3 Strategies for Urban Transportation Planning for People
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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A new toolkit has been developed to help businesses think through strategies to decrease mobility barriers to the workplace, which reduces turnover. When workers can reliably get to work regardless of their personal circumstances, it provides employment stability and the opportunity to build wealth. It’s a win-win. Developed through a partnership between Metropolitan Planning Council and a pro bono Boston Consulting Group team, the toolkit includes slide decks, an overview report, customizable templates, a cost calculator, and instructional videos walking a company through the thought process of establishing a baseline situation, evaluating and selecting a solution, and standing up a program.
Depending on the employer’s location and employees’ needs, solutions may range from helping with last-mile transportation to the transit system, to developing on-demand vanpools, to establishing in-house carpool matching systems. The ROI calculator gives employers the ability to determine the break-even cost—the subsidy amount a company can manage without hurting the bottom line.
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
I caught up recently with Sarah Charlton who is Associate Professor at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
The research she is leading, located in both Johannesburg, South Africa and Maputo, Mozambique, looks at the interface between the mobility use by residents and transportation investments by the state. The question guiding her research is “are ordinary households using the transport modes that the government is investing in and prioritizing?” The research is a partnership between two universities across two countries and two cities.
Sarah reflects on research during the pandemic across languages, countries, histories and cultures.