The question that is top of mind of many transportation professionals is how to better integrate equity into transportation processes. Equity in transportation can be considered as a matter of process—fair and authentic engagement with community members—and about producing equitable outcomes.
This two-part article is focused on how to create more equitable outcomes, although how engagement connects to outcomes are also discussed below. Suggestions for addressing equity outcomes are loosely organized by the phases of a transportation project process. The first two steps are presented here; the remaining steps will be covered in the next newsletter.
1. Defining the problem
What transportation agencies define as the problem might not be the most important issue to community residents. This is where it is necessary to cultivate relationships with community-based organizations, particularly with those serving marginalized populations, to understand their transportation challenges.
For example, when the Portland Bureau of Transportation began a project on North Williams Avenue to address bicycle safety, members of the historically Black community expressed concern about the goals and process of the project. Planners realized they needed to step back and, in addition to having more people of color on the advisory committee, redefined the project to address safety for all street users, not just bicyclists.
Let’s remember that the purpose of transportation is to provide access—to jobs, grocery stores, health care services, and social opportunities. Think about transportation challenges as access challenges and ask how well the transportation (and land use) system is helping people reach essential destinations.
Because equity is such a strong component of public health, it is also helpful to understand what health problems exist (e.g., heart disease, asthma, access to healthy food), particularly for marginalized populations, and consider how transportation can help alleviate them. For more on integrating health into transportation, see this detailed framework by the Federal Highway Administration.
2. Identify needs
At this stage, transportation professionals are documenting existing transportation, population, and employment conditions. As part of this process, transportation professionals need to define a study area and understand who lives and works within it.
Typically, transportation professionals identify Environmental Justice (EJ) communities that could be affected by the plan or project. Environmental Justice legislation defines, at a minimum, low-income communities and people of color as EJ populations. However, other populations should be considered, such as children, older adults, people with disabilities, and people with limited English proficiency. EJSCREEN is one tool that can be used to help identify EJ populations, as well as examine environmental indicators, such as air quality, that affect human and environmental health.
One of the problems in this phase is that the data often has been aggregated to a unit of analysis, such as a census tract or transportation analysis zone (TAZ), that may obscure some information. Certain census tracts, for example, might clearly show a large population of low-income households, causing it to be designated it as an EJ area. However, pockets of poverty can be hidden in wealthier census tracts because of the aggregation of the data—they get “averaged” out. This is where working with community-based organizations—relationships built in the first phase—can be helpful. These organizations may know where vulnerable groups reside and can add more granular information about the demographics of the area. Furthermore, they can inquire about the transportation needs of those residents.
Why do transportation professionals need any further equity guidance than what is provided by the existing Civil Rights (Title VI of the Civil Right Act) and EJ requirements (Executive Order 129898)? This essential legislation addresses fair community engagement, discrimination, and identifying adverse effects on minority and low-income populations. However, an EJ analysis does not require identification of the real needs of the community, only documentation of the adverse effects of the proposed plan or project and mitigation for those effects. Making transportation systems work for the most vulnerable requires transportation agencies to go beyond what’s required.
Originally published in the April edition of Streetsmart News (V. 34)
Increasingly, agencies and organizations are calling for the use of performance measures in transportation plans and projects, particularly since the adoption of Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) in 2012 (for context and more information, see this FHWA guidebook and this work by Transportation for America). The underlying hope is that the process of measuring and tracking performance measures can help turn policy goals into practice. Indeed, the potential of performance measures to lend greater transparency and accountability to transportation decision-making partly inspired the creation of Streetsmart. The idea being: which strategies are most likely to help agencies meet their goals, as measured by performance measures?
Do we have the data to understand which strategies are most effective? The relationship between the built environment (i.e., land use and transportation) and travel behavior is among the most studied in transportation and planning research. However, this research doesn’t always translate to a clear relationship between interventions and outcomes. Thanks to the systematic reviews undertaken by groups such as the Community Preventive Services Task Force and County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, there is unequivocal evidence for the effectiveness of some strategies, such as pedestrian infrastructure for increasing walking and physical activity. Systematic reviews examine individual studies and describe the efficacy of the intervention as a whole. Evaluations are the bricks in the systematic review wall. 1
The above organizations operate in the field of public health, which has a tradition of project and program evaluation (as do other fields like social work and public policy, see the Campbell Collaboration). Transportation does not have a similar tradition of evaluation (that is, before-after studies), although many have called for it. If evaluation was consistently undertaken as part of transportation projects, decision-makers would know if they were achieving the goals they established. Furthermore, they would be building the evidence base for what works, and if those results collected in a publicly accessible location (ahem, Streetsmart), they would benefit other decision-makers. Alongside input from community members, decision-makers could select projects on the basis of how likely they meet adopted goals in contrast to the often-murky process used in many places.
