Economic Inequality and Sustainable Transportation Policy

This research project examines how the spatial pattern of inequality in US cities shapes the provision of public transit and more broadly the prospects for a more equitable and sustainable transportation policy.

After decades where cities such as New York, Detroit, and Chicago were perceived as crumbling, bankrupt, and dangerous, the long-run decentralization of US urban areas may have slowed if not reversed, and some big cities are gaining population again. These developments are good news for advocates of sustainable transportation, as the influx of affluent urbanites brings new allies to campaigns for public transit. As a hallmark of this urban renaissance, after decades of little or no investment in rail transit, some two dozen cities have recently built new subway, light rail, or commuter rail systems, and the number of rail transit stations has doubled since 1970. The implications of these developments for low-income city residents are less clear, however. The extraordinary expansion of urban rail transit has taken place as US cities have become more divided along economic lines. This pattern may create conflicts of interest between the “car-less,” those who cannot afford private automobiles, and the “car-free,” those who eschew them as a matter of lifestyle or principle. Specifically, in segregated cities, new transit service may be sited in locations that serve the affluent rather than the poor. Moreover, even if new transit goes to low-income areas, affluent city residents may displace the poor from these transit-accessible neighborhoods. This project examines the implications of economic segregation for transit accessibility and for the politics of public transit expansion, with a focus on rail transit.