop, Bill to Ban Minor Traffic Stops Moves Ahead.” Accessed January 28, 2023.
 Jackson, George. “Councilmember Thomas Introduces Driving Equality Bill.” Defender Association of Philadelphia (blog), October 29, 2020.
 Elwood, Karina. “D.C. Drivers Who Owe Fines Can Now Renew Licenses, New Court Order Says.” Washington Post, January 6, 2023.
 DVRPC’s Options for Filling the Region’s Transportation Funding Gap, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, October 2007; Fiscal Year 2019 Operating Budget, SEPTA, August 9, 2018.
 Pedestrian Observations. “Why Moynihan Station Has Negative Transportation Value,” December 31, 2011.