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.