African American Woman riding a train

For Blacks and Other Minorities, Transportation Inequities Often Keep Opportunities Out of Reach

Barriers to mobility have contributed to long-standing structural racism.

By Jackie Powder

Anticipation was high for Baltimore’s long-planned Red Line light rail project that promised an east-west travel corridor across the city, extending to employment centers along the route.  

When the project was canceled in 2015 by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, it dashed the hopes of residents who looked forward to greater access to jobs and shortened commute time.

Five years on, little has improved, experts say. 

According to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, two of three jobs in the Baltimore region cannot be reached by public transit within an hour and a half—one-way.  

“That’s potentially three hours away from your family, away from maybe a second job,” says Megan Latshaw, PhD ’05, MHS ’01, whose research focus is on designing healthy communities. She points out that most users of Baltimore’s transit system—and in many U.S. cities—are minorities. “In the U.S., transit has been racialized in a lot of places and thought of as the poor person’s way of getting around.” 

For communities of color, unreliable mass transit, transportation costs, and unequal access have contributed to longstanding structural racism and associated socioeconomic barriers that have segregated communities from a range of opportunities. 

Transportation inequities can be traced in part to historical economic and societal shifts—white flight to the suburbs, the growth of a car-centric culture, and the migration of businesses—and jobs—from cities to more distant locations. 

“We are talking about access to jobs. We are talking about access to health care facilities, access to healthy food, access to education, quality schools,” says Shima Hamidi, PhD, Bloomberg Assistant Professor of American Health and an expert in adverse health effects of urban sprawl and car-oriented community design.

 “The question my research has been asking is, If people don’t have access to jobs, how are they supposed to have one?” 

In her former position as director of the Center for Transportation Equity at the University of Texas at Arlington, Hamidi analyzed transportation equity in 2017 and found that the people most dependent on public transportation—those in minority neighborhoods—received the lowest level of service, based on transit coverage and frequency. Her conclusion applies to many U.S. cities, Hamidi says. 

Among other findings: More than 73% of Section 8 federally subsidized housing was unaffordable to residents when factoring in transportation costs, leaving low-income and minority residents with little left in their budget for other necessities.   

Based in part on Hamidi’s report, Dallas transportation officials launched a project to revamp its bus system to prioritize equity—modifying transit routes, for example, to increase frequency in off-peak hours to better serve people with low-wage jobs who don’t work a 9–5 schedule. Additionally, Dallas Area Rapid Transit called off a planned fare increase that would have affected low-income neighborhoods. 

Key to addressing transportation inequities, says Hamidi, is greater coordination between government agencies—especially transportation, housing, and public health.

Increasing affordable housing stock in areas with employment centers around transit stations is one of the most efficient ways to provide affordability and equal access to opportunities for minority residents. As it is now, large parking lots often dominate the adjacent land.  

Latshaw and the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition are collaborating on a transportation equity analysis—funded by a grant from the Bloomberg American Health Initiative.  

The project aims to document communities’ access to public transit and whether it’s working efficiently for people who need it most, and map transit-related air pollution and associated health effects. Ultimately, the work aims to inform more equitable transportation not only by data about residents’ proximity to transit but also travel time to their destinations.