Transport Futures: Equity Summit

What is transit equity, and how can ATU Canada address it in our advocacy work?

ATU Canada organizer, Madelin, brought this question with her into the Transport Futures: Equity Summit this week, a single day event bringing together local and international experts in transit to discuss Canada’s mobility context.

What defines equity in transit?

  • Is it about fairness? A system that fairly distributes the costs and benefits of transit to all residents?
  • Is it about sufficiency? A system in which everyone is able to enjoy a minimum standard of transit?
  • Is it about individual capabilities? A system that alleviates barriers to transit among the transit poor or those experience mobility challenges?
  • Is it about participation? A system that drives low income and high income people to use transit as their preferred mode of mobility?
  • Is it a process? A recognition that a single planning intervention will not achieve equity, but that it needs to be baked into all decisions about public life?

These definitions illustrate the complexity of the conversation around transit equity. Although participants in the Summit may ascribe to a different definition, all agreed in the importance of placing equity concerns at the center of public transit work.

90% of Canadians are living in urban centers and these centers continue to grow through migration. Insufficient public transit exacerbates the growing unaffordability of cities. 

Steven Farber, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Toronto and the first speaker of the conference contextualized transit’s importance based on his research. Farber’s research assessed the transit poor populations in Canada—ie. those who are unable to overcome low access to transit with access to a personal vehicle because of the cost. He identified that there are 700,000 Canadians living in transit poverty, and more than 1.3 million low-income Canadians live in neighbourhoods with low access to transit.

Transport Poverty Diagram

In short, transport poor people cannot overcome lack of access to mobility with wealth. Farber’s research looked at the ways that access to transit impacts individuals daily activity rates (their ability to make multiple trips per day to work, school, shopping, and discretionary activities too). He ultimately argued that many Canadians are at risk of transit-related social exclusion, and that “transit accessibility helps eliminate the differences in daily activity participation rates between car owning and zero-car households.”

Of course, there are barriers to transit equity beyond income and class; status as a new Canadian, people with different abilities, people who are indigenous, racialized, are non-anglophones, seniors, youth, and women are all groups that need to be considered when planning transit. Why? Because these groups have different needs in, and experiences of, public transit.

Tweet about transport future equity conference

Indeed, even the act of addressing equity considerations has changed how urban geographers review data. Research has shown that women use transit more often and differently than men, including for higher numbers of stops in transit to drop children at daycare, run errands, and at more irregular times. This has changed the metrics of transit research to include number of accessible trips into their research, rather than purely distance or speed travelled.

In rural contexts, transit equity conversations have a different focus. Transit is expensive to provide in low density, rural areas, where limited services and funding create additional challenges to mobility and accessibility for seniors, youth, low income, and unemployed people. The speaker, Dennis Kar of Dillon Consulting, asked: Should we care about equity when it impacts so few people? If transit is expensive, when is equity unaffordable? Is cost an excuse not to be equitable? Are there opportunities to provide more affordable mobility in the rural context?

ATU Canada members know the importance of rural and intercity transit as more than a policy question. The audiodocumentary released in October 2019, “Still Waiting for the Bus” identified the human cost of losing intercity transit in the prairie provinces. The MMIWG Report of 2019 identified lack of viable public transit options as a major risked experienced by indigenous women fleeing violence.

 Intercity transit audio doc

In addition to a discussion about public transit, speakers addressed other, intersecting aspects of transit, such as street design, road management, pedestrian fatalities due to vehicular traffic, subsidization of personal vehicles, the climate and public health crises of car culture, automated vehicles, micro-mobility in the form of electric bikes and scooters, and congestion planning.

TF equity summit panel

Speakers Steven Farber, Gregory Shill, David King, Shavon Edwards, Jennifer Dean, Shagithya Deivendran, Daniel Firth and Dennis Kar (photo courtesy of Transport Futures)

The summit, rightfully so, focused on the experience of people who use public transit. Missing from the conversation? What does equity look like for transit workers? When ATU Canada organizer, Madelin, asked this question, panelists identified the unsatisfactory nature of their own answers. Indeed, labour concerns generally are issues identified by transit workers, disproportionately so for workers of equity-seeking groups including women and people of colour. There is abundant space in conversations about transit equity to discuss the worker experience, and indeed, ATU Canada’s role continues to be addressing issues transit sphere that impact workers.