However, agencies scramble to obtain enough funding to plan, design, and build their projects—funding for before-after studies isn’t often accommodated. A dedicated funding stream for evaluation research would help. Universities, and specifically University Transportation Centers, could be useful partners.
To summarize how performance measures, evaluation, and prioritization can work in concert:
1. Metaphor from Mark Lipsey (1997): “What can you build with thousands of bricks?”
Originally published in the February 2020 edition of Streetsmart News (Vol 22)
Almost everyone can agree that how we build our cities and neighborhoods have a big impact on a resident’s quality of life. However, there is less agreement about what we mean by the term quality of life. Livability as a concept is complicated by its lack of definition, which means it is a term that gets bandied about to support or oppose a variety of community projects. Indeed, neighbors arguing on opposite sides of an affordable housing proposal can claim that new housing will detract from or support livability.
Although our understanding of livability is vague enough to contain contradictory ideas, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been quantified. Some of these frameworks, such as the AARP Livability Index, offer well-considered indicators. Other indices highlight a particular idea of livability (see here and here for some reflection).
Given the number of policies and plans across the nation whose express purpose is to promote livability, having a more consistent and meaningful definition would be useful. What if the term livability were infused with scientific rigor? What if the definition of livability actually related to what it sounds like; that is, supporting people’s health and well being?
Researchers in Australia have done just that. A multi-institutional partnership led by Professor Billie Giles-Corti, the National Liveability Study, pursued the idea of constructing built environment livability indicators that impact health outcomes. Having found that the concept of livability and health were frequently linked, their research approach adopted a social determinants of health (SDOH) approach to building their indicator set. The SDOH are defined as the conditions in which people are born, live, work, and play. The most impactful way of improving a community’s health outcomes is by addressing these social determinants (versus a reliance on clinical interventions, for example).
As a result, researchers in this project defined a livable places as those that are “safe, attractive, socially cohesive and inclusive, and environmentally sustainable; with affordable and diverse housing linked to employment, education, public open space, local shops, health and community services, and leisure and cultural opportunities; via convenient public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure to employment, education, public open space, local shops, health and community services, and leisure and cultural opportunities.” Not only does this paint a clear picture of a livable neighborhood, this definition is also supported by the evidence on the social determinants of health in urban areas.
As discussed in a previous newsletter, transportation is a social determinant of health. Some of the pathways by which transportation affects health include supporting healthy behaviors—access to healthy food, facilitating physical activity, and enabling social interaction—and exposure to noise pollution, air pollution, traffic safety, and crime.
A health-informed approach to defining and promoting livability could be a way of translating an abstract concept to something very tangible and meaningful to people—the health of our bodies.
Originally published in the March 1, 2021 issue of Streetsmart News (Vol 33)
In the wake of decreased ridership during COVID, Transportation for America and others have argued for additional public transit funding, noting that transit is more than a transportation choice—it is an essential service for millions of workers. These workers are effectively preventing societal collapse, Jarrett Walker argues. As such, Walker suggests that we stop focusing on ridership numbers as though that were transit’s only goal. Similarly, Tamika Butler notes the transit's import, especially for people of color—although not only for them: “We have to get out of a mindset where there are only certain people who are transit-dependent. Because we are all dependent on the people who are transit-dependent. So, we’re all transit-dependent.”
Transit systems in most US cities follow a hub-and-spoke pattern that directs riders downtown, prioritizing the peak commute of the office worker (historically male and White). COVID has disrupted the peak commute, making it an excellent time to re-evaluate the role of transit in cities. David Zipper echoes Walker’s complaint of ridership as the primary metric by which transit is measured, instead suggesting that access is more appropriate (see our last issue for more discussion on access). Prioritizing ridership and peak hour commuters has led to transit systems that leave out the travel needs of large swaths of the population—suburb-to-suburb commuters, those who work non-traditional hours, and those trying to reach mid-day health care appointments, for example. With the conventional wisdom that peak hour revenues subsidize off-peak service, chasing peak commute fares has seemed like fiscally responsible way to manage transit. However, Zakhary Mallett argues that “peak service is extremely expensive when you consider capital costs. My hypothesis is that peak period travel, after you account for capital costs, is more expensive than off-peak—even after accounting for revenues.”
