Breaking Down the Relationship Between Transportation and Inequality

Many cities are working to provide enough public transportation options for low- and middle-income communities to help alleviate the strains associated with the growing wealth gap

By Mary Velan


Many cities are working to provide enough public transportation options for low- and middle-income communities to help alleviate the strains associated with the growing wealth gap.


The Seattle Department of Transportation and the DPD recently submitted a report to the City Council illustrating the need to increase public transit ridership in the city to help control growing inequality. In the report, the SDOT recommends adding residential transportation options and managing on-street parking more effectively. This includes requiring landowners to offer transit passes to renters of new residential developments rather than encouraging the construction of more parking spots. Other recommendations include:

  • Requiring bus passes for new residential developments in center city neighborhoods and areas served well by transit- as well as car share memberships and bike share memberships
  • Removing city code barriers and promote shared parking of underutilized spaces
  • Updating city code to include improved bike parking for more types of new development and promote guidance for placing bike share stations on private property
  • Reviewing residential parking conditions and the Restricted Parking Zone program to identify demand management strategies in growing neighborhoods
  • Promoting garage designs that facilitate sharing parking among different buildings in a neighborhood
  • Promoting transit options that ensure neighborhoods continue to be well served by transit

Because Seattle is experiencing significant growth economically, many new housing developments are higher in price due to demand. In an effort to keep rents affordable in the city, officials want to better manage current parking supply while encouraging greater use of public transit to navigate the city. Less parking spaces would free up room for housing options for current and future residents.

According to the SDOT report, best practices used in other jurisdictions include:

  • Low or no parking minimums in urban neighborhoods
  • Space for car share services
  • Development regulations requiring transit passes for residents and employees
  • On-street parking management strategies such as pricing and time limits
  • Expanding parking apps, on-street valets and coordinated public-private efforts to connect visitors with affordable off-street parking options

Parking spaces within Seattle can cost between $200,000 and $50,000 to build. If these costs are eliminated, the city hopes developers will pass the savings on to tenants to help keep rents affordable.

Moving Out of Poverty

Significant research supports the theory that inefficient, crumbling and scarce public transportation options have a direct relationship with income inequality. Many low-income communities fail to provide adequate public transit options for residents, making it difficult for residents to find and commute to higher-paying jobs that would help them escape poverty. Because these populations cannot afford personal cars, many are stuck working jobs that fit into the local public transportation network and schedules.

In many major cities such as New York and St. Louis, public transportation fares have increased, further straining low-income communities most reliant on the services. Municipalities across the country are struggling to maintain existing infrastructure and fleets to service residents. These dilapidated resources are inefficient and unreliable, making it more difficult for residents use the networks for everyday travels. These barriers are leaving many low-income residents in a state of economic inertia, The Atlantic reported.

One solution many cities are experimenting with is collaboration with the private sector to improve and expand public transit options while better maintaining existing infrastructure. These public-private partnerships span bike-share programs to rail systems to city bus networks. All aim to alleviate city financial costs while preserving effective services to all residents.

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