3 Strategies for Urban Transportation Planning for People

By Hana Creger

Hana Creger is Environmental Equity Program Manager at The Greenlining Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @hanacreger.

Oct 8, 2018 | Mobility, Society | 3 comments

If you’ve ever sat in traffic crawling at 5 miles per hour or been late to an appointment because of inadequate public transportation, I don’t need to tell you that transportation represents a constant challenge across the United States. But let’s not kid ourselves about which people bear the most transportation burdens.

People of color breathe disproportionate levels of toxic smog from transportation-related emissions, which contributes to higher rates of asthma, cancer, and other illnesses than their white counterparts. In addition, low-income people—who are disproportionately people of color—spend a greater proportion of their income on transportation costs compared to wealthier people. The poorest 20 percent of Americans spend 40.2 percent of their take home pay on transportation (mostly for private vehicle expenses), while those who make $71,898 and greater only spend 13.1 percent.

At the same time, private mobility companies have seized on the opportunity of our woefully inadequate transportation system. Bikeshare, carshare, Uber, and scootershare have taken our cities by storm. But not all mobility options are created equal, particularly in their impact on communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. While these new mobility options enable people to get around, there are concerns about their unfair labor practices, poaching public transit ridership, and increasing congestion and pollution. Too often, these mobility services are not designed to meet the needs of marginalized communities, who are left out of the decision-making processes. Now many cities are working to retroactively regulate these mobility companies, to insist that their services both benefit and avoid harm to low-income people of color, the elderly, and people with disabilities.  

After decades of planning and building for cars, it is time to make mobility about people. Transportation planning and decision-making must specifically take into account the people whose needs have traditionally been marginalized or ignored altogether, and prioritize communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. With this flood of new mobility options, we need a way to determine which options are the most equitable and sustainable, and which options best meet the needs of the community—especially when compared to traditional modes like walking, biking, and public transit.  

We have some ideas about how to accomplish this.

With the help of a technical advisory committee with multifaceted experiences and expertise in transportation, environmental justice, academia, and philanthropy. The Greenlining Institute has put together a Mobility Equity Framework that lays out a new path for transportation planning.

We propose that transportation planners and decision makers follow three steps:


1. Conduct a community needs assessment.

Start by asking, “What are the most pressing, unmet mobility needs of a particular underserved community?” But don’t just pose that question to a room full of politicians and bureaucrats. Instead, reach out to the underrepresented communities via community meetings, surveys, online forums and other mechanisms, following a process known as participatory budgeting. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel: A wealth of guides and toolkits can be found in the Participatory Budgeting Project’s Resource Center. In 2017, Chicago residents identified their greatest needs and voted to fund nearly a million dollars on projects, including street, curb, and sidewalk repairs.  


2. Do a Mobility Equity Analysis.

For our Framework, we’ve identified 12 crucial mobility equity indicators that can be used to assess and compare mobility options based on their impacts on low-income people of color. Looking closely at these 12 factors forces planners to consider issues like affordability, accessibility, air quality, fair labor practices, and job opportunities, as well as other issues that impact under-resourced communities. A systematic, community-based review of these factors (which can, of course, be augmented based on individual community needs) can help distinguish and lift up the mobility options that deliver the most benefits and avoid the most harms to the target community. We were involved in San Francisco’s development of an evaluation process of new mobility services. This evaluation examines how new mobility services impact equity, sustainability, labor, and seven other guiding principles. Similar to our Mobility Equity Analysis, San Francisco’s evaluation tool serves as a framework to embed a community’s values into programs, regulations, and policies around mobility services. San Francisco has now granted permits to the two scooter share companies that performed the highest on the evaluation, particularly on their commitments to equitable access and safety.


3. Elevate community decision-making power.

It’s not enough to make a show of listening to the community but then shut the public out of the actual decision-making process. With the information from the mobility equity analysis about which mobility options delivers the most benefits, give the community the decision-making power to vote on which mobility options best meets their needs—and then implement them. Public participation throughout the processes of identifying needs, brainstorming project ideas and voting can take place in the form of town halls, community meetings, mail-in ballots, or other formats best suited to the community. There are many different ways to empower communities to be the ultimate decision-makers. When implementing a bikeshare program, the City of Austin requested suggestions from the public on bike dock locations and color preferences, and then put the final decision before the community to vote.

Asking impacted people what they need, and giving them an opportunity to be at the decision-making table is just common sense. Participatory budgeting has been replicated around the world and has gained popularity in New York City and Chicago. Some transportation agencies have already started putting some of these ideas into practice. For example, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission just became the first transportation funding agency to utilize participatory budgeting, and will now fund pilot projects in disadvantaged communities. And, thanks to transportation justice advocates, California’s Department of Transportation is uplifting participatory budgeting as a best practice in its planning grants.  

What we propose does represent a major shift away from how cities and counties have traditionally done transportation planning. But look around. Look at the snarled traffic, the unreliable public transit systems, the inequitable impacts of new mobility companies, and the wretched air quality in so much of our country. Look at the widening inequality due to the growing burden of transportation costs on low-income families.

If our mobility needs are not being met, isn’t it time to try something new?


