By Rich Grady and Morgen Healy
As I have done for many years, I attended the Annual Transportation Research Board (TRB) Meeting, held in Washington, D.C. in January 2020. It is a great event where new ideas, insights, and trends are shared and discussed about the transportation industry and its societal importance. Following this year’s TRB conference, as I read the article about the CEO panel on Transportation Equity (published in the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Journal on February 4, 2020), it was like reading the review of a concert I had attended — one that I had been telling my friends about, and how great it was.
Listening to each speaker on the panel was refreshing, because it sounded as if they shared a common view of transportation as a people business, and that transportation solutions should consider the fairness with which the benefits and costs are shared across people and places. When I was discussing this with my colleague, Morgen Healy, we decided it was a blog-worthy topic, and decided to collaborate on this piece.
Transportation Equity CEO panelists at the Annual TRB Meeting — Left to right: Stephanie Pollack (MA), Jennifer Cohan (DE), Leslie S. Richards (PA), Julie Lorenz (KS), Victoria Sheehan (NH), Margaret A. Kelliher (MN), and Shoshana M. Lew (CO).
The subject of Transportation Equity is growing in importance among senior DOT leaders at the state, regional, and local level, to address the availability of equitable and effective transportation options — including type (e.g. motor vehicles, transit, boat, pedestrian, bicycle), accessibility, coverage, transfers, and frequency — for all sectors of the population, with justifiable spending ratios on projects across sectors in terms of social and environmental justice. Generally, equity is often thought of in terms of race, gender, age, income, and abilities; in a transportation context it includes those things AND urban/rural location, environmental impacts, economic balance and modal suitability — and analyzing alternatives and opportunity cost.
Transportation Equity is inherently Geospatial
Transportation equity can be a new lens through which to look at regional connectedness, land-use, and demographics — including gap analysis on where different segments of the population live and the opportunities accessible to them, such as jobs, education, health care, day care, and shopping. Transportation networks can help connect people with opportunities and facilities that may not be equitably distributed, geospatially. Likewise, impacts of transportation decisions may not be equitably distributed, such as the impact of congestion on air quality and noise levels, as well as time delays and frustration; or the impact on vulnerable segments of the population when transportation infrastructure is adversely affected by extreme weather or other hazards; or the legacy of car-centric bias on transportation decisions.
Understanding these connections and distribution of various impacts requires a geospatial perspective. When you visualize the relationships on a map, and change the weight of different variables, the insights start to materialize, beyond the obvious or preconceived notions. Visualization of transportation access and inequities helps with community outreach to stakeholders, to discuss their concerns and the challenges that they face. It is also a way to validate that you captured their input and represented it correctly. And, it is a good way to facilitate scenario evaluation, whereby you attach different weights to different variables to get a sense of alternative weighting schemes based on changing the priorities on how funds are distributed to different types of projects.
Evaluating student travel times in local school redistricting scenarios
Analyzing Statewide Transportation Improvement Program distribution and spending
Building Transportation Equity starts with evaluating current conditions
State DOTs can play a key role in advancing Transportation Equity. DOTs can help municipalities by providing leadership, technical assistance, and funding to move the Transportation Equity agenda forward. For example, let’s consider the challenge of providing “complete streets” that accommodate motor vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians. It is very important to get beyond ceding the pavement to cars, and focus on people and the various ways they can make trips to the store, to school, to their job, and elsewhere they might go. And it’s not just about the space between the curbs on a road — it’s also about sidewalks. Taking an inventory of non-vehicular transportation assets is an important part of the process. Too little has been done in most places to look at the inventory of sidewalks and their characteristics, such as: Do they exist? What side of the road are they on? How wide are they? Are there curb cuts? Are unintended uses taking them over (e.g. scooter dumping/parking)? State DOTs can provide guidance on how to assess, plan for, and implement complete streets, and how to accommodate special needs populations to ensure Transportation Equity.
At the regional level, transportation planning agencies are evaluating Transportation Equity to understand current conditions, and to plan for improvements to their regional transportation systems and options, with the goal of increasing Transportation Equity in the future. For example, the Wasatch Front Regional Council (a Metropolitan Planning Organization responsible for transportation planning in and around Salt Lake City, UT) performs analysis to determine Access to Opportunity (ATO), which measures how well people can connect to basic needs and amenities including jobs, schools, grocery and other retail, parks, community centers, recreation, and entertainment. ATO provides a key indicator of how connected citizens are, and is used as a key metric in transportation planning activities.
Access to Opportunities Analysis Maps from the Wasatch Front (UT) Regional Council
There are other community-driven resources and tools to consider, too, such as the shared streets initiative. This could be a great tool for public-private collaboration and creative thinking on shared mobility solutions. It supports the conflation of attributes about roadway features with the street geometry in a generalized way — for example, associating the regulations associated with certain types of signs with their location on the street, curb, or sidewalk. This might help assess the amount and location of handicap parking spaces in a city to accommodate the people who need such parking, in comparison to other types of parking, or no-parking zones, loading zones, and ride-sharing zones. Signs are a defacto on-the-ground source of regulatory information that has bearing on transportation equity decisions and policies.
Transportation, planning, and public works professionals from all levels of government are changing the focus from just building and maintaining roads, highways, and transit systems. They are putting more emphasis on the experiences of people using these facilities, and how well and equitably these people can access the systems to get where they need to go, improving the opportunities for a healthy and prosperous society across people and places — both now and for generations to come.