If this is the case—that the economic justification for privileging peak service is flawed—why not create transit systems that work for everyone? In shorthand, let's call this all-purpose transit after the Transit Center's research on all-purpose riders. With all-purpose transit, we can create truly transit-oriented cities. Not just transit-oriented development, which tends to be focused on development adjacent to rail transit stations, but complete communities with well-developed transit networks accessible within a ten-minute walk of residences. Walkable neighborhoods are a natural complement to transit-oriented cities.
We already know that increased transit access and transit service solve a number of problems—they increase walking and physical activity and reduce vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions. As discussed above, it’s clear transit is a lifeline for many essential workers. It’s also quite likely that increased transit use will reduce air pollution (associated with respiratory and cardiovascular disease) and congestion, particularly if the city is organized in way that takes advantage of transit’s spatial efficiencies.
Creating all-purpose transit and transit-oriented cities won’t be easy. For cities with established transit systems, there are the sunk costs of having invested in peak-oriented transit. For auto-oriented cities, land use patterns don’t readily lend themselves to convenient transit use or efficient transit system design. The federal funding formula for transit is partly tied to ridership numbers (although this could help make the case for fareless transit, which boosts ridership). And in the post-COVID era, some people may be reluctant to take transit.
How do we start? A vision like the Transit Center's transportation Green New Deal centers access to frequent transit and increasing transit funding. Where else should we turn for ideas in creating all-purpose transit and transit-oriented cities? Ask existing riders.
Anna Zivarts argues that we should learn from those who don’t drive; specifically, to those with disabilities. Her Disability Mobility Initiative Program created a storymap that features interviews from people who rely on transit and other non-auto modes for getting where they need to go. In addition, Tamika Butler challenges the transportation profession to listen to Black people, especially Black women, many of whom are dedicated transit riders and are deeply concerned about transportation's impact on people.
Originally published in the January 2021 edition of Streetsmart News (Vol 32).
The concept of accessibility (aka access to destinations) has been discussed for decades as an alternative paradigm to conventional transportation planning practice. Proponents argue that accessibility better reflects the accepted notion of transportation as a derived demand; that is, people do not travel for its own sake, for the most part, but as a means to reach goods and services. Accessibility necessarily incorporates land use patterns and decision-making, which may account for its slow uptake in transportation, as land use processes may be foreign to transportation professionals. Furthermore, transportation professionals may even fail to understand how intertwined land use and transportation are.
So here is some food for thought. The international Transport Forum has released a collection of discussion papers, produced from a transportation workshop, exploring the opportunities and challenges with adopting accessibility as a mainstream planning practice: The Accessibility Shift, A People-Centred Approach to Accessibility, and Accessibility and Transport Appraisal: Summary and Conclusions.
In The Accessibility Shift, Jonathan Levine argues that one problem with accessibility is that is framed as a means to accomplish other objectives—such as VMT reduction—rather than it standing on its own as inherently valuable. Accessibility is not the strategy but the outcome, which is consistent with the idea that the goal of transportation is to provide access.
Another problematic way to conceptualize accessibility, Levine suggests, is as a proxy for urbanism. Accessibility is often promoted alongside walkable neighborhoods and transit-oriented development, and certainly, urban areas usually offer higher levels of accessibility. But accessibility applies to rural areas as well—it is simply the ability to reach more destinations rather than emphasizing speed.
Levine asserts that accessibility-based planning can’t take hold until they incorporate accessibility based performance measures rather than the mobility-based measures more commonly employed. However, in A People-Centred Approach to Accessibility, Karel Martens argues that replacing key performance indicators without changing the transportation planning process will not ultimately shift transportation practice and outcomes. Instead, Martens calls for an overhaul of transportation processes in favor of a people-centered approach to transportation planning.
While still emergent in the field as a whole, accessibility is being incorporated into transportation planning documents. Access to destinations is frequently included goal statements in city transportation plans. It may be framed as a goal for economic development (e.g., access to jobs), livability (e.g., walking distance to parks), or equity concerns (e.g., access to transit). In some cases, indicators have been developed as well. More research is needed to understand if these indicators are helping translate policy into practice (the dissertation subject of Streetsmart's Executive Director :).
Originally published in the July 2019 edition of Streetsmart News (Vol 15).
Increasingly, transportation professionals are recognizing the health effects of transportation policies, plans, and projects. However, it’s also important to recognize that disadvantaged communities bear the burden of transportation’s adverse effects—indeed, there is a long history of damage to disadvantaged communities as a result of transportation plans and projects. Policies, plans, and projects that do not specifically address these health inequities are likely to continue to leave these groups behind. In public policy, the National Academies' report Communities in action: Pathways to health equity concluded that health equity is crucial and health inequity is costly.
