“What Does Equity in Transportation Actually Mean?” Centennial Recap
Over the last two years of the pandemic, millions of essential workers, long identified as those most vulnerable during the pandemic, had to use transportation systems that either had to implement onerous sanitation efforts to maintain safety or had to reduce services because of a lack of revenues. 43 percent of those essential workers were Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC). While some workers had the luxury of working from home, millions of Americans did not.
Eno recently hosted a series of webinars, panels, and discussions on the pressing issues facing transportation. One panel explored what equity means in transportation, and how public and private actors can improve transportation outcomes for our most vulnerable communities. The panel included:
Connie Llanos, Assistant/General Manager, Office of Internal Affairs, LA Department of Transportation
Veronica McBeth, Associate Planner, Kittelson & Associates, Inc.
Carol Tyson, Government Affairs Liaison, Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund
Impacts of Service Changes
The COVID-19 pandemic presented a serious challenge for transportation agencies across the U.S. Veronica McBeth (Kittelson) noted that some people grew afraid to ride transit out of fear of transmitting or catching the virus, and agencies either suspended entire routes or reduced service, making travel more difficult for workers.
To address virus and user concerns, agencies and private actors moved quickly to contain COVID-19 on transportation while still supporting transportation users. Connie Llanos (L.A. DOT) illustrated how the L.A. DOT made some services free while constantly cleaning others to ensure safe journeys. Additionally, traffic safety officers were repurposed to man testing and vaccine sites as well as food delivery distribution centers at schools and churches. McBeth discussed how scooters and other active forms of transportation were deployed in certain neighborhoods in Baltimore to ensure an equitable distribution of mobility options. These equity zones helped enhance first and last mile accessibility for essential workers impacted by service reductions.
Inequitable access to transit services remains a challenge across the industry. Connie Llanos specifically homed in on the limited access that transit dependent riders have to jobs and essential services. According to L.A. DOT data, car owners have on average access to 12 more jobs than transit users. As delivering effective transportation services became even more important for people across the country, panelists emphasized the importance of data and community outreach in improving transit. Tyson discussed how the Massachusetts Department of Transportation initiated a statewide curb ramp and sidewalk survey with maps and graphics that helped measure the accessibility of its infrastructure. Additionally, McBeth discussed how agencies should take a serious inventory of their infrastructure to measure the extent of accessibility, which is harder to do when systems are operated separately.
All three panelists shared their thoughts on positive trends in public transit, as well as future developments they would like to see. McBeth appreciated the increasing frequency of regular liaison meetings between planners and their communities to build trust and good faith between the two groups. Lack of trust, McBeth argued, is one reason why it is difficult to build transportation projects in many communities, especially BIPOC communities that have been previously harmed by transportation projects. Additionally, the inclusion of multiple city officials from a variety of departments can help improve the community outreach process and result in better, more holistically planned projects.
Llanos observed that community engagement was very challenging to conduct, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, but noted that phone calls and existing, direct links with community groups helped build trust, while intermediate groups played a vital role in reaching underrepresented communities. Tyson also suggested that agencies should form advisory committees to ensure riders have a voice, especially in underserved communities. Ideally, advisory committee panelists should be compensated, listened to, and allowed to lead. Tyson singled out the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies and the Disability/Mobility Movement as examples of productive and worthwhile community engagement.
Tyson also illustrated the importance of data as a tool for increasing equity. Disaggregation of data to better measure gender equity, location requests, and demographic variables can make sure projects are addressing the needs of the community. Additionally, Tyson stressed that qualitative data is as important as quantitative data, as both help paint the most accurate picture of community wants and needs.
Ultimately, all panelists noted that while the events of the last two years revealed and exacerbated existing challenges facing transportation systems in the United States, they also present a unique opportunity to correct course and implement bold solutions. To hear more from the panelists on transportation equity, check out a recording of the panel hosted during Eno’s Centennial Institute on September 16, 2021.