Cities in Action: Equitable Transportation Solutions


City Name: Baltimore, MD; Charleston, SC; Lansing, MI; Nashville, TN; Oakland, CA; Portland, OR; Seattle, WA

Problem: The COVID-19 pandemic uprooted transportation patterns in 2020 and, in many ways, exacerbated and exposed the inequalities that already exist in our communities.

Solution: Cities are creating data tools to help achieve city-wide racial equity goals and strategies.

Outcome: Portland’s Equity Matrix and the Spatial Equity Data Tool developed at the Urban Institute, along with examples from other cities.



American cities are starting to focus on reliable public transportation as a response to growing climate, safety and health concerns. Public transportation is crucial in providing residents with reliable mobility across the city, especially to schools, places of employment and hospitals, especially for those who cannot afford to own cars.

Compared to cars, benefits of public transportation include:

  • reduced greenhouse gas emissions
  • reliable access to city hubs
  • lowered risks of motor-vehicle accidents
  • increased physical activity
  • reduced costs of transportation.


The COVID-19 pandemic uprooted transportation patterns in 2020 and, in many ways, exacerbated and exposed the inequalities that exist in our communities. Measuring equity in transportation services has never been easier or as effective for decision makers as they try to find balance in both budgets and impacts. Whether adjusting bus services or deciding on the next bike lane project, looking at equity measures is a great tool to inform decisions that have a daily impact on residents’ lives.


Portland, Oregon was early to measure transportation equity, put it at the center of capital improvement conversations, and put forth a model that other cities have adopted. Portland’s model was also supplemented by changes to a more community-centered approach for engagement and feedback, which many communities feel are long overdue.

Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) created a simplified version of an Equity Matrix to measure projects, programs and procedures to help achieve the Citywide Racial Equity Goals and Strategies. This Equity Matrix, or equity ranking index, uses three demographic variables based on national best practices: race, income and limited English proficiency. It enables PBOT to prioritize action in areas or with residents that fall above and below the citywide averages for those demographic variables.

With this equity framework, PBOT has worked to uplift the Rose Lane Project, explore Pricing Options for Equitable Mobility (POEM) and support the Safe Streets Initiative. These projects are grounded in promoting transportation equity through improving transit service for Portlanders who must keep riding transit during the pandemic, exploring the relationship between pricing policies and transportation, and adapting Portland’s streets for restarting public life in a safe and equitable manner. Moving forward, PBOT plans to continue centering equity in its work by improving data collection and systems monitoring, investing in long-term partnerships with community-based and BIPOC-focused organizations, and using root cause analysis at the start of planning processes to define and address racial disparities. Get into the details of Portland’s plans here.

A report from the Urban Institute (UI) conducted a deeper dive into access to opportunity in its Equitable Transportation Report. Through a case study of four metropolitan regions — Seattle, Washington; Baltimore, Maryland; Lansing, Michigan; and Nashville, Tennessee — Urban created an Unequal Commute Tool to examine the inequalities in transportation systems. By using a gravity model to calculate job accessibility, the UI team showed the mismatch between where low-wage workers reside and what opportunities were available to them. This includes looking at the time it takes residents to get to jobs, schools, libraries and hospitals via both public transit and automobile, creating an access to opportunity measure. Through this measure, discrepancies between access to opportunities and how they can differ by race and ethnicity and for night-shift workers becomes clearer. By centering equity in transportation decision making, we can create a baseline and pilot metrics to assess data gaps, racist planning and discriminative policies. Take a look at the findings between the four metro areas here.

Through data analysis and visualization, UI is tackling the disconnect between a commitment to reducing racial disparities and the ability to measure equity. Urban also created a Spatial Equity Data Tool to help assess racial, economic and geographic representation of user-uploaded data points. Examples of questions that can be evaluated through the tool include:

  • Are wi-fi hotspots unevenly located in your city?
  • Do all residents have equitable access to bike share stations?
  • Does your dataset accurately reflect your city’s population?
  • What groups or neighborhoods are underrepresented?

The tool combines both spatial and demographic disparities in cities across the U.S. to quickly identify biases and aid in policy decisions. Additionally, the tool can be used for data visualization at community meetings, city council proceedings or other public engagement events. Users can view sample datasets and upload their own data to measure disparities.


In Portland, the roll-out of the Rose Lane Project relies on the Equity Matrix to center the values of racial equity and transportation justice throughout its development and implementation. The city has created a Safe Streets initiative and is exploring pricing options for equitable mobility.

In Baltimore, Lansing, Nashville and Seattle, the Unequal Commute Tool has identified how equitable and high-quality transportation systems can help address disparities and increase residents’ upward economic mobility.

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