Does Investing in Rail Transit Benefit the Poor? A Comparative Study of Rail and Bus Travel by Low-Income Households in the California Household Travel Survey


Ryland Lu

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

place - north america, place - urban, mode - bus, mode - bus rapid transit, mode - rail, ridership - demand, planning - surveys, planning - travel demand management, policy - equity


urban transit, rail, bus, Household Travel Survey, travel demand


This paper addresses academic discourse that critiques urban rail transit projects for their regressive impacts on the poor and proposes bus funding as a more equitable investment for urban transit agencies. The author analyzed data from the 2012 California Household Travel Survey on transit trips in Los Angeles County. The author cross-tabulated data on the modal breakdown of transit trips by household income category and on the breakdown of household income associated with trips by bus and rail transit modes. The author also comparatively evaluated the speed of trips (as a ratio of miles per hour) taken by rail and by bus by low-income households in the county. The author found convincing evidence that, on average, trips low-income households made by rail transit covered a greater distance per hour than trips taken by bus transit, but that trips made on the county’s bus rapid transit services with dedicated rights-of-way had a higher mean speed than those taken by rail. Moreover, the mode and income cross-tabulations indicate that rail transit projects only partially serve low-income households’ travel needs. To the extent that equitable transit planning entails minimizing the disparities in access, both rail and bus rapid transit projects can advance social justice if they are targeted at corridors where they can serve travel demand by low-income, transit dependent households.


Permission to publish the abstract has been given by SAGE, copyright remains with them.