Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly transportation needs a universal way to measure racial equity | Opinion

Transportation should be part of the city's renewed commitment to racial equity.

A sign on a SEPTA bus notes that masks are required.
A sign on a SEPTA bus notes that masks are required.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated institutionalized inequities, including in transportation. Many transit-dependent residents and commuters in the service sector and other lower salaried jobs, who are disproportionately Black and Latino, continue to use public transit throughout the pandemic. They have paid the price as public transit agencies nationwide, including SEPTA, have drastically cut services to try to avoid financial disaster. The time to address transit inequities has never been more important.

From the growth of the federal highway system, which displaced many African American communities, to transit segregation that prompted the bus boycotts of the civil rights movement, to the overpolicing of Black lives on the road, transportation practices have contributed to racial segregation, systemic discrimination, and mobility disparity. In response, federal regulators require an equity analysis in transportation decision-making and have implemented Title VI regulations and the executive order on environmental justice. However, these regulations fail to improve disjointed approaches to incorporating equity within transportation planning, particularly at the city level.

» READ MORE: SEPTA to get $252 million in additional federal COVID-19 relief

In Philadelphia, the city and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) consider equity in their transportation plans, but they lack a standard method to analyze results and sufficient coordination between entities, resulting in a fractured approach. To remedy this, the city needs a universal transportation equity measure that can be used across transportation projects. Having a universal measure can not only help to better identify vulnerable communities but establish the foundation for a coordinated citywide process for considering equity in city transportation projects.

The city has already shown it is committed to making equity a priority. Last year, Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order to expand the administration’s focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion and to formalize the creation of the city’s Racial Equity Initiative. As the city works to better incorporate equity, Philadelphia could lead with a citywide process to address gaps in transportation equity analysis.

Like many cities, most transportation projects in Philadelphia require extensive coordination between federal, state, and local agencies, including SEPTA and the city. Having a universal equity measure that standardizes the metrics and methods to address equity in different types of transportation projects can ensure a more collaborative, citywide approach — in project selection, implementation, and evaluation — that best fits Philadelphians’ needs.

The city of Philadelphia does not need to start from scratch. We can emulate the success of cities like Seattle, where Sound Transit and the Seattle Department of Transportation rely on a coordinated set of questions from the city’s Racial Equity Toolkit to guide the development, implementation, and evaluation of transportation projects.

The Philadelphia region’s metropolitan planning organization, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), also has created an equity analysis tool for the region called the Indicators of Potential Disadvantage (IPD). Based on the requirements outlined in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the executive order on environmental justice, the IPD categorizes vulnerable population groups by nine characteristics: youth, older adults, women, racial minorities, ethnic minorities, foreign-born, limited English proficiency, disability, and low-income.

» READ MORE: SEPTA must be able to do more than merely survive the pandemic | Editorial

While this is a good start, there is room to improve by adding other indicators that can help address the transit needs of Philadelphians, such as access to neighborhood amenities like grocery stores, child care, affordable housing, and small businesses. If carefully implemented, this improved index can serve as the model for envisioning what a citywide transportation equity analysis process could look like.

Using DVRPC’s IPD equity analysis tool as the baseline, a task force made up of people from each Philadelphia transportation entity and community members should be created to review the current equity metrics identified in DVRPC’s model and identify any gaps. After gathering initial feedback on the performance of these metrics in analyzing equity, the city of Philadelphia, SEPTA, and DVRPC should establish an agreed-upon metric and process. From filling a pothole to adding a new bus route, the range of what constitutes transportation projects is large. The task force should define the scope of where and how the metrics should be applied.

Our current system’s fragmented approach to transportation projects is inefficient and costly, and inevitably leads to disparities when it comes to priorities. Philadelphia has the tools it needs to move toward a more equitable transportation system. It just needs to coordinate them, to more meaningfully connect transportation projects to citywide equity concerns.

Seunglee David Park and Emily Kennedy are master’s students at the University of Pennsylvania, where they study city and regional planning.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at