Social Equity in Accessing Public Transportation: Case Study of Job Access and Reverse Commute (JARC), USA


Transportation planning has always focused on urban mobility, reducing traffic congestion in cities and providing access to major locations (Manaugh, 2014). However, often ignored is the social equity in access to public transportation. With route planning focused on demand forecasting, low-income neighbourhoods and other vulnerable population are often neglected due to budget constraints (Transport for America, 2018). These vulnerable communities rely mostly on public transportation.

In the realm of transportation, social equity refers to providing affordable and equitable access to public transport. The vulnerable population here includes children, students, elderly, handicapped and low-income individuals. Social equity refers to an equitable distribution of impacts; both benefits and cost (Litman, 2018). Equity is more than about providing subsidies and discount tickets. It should encompass the ease of use, connectivity, and accessibility. For example, the use of monthly discount passes is effective only when the bus stops are easier to access.

Low-income and other vulnerable communities should not bear the negative impacts and costs of transportation facilities disproportionately. Rather, public transportation should provide access to jobs and opportunities to these disadvantaged communities (Transport for America, 2018). By providing access to opportunities, transportation investments can be used as a driving force to promote social and economic equity.

To address transportation equity, the vulnerable community should be involved in the planning process and projects prioritised based on their needs. It is equally important to collect the relevant data and measure progress to ensure program effectiveness in reaching beneficiaries and achieving the target goals. This article looks into the case study of JARC to understand the steps taken by FTA to implement social equity through transportation planning.

Case Study: Job Access and Reverse Commute (JARC), USA

The main aim of Job Access and Reverse Commute (JARC) program, administered by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) (1998 – 2012), was to assist low-income individuals in accessing employment, job training and childcare services. Low-income individuals living in the inner urban cities had difficulty accessing many new entry-level jobs located in the suburban areas. Under JARC, FTA provided grants to transit agencies and other service agencies to fill gaps in transportation services for welfare recipients and other low-income individuals (FTA, 2016). Made available for three years, it administered project funding on a cost-sharing basis. Federal funds covered up to 80 percent of the capital and planning activity and up to 50 percent of operating costs.

Some of the programs implemented under JARC funding were about expanding fixed-route public transit routes, late-night and weekend service, shuttle service, guaranteed ride home service, ridesharing and carpooling and so on (FTA, 2007). The policy incentive while designing the transportation policy encouraged the local, regional and state agencies to collaborate with each other (Sandouvel et al, 2009). Apart from organizing trips, JARC also utilized its funds for information-based and capital investment programs (Figure 1).

Figure 1: JARC Services by Type, 2006 – 2009 (Source: An Evaluation of Job Access and Reverse Commute (JARC) Program Services Provided in 2009)

For example: Camden, New Jersey provides shuttle service that operates three times a day matching the three work shifts at the industrial park. Phoenix, Arizona runs service through western suburb connecting community college with residential area and retails stores. Sanford, Maine provides demand-based van service for getting to work from early morning until late night.

The five major goals identified under JARC programs are as follows (FTA, 2016):

  • Expanding geographic coverage
  • Extending service hours or days
  • Improving system capacity
  • Improving access/connections
  • Improving customer knowledge

The two performance measures used by FTA to evaluate JARC-funded projects are:

  • Number of jobs accessed
  • Number of rides provided (one-way trips)

Response to the Program

For the financial year 2009, 910 projects were funded under the JARC program. Out of these, 44% served in large urban areas, 31% in non-urbanized or rural communities and 25% in small-urbanized areas. JARC supported programs provided 27.3 million one-way trips, made 51.8 million jobs accessible, which included 25.3 million low-wage jobs and 7.7 million jobs were likely reached (Commonwealth Environmental Systems, Inc, 2011).[KI1]

Figure 2: Usage pattern of JARC services (Source: Thakuriah, 2011)

Another survey conducted by researchers at University of Illinois (2009) focused on the mobility and employment outcomes of 573 respondents using any of the surveyed 26 JARC funded transportation service. Compared to non-JARC users, JARC users were less educated and had lower income brackets. About 42% of respondents reported personal incomes of less than $10,000 (~ INR 5,10,000 in 2011), and one in five had not completed high school (Thakuriah, 2011). This indicates that the JARC services effectively served low-income vulnerable communities.

