Five Ways Transit Pros Can Get on Board the Equity Train

Op-ed: Transportation planning without equity is a road to nowhere.

(Photo by Ken / CC BY 2.0)

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Those who are planning for buses, trains, bikes or cars are having equity impacts whether they know it or not. Access to transit affects access to jobs, income, and even upward mobility.

But these impacts are not just limited to a paycheck. Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color experience higher traffic deaths and injuries than their richer white counterparts, due to poor infrastructure, increased traffic exposure and driver bias. Wherever you look, poor people and people of color are at a greater risk of serious harm.

In short, transportation planning without equity is a road to nowhere.

I am not a transportation professional, though that’s what I studied in grad school.

Since earning my master’s, I have worked at Living Cities, a philanthropic collaborative that has transformed itself over the last several years to a racial economic justice practice working to close income and wealth gaps for black and brown people. Living Cities realized it could not move the needle on income inequality while being race-neutral; it needed to explicitly concentrate on the communities most likely to live in poverty. I also volunteer with transit advocacy group Riders Alliance – attending rallies, talking to the press, joining community planning meetings and paying my monthly dues. What I’ve learned from both my professional and advocacy experiences, as well as my continuing education in urban issues, is that the transportation field, whether it be technical experts, planning professionals, advocates or NUMTOTs, has a lot to learn from racial justice movements. And even the most progressive members of the transportation community will not achieve the change they want to see without a real focus on equity of the race, gender, ability and class kind.

The deaths of Payson Lott and Patience Albert in East New York, NY, last month demonstrate the critical importance of focusing safety efforts in communities of color. Given that the data show that black and brown people are disproportionately affected by decisions made about transit and transportation, what are professionals to do? Again, we can look to race-centered organizations like the one I work for to find next steps.

When Living Cities got serious about its equity work, we started from within, attending Undoing Racism trainings by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond; re-evaluating procurement and contracting policies; examining hiring activities; embedding a racial equity lens in our organizational, team, and individual performance measures; and a lot, lot more. Here I’ve gathered a few lessons learned that could be particularly relevant for the transportation field.

Disaggregate data

Sometimes data in the aggregate can hide the true reality for certain populations. Without disaggregating data – by gender, race and ethnicity, and class – there is no way to see the effects of an effort or a project on the communities it intends to serve.

As my colleague Nadia Owusu wrote, “Dramatically improving the economic well-being of low-income people requires that we understand how race, place, class, and other factors affect access to opportunity. We know that ‘one size fits all’ is not good enough.” The same can be said for transportation.

Fall in love with your problem, not your solution

Folks in the social change and community engagement spaces talk about starting with the problem, not the solution. A 2018 piece by Living Cities’ partners in Seattle/King County explained what happened when they were initially married to their civic tech solution:

From the start, we were committed to taking a community-driven approach to identifying a problem amenable to a civic-data-tech solution. But after months of leading with civic data and technology in our pitches to community-based organizations, it became clear that we were essentially offering a treatment, and then going to residents in search of symptoms. In our future work, we will identify a high priority issue first, such as affordable housing, and then examine how data and tech might add value when developing solutions.

By starting with the problem and sticking with it, preferably in the form of appropriate performance measures and metrics, folks never lose sight of the change they’re trying to effect. So, if a certain area in New York City has poor north-south bus connections, maybe lay off of the shiny streetcar solution and focus instead on improving residents’ inter-borough mobility in the most efficient way possible.

Work with “unusual suspects”

While the transportation field often focuses on the connection to jobs, work isn’t the only thing the transportation field needs to keep in mind. Mobility is about more than getting from point A to point B. Rather, it’s about the ability to access the services that one needs to live a good life, including but not limited to education, health care, and housing.

Transportation professionals must acknowledge these linkages, and then actively work with the right city and state agencies and community-based organizations to improve those linkages.

Tell the right stories with the right voices

Working with Riders Alliance, I’ve seen how an organization can win campaigns – like the Fair Fares discount MetroCard program and congestion pricing – by building a diverse, grassroots base of support and sharing those supporters’ stories with the public and with public officials. Numbers and data are great, but what sticks with those in power are the first-hand accounts of transit riders: their struggles and the impact of poor transit options on their quality of life. Those stories can’t come to the surface without engaging those who actually use public transit services.

Bring community to the table … and the board room

Yes, the transportation industry needs to bring community to the table (or, frankly, show up at their tables), but it also needs to bring those people into the board room and decision-making halls. It’s not enough to gather community expertise and input. Front-line staff, management, and leadership at all levels need to look like and be tapped into the communities they ostensibly serve. And it’s also not enough to simply increase diversity. Organizational culture must fundamentally grow, so that these changes are not just about diversity but also equity and honoring what all people bring to the table, like lived experience as expertise.

These are only a few ways the transportation field can get on board the equity train. But the path to change first requires looking deeply at the problems that transportation professionals and city officials have not only NOT stopped, but have been systemically complicit in. Until the transportation field realizes it has a major equity problem, and that its workers are making race-, gender-, and class-neutral policies that are literally costing people’s lives and livelihoods, transportation practice will be a road to nowhere.

Thanks goes to the research and writing of Jaime Phillips and Danielle G. Haake, whose work inspired this article.

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Shannon Jordy is a researcher and storyteller with an over 15-year career in workforce policy, strategic communications, and urban planning and a deep interest in transportation and issues of equity. She is currently focused on racial economic justice at Living Cities, and transit advocacy with Riders Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit with whom she volunteers.  

Tags: public transportationequity

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