Disruptions in Transportation & Their Unequal Impacts

In recent times, we have seen increasing numbers of natural and human-influenced phenomena that have disrupted our transportation system. While the causes of these interruptions may range from natural hazards to protests on streets, many of them share the outcome of inequitable impacts on communities of color, low-income communities, and at-risk populations.

Even though separate investigations around the topics of transportation, equity, and climate resilience are more commonplace, there is a gap in research that intersects these three themes. In a collaborative effort between our Equity and Climate Technical Initiatives (TIs), we explored the dynamics of various interferences in the realm of transportation equity.

What’s Happening

Natural Hazards

During and after natural hazards, vulnerable populations are more likely to be affected by the hazard and less likely to recover quickly or fully from the impacts due to the inequitable resources available.

Extreme heat causes more deaths than any other weather-related hazards. Lower-income areas with fewer amenities, such as park and tree coverage, often experience higher temperatures due to the microclimate. Low-income individuals who are more likely to rely on walking, biking, and transit are also more likely to experience exposure to extreme heat while using these transportation systems. Creating a pedestrian network of shaded corridors and cooler materials for sidewalks to transit stops becomes crucial for transportation access during extreme heat. Transit vehicles and transit stations may be able to serve as additional resources to ensure cooling centers are distributed and accessible – within walking distance – to all residents of a community. Distributed energy production can help support the electricity needs for these cooling centers.

Source: Planning Magazine, August 2020

Source: Planning Magazine, August 2020

Although wildfires are more prevalent in more affluent, white neighborhoods, vulnerable populations have less access to resources, such as insurance, transportation, fire-fighting response, and non-English language information about evacuation warnings. Other evacuation-specific vulnerabilities, including age and disability, are important to consider across communities of all income levels. Traffic operations during evacuation conditions – including route selection, capacity, and temporary traffic control procedures – can be developed with these specific needs and vulnerabilities in mind.

While transportation infrastructure may serve as shoreline protection against sea level rise and storm events, permanent asset damage or temporary shutdown of transportation access among vulnerable populations can have significant, compounding socioeconomic impacts. Understanding the most at-risk coastal transportation infrastructure and the network effects of an outage, balanced against the ongoing cost of maintaining public infrastructure, can help inform long-term investment strategies alongside traditional cost/benefit analyses.

Source: Metrolink Survey, May 2020


While many white-collar workers have been able to more easily transition into remote work during stay-at-home orders, many essential workers in the low-wage industry, including transit drivers, have to rely on reduced transit service for their commutes—exposing them to community transmission on the transit vehicle and degraded service conditions, such as longer waits and crowded vehicles. At the same time, some studies suggest a larger share of riders are reliant on transit: a recent survey by Metrolink, the commuter rail service in southern California, indicated that the percent of riders without a car available doubled during the pandemic.

Human Activities & Policies

Across the world, we have seen streets filled with demonstrations against inequalities: people have protested against police brutality in the United States, students have demanded safer streets in Bangladesh, and a 4 percent fare hike ignited mass protests against years of unjust oppression in Chile. These demonstrations are calling attention to concerns about long-standing historical and structural racism and inequality, and in occupying our transportation networks, also serve to highlight the connection between these issues and transportation planning.

From inadequacy in traditional transportation service (poor transit network coverage, insufficient transit amenities, unreliable service, security issues) to an imbalanced rollout of higher-cost disruptive trends (services that direct private and public resources to wealthier, “market-ready” neighborhoods while structurally excluding under-resourced populations by requiring smartphones or credit cards), inequalities in transportation often limit opportunities for people who need them the most.

What Tools Do We Have?


While working on transportation planning and engineering projects, we are hearing big questions from our clients that will affect how vulnerable populations are incorporated into equitable adaptation planning for transportation systems. Taking these questions into account assists in preparing for more equitable, longer-lasting plans.


Testing assumptions and scenarios through various analytical methods helps plan for more equitable prioritization in transportation decisions.

  • Identify and measure how vulnerable communities will benefit from transportation improvements compared to the general population.
  • Include population characteristics, such as income, race, and age, as factors to determine how climate adaptation infrastructure is prioritized and funded; then consider weighing these factors more heavily.
  • Dynamically adjust transit service characteristics, such as frequency and speed, to maximize access for low-income populations.

Source: King County Metro Mobility Framework, Fehr & Peers, 2020

What Are the Best Practices for Developing Equitable Climate Adaptation and Resilience Strategies?

  • Prepare for the long haul rather than only reactive or emergency measures.
  • Identify and integrate core community values in the framework that specify which groups may need the most support during and after a disruption.
  • Plan for various groups, including low-income, minorities, non-English speakers, people with disabilities or reduced mobility, senior citizens, etc., and embed analysis processes that ensure the needs of these groups have been considered.
  • Incorporate critical community engagement in addition to a data-driven approach, in order to fill in the gaps where data fails and capture the whole story.
  • Adopt an “all hazards” approach for all modes of transportation, which considers disruptions of all kinds, including more traditional disaster preparedness planning alongside climate adaptation planning.
  • Incorporate equitable prioritization of transportation investments to support long-term climate adaptation and resilience, which may require challenging the status quo.
  • Be cognizant about encouraging recovery efforts that may displace disadvantaged communities and consider better alternatives.
  • Focus on collaborative planning across sectors and departments.

Disruptions always exacerbate the underlying inequalities at play in our society. As transportation professionals, we continue to focus on helping our clients best serve their communities, including identifying blind spots in disruption preparedness and recovery, so that targeted and long-term investments may serve the public equitably.


Join our conversation, learn more, or tell us about your community’s needs and challenges by contacting us today.