Anti-Racist State Budgets: Transportation Equity

June 7, 2021

About This Primer

This primer is part of a series on anti-racist state budgets. To understand the concept of creating anti-racist state budgets, it is important to understand the difference between racist and anti-racist ideas and policies. The following excerpts are from How to Be an Antiracist (2019) by Ibram X. Kendi: 

Racist vs. Anti-racist Ideas

A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. Racist ideas argue that the inferiorities and superiorities of racial groups explain racial inequities in society. . . . An antiracist idea is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences – that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group. Antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities.

Racist vs. Anti-racist Policies

A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups. . . . There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups. 

For additional race-equity concepts and definitions, please visit the Racial Equity Tools glossary.

The following primer examines how policymakers have impacted low-income communities and communities of color through racist transportation policies and practices and, drawing from existing research, analyzes how state budgets can guide racial equity outcomes. It also outlines progressive considerations for state legislators to take into account when crafting related anti-racist legislation. We hope that a better understanding of the effects of state budgets on transportation equity will support progressive legislative efforts to create transportation systems that promote public health, sustainability, and equitable opportunity. 

History of Racist Transportation Policies

Sculpture of Rosa Parks at the National Civil Rights Museum
Sculpture of Rosa Parks at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo: Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock)

Our ability to access affordable and reliable transportation is a basic right that many communities have been deprived of as a result of inequitable transportation investments. Low-income communities and communities of color bear the largest burden of our states’ transportation decisions.

Race and transportation have long been intertwined. In 1955, Rosa Parks became the icon of the Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white rider. Her arrest led Montgomery’s Black community to launch a massive boycott, demanding better treatment for Black riders and equitable access to public transit. In the early 1960s, Freedom Riders challenged segregation laws and asserted their rights to ride interstate transportation.

Although the civil rights movement helped increase the accessibility of transportation, the issue of inequity has persisted. Discriminatory practices, such as redlining, have locked communities of color out of certain neighborhoods and left them without many transportation options. Redlining was followed by other detrimental efforts, such asurban renewal—a nationwide program established by the Housing Act of 1949—that provided federal grants to cities for the purposes of rebuilding their downtowns.

African american woman wearing medical mask while travel in public transport

Urban renewal allowed cities to raze and rebuild entire areas, clear slums and blighted properties, and develop highways. This program led to the widespread development outside city centers, also known as urban sprawl. Investments in these developments have changed the urban geographical landscape and displaced communities, disproportionately impacting low-income people and people of color. Similar racist policies and practices persisted after the 1960s and continue today, leading to increased traffic congestion and air pollution, ongoing negative health effects (e.g., respiratory illnesses, lung cancer, and impaired lung development), evictions of marginalized groups, dangerous road conditions for biking and walking, and the destruction of thriving neighborhoods.

Current departments of transportation and transit agencies are still operating systems grounded in racism and guided by the inequitable policies of the civil rights era. Not only do current highway projects continuously displace Black and Brown communities across the country, but also transit agencies have designed their routes and systems around the stereotype that there are only two kinds of riders: “captive” and “choice” riders, with this binary design disproportionately disadvantaging marginalized communities. 

Impacts on Marginalized Communities

Line graph from the US Department of Transportation entitled “Trends in Expenditure by Mode” shows billions of dollars spent on y-axis ($0-$200) and years on the x-axis (2008-2018.) Graph shows significantly higher spend for highways than for public transit. Full graph available at
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation
Development of Highways & Displacement of Communities

In 2018, state and local governments collectively spent about $70 billion on public transportation. At the same time, these governments devoted over $232 billion to highways. Greater investment in highways is one of many examples of how transportation policy priorities have led to an underinvestment in sustainable infrastructure within marginalized communities. 

Many highway construction projects have also displaced communities by creating changes in the land value of a neighborhood and destroying the units occupied by low-income households and households of color. These projects contribute to a loss of affordable housing and the disintegration of communities, significantly affecting the quality of the neighborhood and its residents. Similar to the ways urban renewal programs destroyed the homes of marginalized communities to resolve urban blight, the prioritization of highway expansion over public transportation projects has inequitable and disproportionate effects on low-income and minority residential neighborhoods.

