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.