So, how do you talk about improving health equity to decision-makers and stakeholders? An excellent National Academy of Medicine webinar provides some guidance. The Metropolitan Group, with support from researchers at Portland State University, developed and tested health equity messages that work across a political spectrum. One key take-away for conversation is that values always override facts. That is, people filter facts through the values they hold, so it important to build narratives based on shared values.
The health equity messages were built upon two shared values: 1) everyone deserves the opportunity to reach their full potential and 2) foster strong and connected communities. The concept of targeted universalism informs the approach to the work, which means that we begin where the need is greatest. With the information contained in the webinar and messaging guide, you can begin a conversation with an elected official about building health equity into transportation policy. Below are some key ideas to communicate:
Listen to the webinar for more details about how these messages were developed and how they have employed in the field. Get the health equity in public policy messaging guide from Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Heart Association.
Originally published in the May 2020 edition of Streetsmart News (Vol 25) and updated here.
As the data show that communities of color are disproportionately bearing the burden of COVID-19 impacts—due in large part to the structural inequities they face—transportation professionals, public health professionals, and elected officials are calling for an economic recovery that addresses these inequities.
To do so, we need to re-examine our notion of healthy and sustainable communities to ensure that we aren’t inadvertently exacerbating disparities. Critically evaluate your best practices in the context of your community’s most vulnerable residents. Is COVID-19 a great “opportunity” to expand bicycle networks and open streets to restaurant seating? Perhaps. However, this article challenges our tendency to promote our pre-COVID agendas without thinking through the consequences on the most vulnerable. In this example, that includes considering the commute needs of low-income essential workers and the harassment faced by people of color in public spaces.
Many are speculating on the future of the commute and its impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Is the current reduction in vehicle traffic a great “opportunity” to demonstrate how we can fight climate change? Again, let’s be careful about how we conceptualize this, lest we gloss over the real damage that this travel reduction represents.
Streetsmart centers climate, health, and equity in our transportation work, with the understanding that these urgent needs must be addressed together. While there are co-benefits to be realized in their joint pursuit, siloed implementation of these strategies may fail to produce them. We need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so we implement strategies that discourage car use. But if anything, low-income individuals need better access to cars. Consider the travel behavior of many low-income women, who are more likely to commute during off-peak travel hours and incorporate household errands into their commute, making transit infeasible. How do we advance policy for developing low-carbon and healthy cities while also meeting the needs of our most vulnerable in the interim? (Low-income subsidies for electric vehicles may figure into the equation).
Several calls for a healthy and resilient recovery have been articulated by a C40 Cities task force, NACTO, and Canadian planners and policymakers. A group of 77 built environment professionals--planners, public health professionals, artists, and others--came together in May to develop a set of guiding principles to center health equity in planning processes. In September, the Planning for Health Equity, Advocacy, and Leadership (PHEAL) principles were released. Now in Phase 2, the PHEAL steering committee is working to realize these principles in practice. As a member of the PHEAL steering committee, Streetsmart Executive Director Kelly Rodgers is ensuring that the guidance within Streetsmart reflects these principles.
Welcome to the new Streetsmart website!
It’s been three years since we released the proof-of-concept prototype of Streetsmart, a platform designed to give civic leaders the evidence and insight they need for healthy transportation. Since then, the issues of climate change, public health, and equity have only become more urgent. As such, we decided to focus on these interrelated and inseparable issues and adjusted our mission and focus accordingly.
The beta Streetsmart draws from research reviews to identify the proven strategies that meet community goals for increasing walking, bicycling, and physical activity, and reducing vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions. We've also identified the potential co-benefits of these strategies, which illustrates the multi-faceted impact transportation has on communities. Practitioner guidance—such as guidebooks, case studies, and fact sheets—is also featured with every strategy to help you implement them. Notes about the equity implications of each goal and strategy is embedded throughout.
Many thanks to the Streetsmart Board of Directors and the Advisory Board for their guidance over the years. We’d also like to thank the scores of engineers, public health professionals, elected officials, city planners, and community advocates who provided input into how Streetsmart could be improved. We are grateful for those conversations and appreciate your commitment to making transportation work better for your communities.
We will continue to evolve Streetsmart and our work based on the feedback and support we receive from you. Public, private, and non-profit organizations can join as a Partner or Sponsor to help advance the integration of climate change, public health, and equity into transportation decision-making. If you find Streetsmart helpful for your work, please donate so we can continue to make this resource freely available and update-to-date with the latest research and resources.