Accessibility of Public Transit
Wheelchair user at top of stairs subway entrance

Financial Accessibility

Since 1995, public transit ridership has increased by 28%. Contributing to this ridership increase, income and wealth disparities have led many people of color to have relatively less access to cars. As a result, people of color are the ones most likely to rely on public transportation as their main form of travel. Especially in urban areas, Black, Latinx, and Asian people take public transit more often than their white counterparts to access public services and get to work and school. However, the restriction of public funds for transit, along with governments’ prioritization of highways, has shifted resources away from alternative transportation options. If and when municipalities rely on fare increases to manage their budget crises, these increases hurt transit-reliant communities and decrease the financial accessibility of buses. Cities and states can mitigate these issues if they make targeted investments in public transit. One study in Boston found that a 50% reduction in transit-pass costs for low-income riders resulted in about 30% more trips and an increase in trips to health care and social services.

Physical Accessibility

Forty-five percent of Americans have no access to public transportation. Some areas, especially sprawling cities, do not support public transportation due to certain land patterns and the separation of homes from places of work and services, creating longer travel distances and a greater dependence on automobiles. Residents in these areas are then forced to rely on cars, which is an expense many cannot afford, leaving them with few good transportation options and compounding the cycle of poverty. Low-income people of color are already less likely to own a car and their lack of car ownership combined with inadequate and inaccessible public transit further exacerbates their circumstances. Even when people are presumed to have access to transit, these individuals often have to navigate dangerous roadways in order to do so. For more information on the impacts of dangerous road infrastructure, see the section below on Road Safety for Civilians

Road Safety for Civilians
person stepping onto bus

Walking, bicycling, and public transit need to be not only accessible to but also safe for everyone. Motor vehicle crash data comparing 2010 to 2019 shows that in urban areas, pedestrian fatalities increased by 62% and bicyclist fatalities increased by 49%, and the proportion of total traffic fatalities that were non-occupant (e.g., bicyclists and pedestrians) fatalities jumped from 15% in 2010 to 20% in 2019. Similar to how states are not investing in public transit, states are also allocating only a small portion of their budgets to improve pedestrian infrastructure. People of color and low-income people often use active transportation to get from one place to another, with Hispanic, African American, and Asian American populations experiencing the fastest growth in bicycling. Yet the street conditions are often more dangerous for these individuals in comparison to the walking and bicycling conditions of their white, middle-class counterparts. 

People of color are already twice as likely to be killed while walking than other groups. Not only do high-speed, multi-lane avenues and poorly designed streets contribute to traffic-related deaths, but they also affect the abilities of communities, especially those composed of low-income individuals and people of color, to be physically active. These conditions have the potential to shorten lives and impair people’s ability to thrive. 

Environmental Effects on Public Health
Air pollution scenic with cars on highway and yellow smoke in city.

The transportation sector emits more than half of the nitrogen oxides in our air and accounts for about 28% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Urban and metropolitan areas with traffic congestion typically experience the most significant pollution, which is often traced to inefficient land use patterns, sprawling development, and policies that favor highway development over transit. Long-term exposure to pollutants can lead to lung cancer, heart disease, respiratory illnesses, and impaired lung development and function in children and infants. These issues are further compounded when unsustainable transportation projects invade communities where poor air and water quality is already an issue. Oftentimes, it is low-income neighborhoods and communities of color who face greater environmental and health consequences from the underinvestment in sustainable transportation infrastructure.

Traffic Enforcement and the Role of Police
Crowd inside subway train holds straphangers

Instead of investing in equitable transportation projects, 25 states have used portions of their state highway fund dollars to finance highway patrols as of 2017. Dedicating highway fund dollars for state police not only takes away funding for more equitable transit, but also severely affects people’s ability to benefit from the transportation system. Transportation inequities take place in low-income communities and communities of color, which are often over-policed and under-protected in comparison to higher-income, majority-white neighborhoods. 

State and local law enforcement compound such inequities by using traffic laws and minor violations as a pretext for stopping and searching drivers, especially people of color. Coupled with racial bias, these stops often escalate and lead to unnecessary use of force or arrests that disproportionately impact Black people and communities of color. In addition, disparate targeting of fare evasion enforcement on transit systems has led to increased police-civilian interaction for harmless infractions and the criminalization of poverty in Black and Brown neighborhoods. 

