Snapshot from PolicyLink's Equity Summit 2015: Transportation Equity as a 21st Century Civil Rights Issue

Jennifer West Headshot

This blog was originally posted on PolicyLink's Equity Blog here.

Last month, I attended PolicyLink's 2015 Equity Summit, a three-day conference drawing advocates from Ferguson to New Orleans, Minneapolis to New York, to showcase how local leaders can impact policy change. It was a rewarding experience, helping to break down boxes that surround us, allowing for cross-fertilization between fields, and making visible, and attainable, key equity goals. I marinated in the rich conversations over meals, appreciated the geographic distribution of attendees, and the common understandings we built through the plenary sessions.

As the policy analyst for GreenTRIP, I attended the session called “Transportation Equity: A 21st Century Civil Rights Issue” with keen interest.

I heard Stephanie Jones, the chief opportunities officer from the U.S. Department of Transportation, making the case that the federal government continues to improve in terms of valuing and requiring equity in major projects through Title 6; I heard Ana Garcia-Ashley, executive director of Gamaliel Network, saying that you cannot trust government agencies to do the right thing without a critical eye on the work; and I left wondering where the success will come for those of us working to create and support an equitable system. This cannot only be addressed in projects with federal grants, but must be supported from the ground up, with smaller transit agencies, local policies, and direct engagement of key decisions at all levels.

How do we empower the public in the decision-making process around public transportation and housing? This comes down to voice and representation, in my opinion. In the “Transportation Potential and Promise Caucus: An Exponential Catalyst for Increasing Equity Outcomes” the day before, my group hit on this “representation” power dynamic as well.

To have equity, those most impacted by the decisions must be a part of the decision. This is accomplished through a number of efforts, including, but not limited to:

  • Transportation advocates and policymakers should attend meetings or gatherings that are not focused on transportation, and draw attention to the transportation funding or service decisions that impact that specific community.
  • All parties involved must make every effort to speak simply, clearly, and without jargon.
  • We need tools that will empower people to give input — allowing all to have powerful information used in complex models as a foundation for a real conversation about vehicle driving and greenhouse gas emissions – setting the stage for detailed meaningful comments. GreenTRIP Connect, which I am working on creating at TransForm, is an example of that — it will allow a community member to determine greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled (VMT) for a new residential project, just like a developer can. Then all concerned community members can engage in the conversation with confidence.
  • Local and federal government entities, developers, and transit agencies must find ways to support more free or discounted transit passes for people who need them most - residents of affordable housing! Then those involved in building homes will understand the need for, and the importance of, these programs better and see the interrelation of housing and transportation costs based on location.

I left the Equity Summit inspired, but also puzzled. It is not easy getting from where we are to a more just society, and every sector has its barriers. We know that the current system is created to keep things the way they are, and to keep down people of color and low-income families.

Transportation is one sector that impacts all of us, and our work to improve the system is essential. But with the support of the federal government, the clamor of grassroots activists, and all of us who attended Equity Summit working to change the current broken system, I am confident there will be less traffic, more buses, and more affordable options in the future.


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