Browse Projects > Detailed View

Effective Transit Agency Practices to Support Food Accessibility


The problem of access to healthful foods and food system sustainability is usually framed as a land use, economic development, environmental, and/or food policy problem, not as a transportation problem. Yet, a small—but growing—number of studies show a relationship between transportation and access to healthful foods. The problem of food access, like all accessibility problems, is multi-dimensional and requires that agencies address transportation, land use, social equity, and public health in ways that fit the local community and context. As transit agencies have a core competency in addressing accessibility challenges, they are uniquely suited to contributing to solutions to this important dimension of physical health. Further, transit agencies manage a wide range of facilities and resources which have can be potentially leveraged to improve access to healthful food, supporting the efforts of other agencies and organizations to improve public health.

In recent years, there has been a rising tide in policy, research and practice to strengthen the link between health and transportation. While there is some concern that expanding the role of the transportation agencies to include activities outside mobility, many agencies are responding to calls for integrated approaches to health and health-related accessibility, including making food access part of their work. For example, in Dayton, Ohio, a partnership between the city and the local homeless services organization operates a food market at the city’s main transit center. The project provides fresh food for homeless folks who staff the market and for transit customers. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (Tampa, FL) partnered with United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and local organizations to pilot a similar effort to host an organic food market at their netp@rk transfer center in early 2016. In Atlanta, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) partners with a community food bank to operate a fresh food market at a subway station located in a low income neighborhood. The Toronto (Canada) Transit Commission adopted a ‘pop up store’ model for fresh food markets that rotate among station locations during the week. In North Carolina, the Rutherford County rural transit authority partnered with the state department of transportation (DOT) to operate a weekly ‘grocery shuttle’ to connect low-income residents with a local food bank. The Chicago Transit Authority provided several transit buses that were repurposed as mobile fresh food markets. Much of the focus of these programs is on connecting the transit customer to healthful food, yet food access is also important for the transit workforce. Programs to promote healthful food access during their workday could be a valuable part of an overall healthy workforce strategy. Collected, synthesized, and evaluated, such diverse practices can support and inform transit agencies as they increasingly integrate health into their planning and operations.

Implementing such programs requires agencies to seek out and foster new partnerships, with, for example local growers, agritourism organizations, food banks, social service providers, and city health departments. Other considerations include potential differences in contracting arrangements with non-profit concessionaires like producer co-operatives or farmers markets, compared to traditional arrangements with a fixed retail operations at transit stops. Operations at bus stops or transfer centers may need to be adjusted to accommodate an on-site food market. Other operations issues such as transfers, wait times, and transit users carrying additional bags may need to be addressed. Longer term, food access programs could be part of travel demand management (TDM) programs with employers, reducing trips by linking shopping with transit.

This statement suitable for graduate student dissertation or thesis research.


This research will collect and compile innovative practices and programs at transit agencies that address food accessibility challenges for customers and the transit workforce. Drawing from current practice, the research should provide information on how to pinpoint food accessibility challenges for customers and workers, select appropriate program features and sites, resolve legal and institutional considerations, and identify strong partners. Information on how to evaluate a food accessibility pilot should also be included to support ongoing improvement and continued innovation. Formal project documents can be augmented with tool kit-style checklists, worksheets, on-line resources, and case study briefs for use by transit agency staff as well as for sharing with transit agency oversight boards and potential partners.


According to the Institute of Medicine, two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are overweight or obese in the US, and the epidemic is responsible for 21% of national medical expenditures. Public health and medical professionals once viewed obesity as a problem of individual behaviors and choices. They now have shifted their framework toward a systems perspective that includes household, community, and policy-level risk factors. The economic and social costs of obesity make it a critical priority for the nation.

The research would provide transit agencies with up-to-date information on how to address a critical element of public health, with the potential for improvements in the quality of life for transit customers, the transit workforce, and for the overall community. These improvements may have positive fiscal impacts for agencies by reducing workforce health care costs. For agencies taking up the practice of HIAs, or including health factors in their performance measurement/evaluation criteria programs, the project will support their efforts by providing a ready resource of existing and emerging practices.

Related Research:

Bjorn, A., Lee, B., Born, B., Monsivais, P., Kantor, S., Sayre, R. 2008. “Mapping Food Insecurity and Access in Seattle and King County.” Report prepared for Seattle & King County Acting Food Policy Council.

