Better transit metrics could bridge equity gaps. Here’s how

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sandra Caballero Project Specialist, Autonomous and Urban Mobility, World Economic Forum & Wei-Shiuen Ng Advisor, Sustainable Transport and Global Outreach, International Transport Forum


  • Transportation systems frequently fail to meet the needs of low-income communities, women, the disabled and communities subject to systemic racism;
  • Better data can help transport companies and leaders bridge transit gaps;
  • How data is captured and analysed is crucial to building more equitable transport systems.

Today’s transportation systems don’t meet the needs of all people. Many groups, including low-income communities, women, the disabled and communities subject to systemic racism, can’t get to work or school. As a result, millions are held back from even the basics, such as providing for their families.

Even more shocking? Traditionally, there’s been no way to truly measure the effectiveness or success of equitable mobility initiatives through strategic key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics. Better analytics are critical to both bridging transit gaps and helping communities thrive.

What’s wrong with modern transit data?

Modern data in companies and other organizations is a vital information source. It helps set goals and KPIs, and spot important trends. The transit sector has not taken full advantage of data analysis since in many cases the data does not exist and there is no one to track or analyse it.

The problem with transit data is that it generalizes population needs and therefore generally serves the public. Other transportation data gathered by private mobility operators focuses on their target consumers who are often wealthier individuals with greater income. This is all to say, there is little information about underserved populations, whether it be women, low-income communities, the elderly, historically marginalized communities or immigrants and refugees.

As a result, the lack of transit data on underserved populations leads to a lack of accessible, affordable, safe and efficient transit services for those communities. Underserved communities are resourceful and often understand their needs very well; it’s the lack of communication of these needs to mobility operators and providers that’s the problem.

How better data could be transformative

While we don’t have data for the socio-economic impacts of a lack of transportation access, we do know the real-life implications of how communities are affected when they can’t get to school or work. In an upward economic mobility study, Harvard researchers concluded transportation is the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty. Transportation access offers societal benefits too with every $1 invested in public transportation generating $5 in economic return.

Better data could help in other ways too. LA Metro, for instance, found that 20% of women avoid a new light rail line due to fear of harassment and other safety concerns. In fact, the International Transport Forum (ITF) has also found that gender is a significant determinant for the choice of transport modes, often more so than age and income in both developing and developed cities. Such insights better inform strategy and approach in providing equitable transportation to underserved populations. https://www.youtube.com/embed/1-sSJ_Ct2u8?enablejsapi=1&wmode=transparent

A new approach could help leaders take advantage of what modern data can offer. For example, we’re seeing cities request data from operators providing mobility services in their area and analysing the data to extra accident hot spots and transportation trends. With this in place, leaders could share lessons on equity objectives and results, creating a “how to” process for setting and realizing equity metrics.

Measuring what matters

To bridge transit gaps, more holistic data must be collected. Some questions informing data collection, could include: how best to reach a range of communities and how to finance such transportation initiatives. Additionally, communities must understand the cost of transportation as a percentage of disposable income. From there, vital data can be systematically collected and used to inform business models, indicators and annual goals to track progress towards equity goals.

At the World Economic Forum, we have created an umbrella initiative, the Inclusivity Quotient (IQ) Project, to advance equitable mobility through thought leadership and actionable policy implementation and pilots. Our overarching vision for the IQ project is to implement clear metrics, indicators and KPIs to progress our vision of equitable transportation. https://www.youtube.com/embed/rCLqA-nSod0?enablejsapi=1&wmode=transparent https://www.weforum.org/videos/how-are-the-forum-and-partners-shaping-the-future-of-mobility

Work from the International Transport Forum, an OECD focused think tank for transport, shows what’s possible. Its workstream on gender in transport highlights the importance of further research in this area, especially the need to address the limitations of gender-segregated data, as well as the continuation of a robust policy dialogue with all stakeholders.

ITF’s new initiative on the development of a gender analysis toolkit for transportation policies will help countries and other stakeholders identify data gaps, develop indicators, design data-collection processes and build a gender analysis framework, in order to implement policies that will improve equity and equality.

The collection of better data will benefit all transportation users and workers, especially since the global average percentage of women in the transportation workforce is only 17% and decreasing in some countries. ITF is working directly with OECD countries to collect data for gender analysis.

Evolution in rates of female participants in the transport workforce 2008-18
Evolution in rates of female participants in the transport workforce 2008-2018 Image: Wei-Shiuen Ng and Ashley Acker (2020), “The Gender Dimension of the Transport Workforce”, International Transport Forum Discussion Papers, OECD Publishing, Paris

Change won’t come overnight. To achieve equitable mobility, equity has to shift from a goal into practical, measurable metrics so we can track success, understand failure and ensure accountability.

These solutions are just first steps; aspiring for equity is a continuous process. Still, they are necessary if we are to avoid growing inequity, poverty and socio-economic isolation. We must act in order to make any sort of progress towards realizing equity, breaking down our larger vision into tangible goals. This is our call to action.

The IQ project is hosting an equitable mobility workshop series focused on collecting a list of strategic policy levers. The findings from the workshop will be showcased in a Data Collection Roadmap for Inclusive Mobility.

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