Policy Considerations

Union Station lightrail stop in downtown Denver, Colorado

When planning and proceeding with transportation projects, states should promote equity and prioritize community needs by evaluating accessibility in transportation planning decisions and considering the following recommendations:

  1. Incorporate inclusive community engagement practices into transportation planning and decision-making processes. Low-income communities and communities of color bear most of the burden of unsustainable transportation outcomes yet have been historically excluded from the decision-making process. Communities should have the power to decide which transportation projects best meet their needs. Thus, state legislators and departments of transportation should sustain avenues for increased public involvement in transportation planning so communities can directly influence transportation priorities, choices, and budget allocations. 
  1. Develop a mechanism for prioritizing and evaluating transportation projects based on sustainability, accessibility, and community priorities. Car-centric transportation planning often result in policies that physically, economically, and environmentally harm low-income communities and communities of color. To better serve those most impacted by transportation projects, state legislators should create a prioritization process that integrates equity principles and considers community needs.
  1. Increase funding for public transportation to provide and maintain quality and affordable transit facilities and services, especially for transit-dependent communities. Currently, many states rely on outdated technology, tools, and policies to inform their decisions on which transportation projects to prioritize and fund. For example, some states prioritize highway projects because they have constitutional prohibitions that limit the use of gas tax revenues to highways only. To ensure equitable investments in public transportation, state legislators should reallocate funding toward sustainable modes of infrastructure by modernizing the policies and systems of their departments of transportation.
  1. Address our crumbling roadway infrastructure by reallocating funds from highway construction projects to maintenance and infrastructure that benefit disadvantaged communities. Federal law provides states with the flexibility to spend funds they receive from highway formulas. However, such flexibility grants the states the ability to focus on expanding highways instead of fixing crumbling roads first. While it is critical to put pressure on Congress to prioritize highway formula dollars for maintenance, states can also take immediate action by ensuring their statewide transportation packages emphasize repairing potholes, unfixed highways, and crumbling roads over expansion projects. State legislators should also devote a percentage of their transportation funds to low-income or high-need communities.

    In addition, policymakers should consider implementing life cycle cost analysis (LCCA) programs. Such programs enable transportation planners to examine the total costs of a project over its expected life and compare differing life-cycle costs between alternative options. As a result, LCCAs help identify the most beneficial and cost-effective projects and require decision-makers to think more about maintenance over expansion.
  1. Support transit-oriented development and smart growth initiatives that promote community economic development and incorporate equity principles. Transit-oriented development promotes alternative modes of sustainable transportation and increases access to affordable housing, jobs, and schools for low- and moderate-income families. State legislatures should: 
  • create incentives for integrated transportation planning and land use that enables all people to experience the benefits of pedestrian-oriented development near transit hubs;
  • address land-use concerns that inhibit transit-oriented development and allow cities to take meaningful action in their municipalities; and
  • use racial equity outcomes to guide the planning process and ensure that such development does not displace and evict long-term and low-income residents.

6. Call on municipalities to adopt and implement Complete Streets policies in low-income, high-need communities. Designing transit-friendly streets and safe roadways for all users will make walking and biking safer and more convenient for pedestrians and cyclists. Complete Streets policies promote infrastructure that reduces reliance on cars, resulting in increased engagement in physical activity and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. State legislators should encourage the implementation of this policy in high-need communities that have more dangerous street conditions.

7. Redirect funds and responsibilities away from state police and toward investments in communities. Legacies of discrimination and racism pervade our transportation system and policies. Not only do communities of color have a lack of access to mobility options, but they also suffer disproportionately from police-involved violence initiated by traffic stops. In order to achieve transportation equity and ensure safe streets for all populations, states must address both policies that disadvantage biking and walking and the ongoing racist police enforcement of traffic laws that lead to disproportionate harms for Black and Brown drivers. 

Additional Resources

Man wearing protective mask sits on bus during the day

Urban Sprawl and Highway Expansion

Transit Accessibility

Environmental and Public Health Impacts

Active Transportation and Pedestrian Safety

Effects of Traffic Enforcement

Racial Equity and Transportation

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