Dohan, M., Fisher, A., Gottlieb, R., O'Connor, L., Parks, V. 1996. “Homeward bound: Food-related transportation strategies in low income and transit dependent communities.” University of California Transportation Center WP 366, 1-77.

Glickman, D., Parker, L., Sim, L.J., Del Valle Cook, H., Miller, E.A. 2012. “Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation.” Committee on Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention; Food and Nutrition Board. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Medicine.

Larsen, L., Grengs, J., Billings, J., Provonsha, E. Spangler, K., Sponseller, A. 2012. “An Integrated Assessment of Transportation to Healthy Food in Eastern Washtenaw County.” Report prepared for City of Ypsilanti, Community and Economic Development; Washtenaw County, Public Health Department; Washtenaw County, Economic Development.

Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. 2010. “Nashville Area MPO 2035 Regional Transportation Plan.” Nashville, TN.

Widener, M. J., S. Farber, T. Neuten, M. Horner. 2015. “Spatiotemporal accessibility to supermarkets using public transit: an interaction potential approach in Cincinnati, Ohio.” Journal of Transport Geography, Vol 42, pp 72-83.

Widener, M. J., S. S. Metcalf, Y. Bar-Yam. 2012. “Developing a Mobile Produce Distribution System for Low-Income Urban Residents in Food Deserts.” Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine.

Whitacre, P.T., Tsai, P., Mulligan, J. 2009. “The Public Health Effects of Food Deserts: Workshop Summary.” Food and Nutrition Board, Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Medicine & National Research Council.


The proposed project includes 4 main tasks:

(1) Literature review: Identify the various dimensions of food accessibility that are within the purview of transit agencies. This portion of the project will draw from existing research and practice to define the elements of food accessibility where transit agencies can make positive contributions.

(2) Survey of practice: Identify examples of existing transit interventions to improve access to healthful food. Examples should include projects and programs implemented in urban and rural areas, along with a brief evaluation of their successes and limitations, as well as their potential for wider adoption and applicability to diverse settings. A small set of best practices that represent good, replicable programs should be developed into extended case studies.

(3) Evaluation of the challenges and obstacles to implementation: Challenges to agency involvement in food accessibility issues may include contracting issues, operations issues, and potential erosion of levels of service due to adding food markets at transit facilities. Transit agencies may also face organizational or institutional barriers stemming from caution over taking on new areas of responsibility that may divert resources away from more traditional projects and programs. Beyond a simple list of challenges, this task should include an assessment of the motivations and concerns that underlie them, so as to help transit agencies and their state and federal partners develop effective strategies to overcome them.

(4) Tool kit resources: Develop practitioner-ready resources that can be used to integrate food accessibility into transit planning and operations. These resources should aim to support agencies as they work to address food access issues, whether integrating food accessibility into existing work, adopting methods such as Health Impact Assessments (HIAs), or collaborating on broader, cross-sectoral Health in All Policies initiatives. Resources may include food accessibility concepts for transit agency management and boards, information on how to conduct a GIS analysis to identify food deserts in the transit service area, worksheets to assess transit facilities as venues for fresh food markets, communication and planning materials for partners on transit operations, information on potential legal or contracting issues, and any further topics identified through the research.


Transit agencies and their partners.

Sponsoring Committee:ADD20, Social and Economic Factors of Transportation
Research Period:12 - 24 months
Research Priority:High
RNS Developer:Ann Hartell, Carolyn McAndrews
Source Info:Problem statement developed jointly by the TRB Subcommittee on Health and Transportation (ADD50-01) and the Committee on Social and Economic Factors in Transportation (ADD20). The respective Committee Research Coordinators drafted the statement and circulated it for review and comment by members of ADD50-01 and ADD20.
Date Posted:06/27/2016
Date Modified:01/02/2017
Index Terms:Public health, Public transit, Accessibility, Transit operating agencies, Food, Partnerships, Dayton (Ohio), Tampa (Florida), Atlanta (Georgia), Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, Toronto (Canada), Chicago (Illinois), North Carolina, Chicago Transit Authority, Social factors,
Cosponsoring Committees: 
Public Transportation
Planning and Forecasting

Please click here if you wish to share information or are aware of any research underway that addresses issues in this research needs statement. The information may be helpful to the sponsoring committee in keeping the statement up-to-date.