Transportation planning: People first, not cars

A rush-hour traffic jam on the approach to the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge. (Photo: Aaron Kohr)

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 in California. Too many of those problems stem from a planning process that has consistently failed to put people first. California can do better.

And let’s not kid ourselves about which people are most likely to get left out of transportation planning decisions: Low-income communities of color. Go to almost any major urban area and you’ll see freeways built to whisk drivers from wealthy areas to the airport or downtown business districts, slicing through and disrupting low-income neighborhoods.

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.

Meanwhile, officials keep pushing for new and wider freeways, car-centric bridges and other projects that ultimately just increase traffic and worsen pollution.

Enough. It’s time for California to rethink transportation planning and establish a planning process that puts people first. And that process must clearly and specifically take into account the needs of those whose needs have traditionally been marginalized or ignored altogether, particularly communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. We have some ideas about how to accomplish this.

With the help of a technical advisory committee with multifaceted experience in transportation planning and environmental justice, The Greenlining Institute has put together a Mobility Equity Frameworkthat lays out a new path.

We propose that transportation planners follow three steps:

1. Conduct a community needs assessment. Start by asking, “What are the most pressing, unmet transportation 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 community that’s impacted via community meetings, surveys, online forums and other mechanisms, following a process known as participatory budgeting. You don’t have to invent the wheel: A wealth of guides and toolkits can be found in the Participatory Budgeting Project’s Resource Center.

2. Do a Mobility Equity Analysis.
Not all modes of transportation are created equal, particularly in their impact on communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. For our Framework, we’ve identified 12 crucial equity indicators. Looking closely at these 12 factors forces planners to consider issues like affordability, reliability, effects on pollution and health, as well as other factors that might lead to particular harm in under-resourced communities. A systematic, community-based review of these factors (which can, of course, be augmented based on individual community needs) can help clarify who benefits and avoid unintended negative impacts

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. 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.

This all may sound rather radical. It’s not. Some 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.

What we propose does represent a major shift away from how California and its cities and counties have traditionally done transportation planning. But look around. Look at the snarled traffic, the overwhelmed public transit systems and stubbornly wretched air quality in so much of our state.

Isn’t it time to try something new?

Ed’s Note: Hana Creger is Environmental Equity Coordinator and Alvaro Sanchez is Environmental Equity Director at The Greenlining Institute.

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