Transportation is one of the core economic, social, environmental and physical factors that influences the health of individuals and communities . Transit includes public systems such as city and regional buses and rail systems as well as cars and bikes, sidewalks, streets, bike paths, and highways. Together, these complex systems connect DC residents to each other, and to the places where they live, learn, work, and play. The health implications and costs associated with traffic crashes, air pollution, and physical inactivity add up to hundreds of billions dollars each year . The average US resident spends 17% of their annual income on transportation, the second highest expense following housing . Public transit is also an important asset to the economy, with the US transit system estimated to employ around 420,000 across the nation .
At the community level, lack of access to safe, affordable and reliable transportation can limit the opportunities available for residents to stay connected to jobs, schools, daycare, food, medical care, and health services essential to daily living and quality of life. Studies show that poor access to public transportation is associated with decreased income and higher unemployment, and high costs of transportation can also affect school attendance rates .
In order to alleviate transportation-related barriers to school attendance, the Kids Ride Free program–which allows students to ride Metro transit at no cost to school and school-related activities–was introduced in the 2016-2017 school year and has been essential to supporting attendance and educational opportunities for the almost 75% of children who attend school outside of their neighborhood [6, 7].
Transportation decisions that take place upstream affect our lives downstream. We all use various ways to get to work or school, to access healthy foods, and to do countless other things every day. Yet poor transportation decisions can harm health and are not always fair across all communities.
—American Public Health Association
Travel to Work
District residents travel to work in many ways: 39.4% commute by car, 37.4% use public transportation, and nearly 13% use non-motor modes of transportation to work (i.e., walking, or biking). Commuting choices are influenced by a number of factors including access to public transit, car ownership, proximity of jobs and housing opportunities, and transportation cost.
While it is recognized that District households may actively choose not to own a car, many simply cannot afford one. In 2017, over 25% of District households had no vehicle available to them . Nationally, it is estimated that up to 60% of households without a car are low-income . In several neighborhoods, particularly within Wards 7 and 8, where there are fewer jobs than in the center of the city, up to half of all households have no access to a vehicle.
Rates of transit commuting in these two wards are high, in combination with relatively high rates of car commuting. Households without access to a car are highly reliant on public transportation for daily travel; however, in areas where transit options are limited, inconvenient, or absent, residents may have no option but to devote limited resources to the purchase and use of a vehicle.
So, even in the District’s relatively transit-rich environment, there remain gaps in service and accessibility—especially further away from the city center. With economic mobility linked with geographic mobility, opportunities for social and economic success as well as health itself can be dependent on transportation access, opportunities, and cost .
The District leads the nation in opportunities for non-motor, or “active” transportation, which is defined as any self-propelled, human-powered mode of transportation . Biking, walking to work, or using a mode of transit which requires walking to a bus/Metro stop and to one’s final destination, integrates physical activity into the daily routine and has a number of health benefits. However, barriers exist as many communities are designed primarily to accommodate cars, which can make walking or biking unsafe, if not impossible.
Creating and adopting policies that support active travel and encourage shared transportation can not only help to increase physical activity and reduce obesity, but also reduce traffic-related injuries and deaths and improve the quality of our environment.
Public Transit Safety
In 2016 and 2018, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) partnered with community-based organizations to conduct comprehensive transit safety surveys to learn more about the experiences of transit riders with harassment on DC public transportation. The results found that approximately one in four women (27%) had experienced sexual harassment on public transportation compared to 14% of men . Despite the prevalence of harassment, the majority of victims and bystanders of harassment do not report these incidents. Some of the main reasons cited were that victims were unsure if anything could be done, they did not consider the offense serious enough, or they just wanted to escape the situation .
In 2018, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs analyzed public WMATA records about metro police enforcement of fare evasion law from 2016-2018.
The analysis reported that 91% of the citations and summons for fare evasion were issued to Black people . Black children as young as seven years old were reported to have been stopped .
In 2019, the D.C Council enacted the Fare Evasion Decriminalization Amendment Act that decriminalizes the charge of fare evasion by making it a civil offense punishable by fine instead of a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment .
The new law replaced the punishment of up to $300 fine, 10 days in jail, and a criminal record with a $50 civil fine.
Citations & Additional Data Resources
1. County Health Rankings. Housing & Transit. 2019.
2. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. How does transportation impact health? Health Policy Snapshot Public Health and Prevention Issue Brief. 2012.
3. US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics 2017.
4. American Public Transportation Association. Public transportation benefits. 2019
6. Hauslohner, A. Washington Post. D.C. students will be riding Metro for free this year. 2015
7. District Department of Transportation. School transit subsidy program. 2017
8. U.S. Census Bureau, 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates. TableB08141
9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy places, transportation health impact assessment toolkit. 2019
12. Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Disparities in Fare Evasion Enforcement by Metro Police. 2018.
13. D.C. Act 22-592. Fare Evasion Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2018.