US Transportation System “Fuels” Inequality

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

The federal government continues to funnel four times as much funding for roadways as for public transit, a longstanding priority that has deprived the nation’s poorest of basic mobility for decades. In the same time that the urban roadway system has grown by nearly 70 percent, public transportation systems have accumulated an estimated $176 billion in maintenance and repair backlogs. As Basav Sen reported for the Institute for Policy Studies’ publication, Inequality, this disparity in funding disproportionately impacts Black and Latino communities, where personal vehicle ownership rates are much lower than those of their white counterparts. “Transportation policies prioritizing private vehicle use leave the poor and people of color behind,” Sen reported.

This imbalance in priorities is a result of corporate lobbying influence on transportation policies. “For the oil and gas industry in particular,” Sen reported, “highway-centric transportation is a gift that keeps on giving.” Political contributions by the oil and gas industry totaled $140 million in the last election cycle alone, with hundreds of millions more since 2012.

In an August 2021 article for Vox, Gabby Birenbaum reported that, although the recent bipartisan infrastructure bill provided substantial funding for transit, it did not address the cycle of issues that prevent a more sustainable public transportation system. Birenbaum reported that any likely boost in federal funding could not undo nearly fifty years of deferred maintenance issues. Full investment could “unlock a new era for transit,” Birenbaum wrote, including increased public transportation services, expansion to new areas, and clean energy fleets. “But such an investment would need to be several times what has been allocated,” she noted.

As Lawrence Carter reported in June 2021 for Unearthed, the outsize influence of the oil and gas industry on US politics not only produces negative socio-economic impacts, it also does additional damage to the environment. As a senior lobbyist for Exxon told one of Unearthed’s undercover reporters, “The company had been working to weaken key aspects of President Joe Biden’s flagship initiative on climate change, the American Jobs Plan.” As Unearthed reported, ExxonMobil targeted a number of moderate senators, seeking to influence them to “scale back the plan’s ambition by scrapping the tax hikes that would pay for it.”

Although some commercial news outlets such as Bloomberg and Politico have touched on how the lack of funding for public transportation negatively impacts the economy, the extent of the problem is significantly underreported by the establishment press. Common Dreams, an independent news outlet, covered Sen’s Inequality report, but, based on a search of ProQuest’s U.S. Major Dailies news database, none of the nation’s most prominent newspapers appear to have reported its findings. Absent widespread public awareness of these issues, the political influence of the oil and gas industry will continue to shape transportation policy in ways that worsen existing inequalities.


Basav Sen, “How the U.S. Transportation System Fuels Inequality,” Inequality (Institute for Policy Studies), January 27, 2022.

Gabby Birenbaum, “The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill Provides Historic Funding for Transit. It’s Not Enough.” Vox, August 23, 2021.

Lawrence Carter, “Inside Exxon’s Playbook: How America’s Biggest Oil Company Continues to Oppose Action on Climate Change,” Enearthed, June 30, 2021.

Student Researcher: Zach McNanna (North Central College)

Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)