The survey results show that 93.5% of the respondents rated the service as “important or very important” for keeping their job and 34% reported that they wouldn’t be able to commute to and from work if the service was not available. Over one-third users found that transportation services were more affordable with JARC (Thakuriah, 2011).

Figure 2 shows, out of the 23% unemployed, 25% of individuals used the services to access job trainings, about 8% for job seeking and 21% travelled to school (Thakuriah, 2011).

Figure 3: FTA JARC Services and Funding, 2005 – 2009 (Source: An Evaluation of Job Access and Reverse Commute (JARC) Program Services Provided in 2009)

Regarding economic impacts, the study reports a median reduction in generalized travel cost that is estimated to be $3.15 per trip. The median of hourly wages at the primary job also increased by about 14%. At the time of the survey, the median weekly earnings was estimated to have gone up by 15% (Thakuriah, 2011). The graphs and data highlight the fact that JARC programs helped people to access jobs and supported their financial stability. Increased wages could be due to shifting to a higher paying job or increased hours at work. Subsequently, FTA also increased the investment and the coverage of services under JARC over the years (Figure 3).

These results show the potential positive impact of JARC programs on the mobility, employment and economic outcome of its low-income users. However, since the survey does not have an experimental setup for evaluation, the lasting impact of JARC funding is not entirely clear (Sandouvel, Peterson and Hunt, 2009). JARC is one of the multiple possible and creative solutions that agencies can implement to support disadvantaged communities and promote equity in public transportation.

As of 2012, consolidating JARC with the existing Urbanized Area Formula Program and the Formula Grants for Rural Areas Program enabled JARC programs to apply for funding through the urban and rural transit program (GAO, 2017). This was mainly due to changes in JARC’s formula program status wherein separate funding was not available anymore. However, when GAO interviewed few JARC services, two-thirds of them reported to continue providing some form of service.


“Every project’s stance on equity should be assessed by asking the following questions:

  • Does it meet an important need identified by a disadvantaged community?
  • Are the benefits associated with the significant, rather than incidental?
  • Are benefits targeting the low-income residents?
  • Does it avoid substantial harms to the community?

(Marcantonio and Karner, 2016)

The services under JARC were in response to critical issues highlighted and put forth by the community. Upon implementation, there were positive and significant effects on the mobility, employment and economic outcome of the low-income users. A majority of the beneficiaries were less educated and low-income groups. Thus, the benefits of the program was reaching the disadvantaged positively.

Key policy implication of JARC program is to improve public transportation in order to address the social needs. Economic outcomes of the low-income population is positively impacted through accessible and affordable public transportation. During its run, JARC focused on operating rides, in improving the information access and infrastructure capacity of the service region. This combination of capacity building helped many of these JARC funded programs to sustain by themselves, even after the end of its tenure in 2012. However, depending on the intensity of institutional and grassroots support, different cities responded to JARC in different ways (Sandoval, Peterson and Hunt, 2009).  While in some cases, the regions came up with many innovative ideas, whereas some strategies were traditional (Cervero and Tsai, 2003; Sandoval, Peterson and Hunt, 2009). This is also because transportation models are highly relevant to the context of the cities.

Looking at the Indian scenario, high land prices in the core of the city forces economically disadvantaged communities to the fringes of urban development. Therefore, Indian cities are continually experiencing informal settlements in developing or peri-urban areas that lacks infrastructure. This makes opportunities inaccessible, lengthens commutes to their workplaces and degrades the quality of their commute. Being mindful of social equity and incorporating these concepts into the early stages of transportation planning ensures the vulnerable communities to have access to jobs and opportunities. Through equitable access to transportation supports, the promotion of economic stability and social standing of vulnerable communities is necessary.

Featured image source: Thakuriah, 2011