Author:Larson, Samantha


Caught in politically divisive times, there are few policy domains in which both so-called "liberals" and "conservatives" agree. However, transportation and the expansion of public transit systems has found common ground amongst local policymakers. There are several justifications for such development on both sides. On one hand, alternative transportation (e.g. light rail, commuter rail, and rapid bus transit services) has been revered by pro-business advocates as a prominent driver of economic performance (Hall, 2007) and those interested in reducing traffic congestion (Albalate & Bel, 2009). Conversely, leaders representing more progressive interests find value in studies that 2show how public transit increases community connectivity (Mathur & Srinivasan, 2009) and improves air quality (Emison, 2006). Thus, decision-makers on both sides of the aisle have increasingly utilized such findings to justify public transit funding in their respective jurisdictions.

Subsequently, transportation agencies have developed contextual measures to assess performance as it relates to transit equity. For instance, such measures have been required by mandates associated with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires agencies that seek federal funding to illustrate low-income communities of color will not be disproportionately impacted as a result of transit development projects. Wellman (2015) found that transit administrators often refer to Title VI in discussions of social equity, and interviews with such actors found that "the nation's urban, poor transit dependents largely have an ally in their transit agency administrators--allies who understand, discuss, and seek social justice in transportation and mobility" (p. 141). The emphasis placed on social equity is thus evident in the analytical approaches that cities use to assess public transit performance.

Yet, despite more than five decades of Title VI analysis and reporting, research illustrates how transit development can augment adverse community outcomes. Some have described how various policy positions--including those related to transportation--have displaced communities of color (Alkadry & Blessett, 2010; Alkadry, Blessett, & Patterson, 2015). Others have outlined how transit-oriented development has induced gentrification in low-income neighborhoods (Kahn, 2007; Cappellano & Spisto, 2014; Dawkins & Moeckel, 2016).

This study particularly builds on the results of Larson (2018), which examined the relationship between increased neighborhood transit access and changes in income segregation. From 1970-2010, the longitudinal study analyzed trends in four demographically diverse Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs): Denver-Aurora-Broomfield CO; Minneapolis-St. Paul-Broomfield, MN; Birmingham-Hoover, AL; and Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL. (1) Results showed that income segregation across both predominantly white neighborhoods and communities of color decreased in Minneapolis and Orlando as transit expanded. However, income segregation remained steady as transit increased in Denver and Birmingham over the 40-year period. Today, Denver and Birmingham both exhibit above average income segregation levels (Fry & Taylor, 2012).

Larson's (2018) mixed results across four different cities suggests that, despite reporting requirements of Title VI and adoption of performance measures to improve accountability for social equity, agencies go to differing lengths to address inequities related to transit development. While the quantitative results therefore contribute understanding to neighborhood trends, the study leaves room to further explore the nature and extent to which agencies in each MSA have taken action to address racial and economic inequities.

Therefore, this paper explores the process by which practitioners in the four jurisdictions examined by Larson (2018) address equity concerns beyond the legal reporting requirements of Title VI. This study builds on Larson's (2018) quantitative findings by conducting interviews with transit practitioners leading social equity initiatives in each metropolitan area. The analysis explores how practitioners address accountability for social equity as individuals working within the confines of their agencies.

To explore how transit accessibility, race, and economic equity are navigated by professionals in each city, this qualitative examination embraces the work of Gooden (2014), who argues that social inequities endure partially due to feelings of "nervousness" experienced by public servants responsible for addressing disparities. In Race and Social Equity: A Nervous Area of Government, she explains:

We all become nervous from time to time, and particularly in certain situations when we are afraid. Although nervousness is an emotional reaction we all experience, it becomes problematic when it begins to interfere with our ability to perform our daily tasks. Normally, we think of nervousness as an individual emotion. But what about nervousness in organizations (Gooden, 2014, p. 3)? Gooden (2014) further argues that the pursuit of racial equity is thus a "nervous area of government," pervading public offices, and sometimes, entire agencies. The inability to overcome such feelings of discomfort leads many to repress issues experienced by historically disadvantaged communities altogether. In order to address inequities, the first step is to acknowledge them. Others have referenced Gooden's (2014) conception of nervousness as both a catalyst of administrative racism (Starke, Heckler, & Mackey, 2018) and an integral concept to overcome in order to advance race-conscious dialogues in public administration curriculum (Lopez-Littleton, Blessett, & Burr, 2018).

This study embraces Gooden's (2014) notion that race, income, and equity are a nervous area in the work of public transit professionals. This is the lens by which the following research question is explored: How do public transportation agencies achieve accountability for social equity? The question is approached under the assumption that practitioners are unable to fully advance more equitable outcomes until individual and organizational acknowledgement of inequities, past and present, are realized. To do so, there are specific principles that agencies are likely to adopt on the path to overcoming nervousness to achieve more equitable outcomes, as next described.


Gooden (2014) proposes 10 fundamental principles that can guide both scholars and practitioners in the field to overcome nervousness to advance social equity. The following principles are utilized in this study to understand the extent to which administrators adopt each while pursuing better transit accessibility for residents with varying transportation needs. The following lists each principle as described by Gooden (2014), followed by an interpretation of the statement in the context of public transit.

  1. Public administrators have a responsibility to operate in the nervous area of government. This principle asserts that organizations must consider, examine, promote, distribute, and evaluate historically disadvantaged groups in public service delivery. Previous interviews with transit administrators suggest they are aware of the concept of social equity (Wellman, 2015). This study explores the extent to which transit practitioners feel such a responsibility.

  2. The legal history of discrimination is an important context that cannot be minimized, but rather offers instructive guidance. This principle stresses that administrators must acknowledge the historical legacies of discrimination in policies and practices to identify where change is needed. Previous quantitative scholarship has provided empirical evidence of the impact inequitable transit policy has had on communities of color and low-income populations over generations (Garrett & Taylor, 1999). This study explores if transit administrators also learn from the past to inform more inclusive planning efforts in the present.

  3. Initial motivators to begin navigation of nervousness typically include some combination of political, moral, legal, and/or economic triggers. Equity-based initiatives are often motivated by factors that emerge beyond the organization. For instance, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandates transit agencies to conduct social equity analyses, as previously noted. This is an example of a legal trigger. Interviews conducted for this study further enhance understanding of other political, moral, and economic triggers.

  4. Senior leadership is a critically important factor in realizing sustained progress. If those holding positions of power and authority value the advancement of equity, it leads to a culture in which organizational members can overcome the barrier of nervousness as well. Leadership and culture have a significant impact on organizational performance (Bass & Avolio, 1993; Brewer & Selden, 2000; Brewer, 2005). The degree to which leadership impacts the prioritization of equity in transportation agencies is also accounted for in this exploration.

  5. At the individual level, public servants must recognize and eliminate behaviors that impede equity progress. Practitioners vary in their propensity to discuss racism, income inequality, and other forms of inequity in office conversations, public dialogue, and formal meetings. This behavioral tendency can impact the advancement of equity within a larger organization. Related studies have examined how individual determinants impact organizational performance (Kim 2005; Caillier, 2011) and proclivity to address wrongdoing (Lavena, 2014).

  6. At the organizational level, government agencies should evaluate their socialization boundaries and extend them to accommodate a wider range of equity work. Organizations must expand the boundaries of service to reduce fear of participating in activities that induce feelings of...

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