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  1. Thanks for your good article. Yes, “time to try something new”, as you said:

    1. Focus on “accessibility” rather than “mobility”; the latter is a symptom and consequence of bad, now-obsolete, urban design, serving cars, not people. Before we helicopter-down costly new fixed-guideway and expanded bus public transit service upon USA’s generally low-density urbs, focus on neighborhood and community reorganization and redevelopment to minimize the need for mobility, motivated by (2), below;

    2. Anticipate thousands, then millions, of internally displaced persons (IDP’s) fleeing low-lying coastal areas as sea level rise accelerates, within a few decades, having lost all equity in their homes and businesses. Federal flood insurance will be unavailable, overwhelmed by loss claims. These new “Okies” will pile their possessions in their SUV’s and pickups and drive uphill, inland. How will we accommodate them ? What will we build for them that (a) they can afford, and (b) will allow us to redesign and rebuild our cities to optimize accessibility, minimize private vehicle ownership and the costly infrastructure it requires.

    I dealt with the latter in a Graduate School of Business paper in 1971. Required to cash flow model a private enterprise to demonstrate profitability, NPR, and IRR, I chose to model a greenfield new city of about 100,000, built by private enterprise, with no private vehicles allowed in the urbanized area. One could own a car(s), but it must be parked in a large lot(s) on the periphery. Plenty of paving in the urbanized area accommodates walking, bikes, emergency and service and Uber / Lyft vehicles. But no garages, driveways, parking lots and garages, stoplights, noise, gas stations. Less collision danger; less energy and material use. More community.

    What topology would enable this, with a high degree of “accessibility” ? Not our usual grid of streets and avenues. Epiphany: only a loop, torus, donut, based on contra-rotating concentric fixed guideway transit — light rail, streetcar, bus rapid transit (BRT). Inside and outside the “donut” is open space and recreational. Everyone lives, works, shops, schools, within ~ 100 meters of a transit station. People are healthier because they walk more. Health care costs are lower.

    Draw one, as a string of fat, overlapping pearls. It can me morphed into various loop shapes to fit your city. Now, helicopter it down upon the low-density areas of your city, tangent to or overlapping your high-density “downtown”. Yes, private property will be “taken”. But this is driven by the “climate change” emergency of sea level rise. If we must disrupt, let’s plan now to do it intelligently and compassionately, including for those unfortunate new Okies.

    For this grad school paper in 1971 I had picked a rather-remote, low-market-value acreage in the foothills near Yosemite, in California. My co-authors allowed me to name it “Twaintown, CA”, in later incarnations “Carfree, CA”.

    Get out your pastel felt pens and try it. Go for accessibility rather than mobility. Thanks for trying.

  2. Thank you Hana for your article. What is missing is the inclusion of broadband networks focusing on ‘localizing’ more jobs. This is not about work from home or drop in centers but a more inclusive design using secure networking and development of local Enterprise Centers. One of the most troublesome problems around transportation is the need to get people to work. Yet conversations like this omit the need to develop a more effective remote work model for those with knowledge-based jobs. We no longer have the luxury to ignore this additional set of infrastructure tools. Thanks for posting.

  3. Paradoxically when Henry Ford began his development he had an ideal, to achieve world peace through consumerism, and to achieve this he did it with a vehicle that surpassed what existed when autonomy and mobility were achieved and where the environment was at our craving and unlimited such as the fuel we used.
    The time has given the last truth, several periods of recession, two world wars apart from many others and cities full of immobilized and contaminated cars where people have become aggressive without time and unfulfilled longings, paradoxically.

    However, despite our good intentions of yesteryear, we ignored and therefore did not consider what affects us today; the environment is limited as well as fuels, consuming without limits sick and pollutes apart from immobilizing us and that the population as the philosophy grows of consumption is a danger that leads to violence beyond our limits, with respect to territorial and personal borders where stability depends on ourselves. In addition to survival reaching a moment that we have discovered or recognized that the search for satisfaction of all kinds of needs is in ourselves, this is energy, food, time balance and in general sustainability of ourselves without causing damage to our surroundings, where we all exist.
    Mobility, time, obesity, health and others besides consumerism are not needs within Maslow’s hierarchy, but are a reflection of our search for unmet basic and transcendental needs.

    The solution we see is to solve all our basic and transcendental needs, from self-sustainability in our place of permanence without seeking or satisfying outside our borders, in our home.
    To achieve this, it is necessary to be able to build our place without limits of form and requirements where each can achieve the first satisfaction, start our lives from our origin and essence to achieve all needs without limitations. And this solution can be installed anywhere and must be in any form, inside or outside the city, but necessarily connected in Smart Grid in energy, communications, mobility etc. With the same purpose, efficiency and unlimited supply without risk of failure.

    This freedom of growth and development without limits without damaging the environment where we achieve satisfaction of our needs is apparently an unlimited viable solution where reaching peace is real, for this we must consciously assume the realities already achieved, unknown of yesteryear, but which are a reality with solutions that we have reached in this same way. Respect for ourselves and the environment of all applied to our way of being where each is part of the solution from the action without endorsing the problem to anyone outside ourselves, where we are also good examples for those who aspire to our way of being, the true opportunity of all, participate in the growth and development of us same for everyone.

    Vidyaprem, Development and Strategy
    Going for an impossible is a reality


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