Mobility is Justice: Centering equity in transportation planning - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Mobility is Justice: Centering equity in transportation planning

On July 16th, MPC hosted an online panel to highlight new research on transportation equity in the Chicago region. The key takeaway? Solving the problems of inequitable access will take much more than changes to the transportation system.

Transportation equity is not just a transportation issue: improving it requires listening to communities affected by inequity, changing the way we evaluate investments, and working with stakeholders outside of the field to develop intersectional solutions.

According to the US Census, the average Black Chicagoan’s commute takes 25% longer than their white neighbor’s. This is not an isolated statistic: 2.8 million people in the Chicago region live in economically disconnected areas isolated from quality employment. These are low-income communities of color with many non-English speakers. Individuals in these groups are less likely than the general population to own a vehicle. At the same time, most jobs available to someone without a college degree are outside the City of Chicago and are inaccessible without a car. Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country and its inequitable spatial distribution of jobs and transportation options is the result of systemic disinvestment in communities of color. This makes daily life difficult for these communities and makes it hard to get a foot on the economic ladder.

On July 16th, regional leaders in transportation, workforce development, and racial equity convened on a panel to discuss solutions for centering equity in transportation. MPC’s Audrey Wennink moderated the panel and presented new research on transportation equity performance measures. Jacky Grimshaw of Equiticity and the Center for Neighborhood Technology shared her work on promoting investment in marginalized communities. Kate Lowe and Chelsie Coren of the University of Illinois at Chicago shared their research about disadvantaged job seekers’ transportation challenges and community transportation needs. Ron Hearns of workforce development provider KRA Corporation and the Westside American Job Center shared his work on helping job seekers overcome transportation barriers. 

The ongoing pandemic and recent social justice movement have made clear the consequences of structural racism. The disruptions to the transportation system, now at 25% of its normal capacity, further make it an opportune time to reevaluate how transportation planners and advocates can help communities which have historically experienced disinvestment. The panelists agreed on the following principles:

Transportation Equity Issues are Intersectional

Transportation-disadvantaged people in Chicago face the joint effects of structural inequities as well as a set of transportation and workforce dynamics which were not designed for their needs. In a 2019 qualitative research study of job seekers at workforce development sites in Chicago, the respondents, who were mostly Black, reported unpredictable transit schedules and delays which resulted in commutes as long as two hours. Security issues like police violence and the fear of crossing gang lines added to riders’ concerns, particularly among Black men. Some respondents avoided these issues by switching to more costly travel modes such as personal car or rideshare services. In addition to race and income, physical ability creates barriers to transit. Respondents with disabilities struggled to use public transportation due to inadequate accessibility infrastructure in stations and vehicles. As a result of these barriers, 75% of respondents viewed transportation as a barrier to employment and many reduced the number of trips they make for jobs, recreation, and essential needs. This hurt both transit ridership and individuals’ job prospects and quality of life. By hearing directly from people about their life experiences, we learn how riders’ identities influence the barriers they face in using public transportation. It is crucial for transportation planners and advocates to listen to individuals and communities to understand their unique transportation barriers and needs rather than aggregating their experiences as those of marginalized communities.

We must transition to equity-oriented performance measures

Traditionally, transportation planning has centered quantitative modelling and meeting projected travel demand. This focus has prioritized benefits related to driving and highways, while neglecting the burdens of transportation—like increased distances between opportunities and unequal access to jobs—which disproportionately affect communities of color. An alternative? Include an equity analysis in performance-based planning, a process which assesses the benefits and burdens of transportation investments. Based on recent research conducted by MPC, more than half of the metropolitan planning organizations in the 40 largest American cities do not include equity in their project-selection process. In organizations which do include equity, the weighting is very low, and therefore the impacts are minimal. Moving forward, using equity-based performance measures is critical for directing investments to increase accessibility and livability in marginalized neighborhoods. These measures must include burdens as well as benefits, and break down transportation projects’ impacts on different groups. It should also include community voices so that planners have a clearer understanding of communities’ needs and priorities.

Fixing transportation problems must involve non-transportation solutions

Interventions at the individual level (e.g., using rideshare services or buying cars) and the employer level (e.g. subsidizing transit use and aligning shifts with transit schedules) are adaptations that can help address some of the region’s transportation equity challenges. But to comprehensively address systemic problems, we must also pursue solutions and partnerships outside of transportation. The Westside American Job Center collaborates with a range of community-based organizations, government agencies, and transportation companies to offer clients resources for overcoming transportation barriers to employment. However, accessibility to jobs is only one part of the problem. Even with improved transportation options, Black and Brown community members must travel farther to work than white communities due to a spatial mismatch between their communities and quality job sites. Similarly, with the same level of education, Black Chicagoans have a higher rate of unemployment than white residents. This highlights another goal: residents should have more opportunities in the communities where they live. The newly formed Transportation Equity Network aims to achieve this by promoting private investment in historically marginalized communities through increasing accessibility for businesses, suppliers, and residents. With targeted investment, it will be possible to make commuting to the suburbs a choice, not a necessity, for Chicago residents.

To truly affect outcomes for marginalized communities, we need to place equity at the center of transportation planning. Transportation equity is not just a transportation issue: improving it requires listening to communities affected by inequity, changing the way we evaluate investments, and working with stakeholders outside of the field to develop intersectional solutions. To hear all the insights from our panel, you can watch the entire conversation below.

This latest research from MPC and partners powerfully echoes earlier findings, including sweeping recommendations from our Reconnecting Neighborhood initiative over a decade ago. What we’ve learned since — and what we’ve collectively experienced over the past few months — compel this region to finally change how and where we invest to connect communities of color to economic opportunity.


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