Exploring the many connections between transportation and social equity

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Transportation and Equity in the Bay Area Rapid Transit System

How we move has a deep and dramatic impact on our lives. Let’s face it: much of our lives are dedicated just to getting from one place to another, or from addressing the impacts of how others move around us. Inequity also impacts our lives and the lives of those around us. Many Californians struggle daily to make ends meet, in communities burdened by dangerous air quality and poor access to work and schools.

Throughout California, equity and transportation are intimately connected. Transportation choices available to us can shape everything from our physical health and well-being to the amount of time we spend with our families. But the relationship isn’t always obvious.

This week, three striking reports helped shed more light on how critical transportation is to ensuring all Californians have the opportunity to live healthy, prosperous lives.

First, a recent Federal Reserve Bank study and map made the rounds on social media, showing remarkable disparities among various Bay Area locales, using BART stations as markers.

Using public transportation as the unifying factor, this report illustrated how 16 miles can mean a horrifying 11-year difference in lifespan. Perhaps fifty years ago, there was a real geographic separation between Walnut Creek and Oakland. Today, that distance can be covered in the same amount of time it takes to walk to your local grocery store (if you are lucky enough to have one in walking distance). 

In this context, it’s absurdly wrong that asthma hospitalization rates can be over six times higher at one BART stop versus another, and yet, it is a fact. And really, nobody would think of transit or transportation as a force for equity, right?

Actually, they do.

On Tuesday, Reconnecting America released their new online tool, the Los Angeles Equity Atlas. This atlas is designed to identify inequities in transportation and urban design in Los Angeles, and use public transit, walking, and biking planning to build a transportation system that fosters equality of opportunity for all residents.

One of the more insightful observations by Reconnecting America is the need for transit-oriented developments to be affordable to all Californians. One reason: 

“Building housing near transit does not necessarily mean that people who move in will take transit. Dr. Stephanie Pollack found in her research at Northeastern University that many transit-rich neighborhoods with new housing often attract residents with higher car ownership rates (meaning more driving) and higher incomes. This is a risk that regions are faced with as they try to provide residents with valuable transportation alternatives and the market responds with more parking.”

And another reason: 71% of commutes to work by public transit, and 68% by walking, are made by people earning less than $25,000 per year.

If current housing in walkable, transit-rich neighborhoods is replaced by new and more expensive housing, we run considerable risk of displacing people who need transit and good pedestrian infrastructure to get to work.

The Atlas goes further than merely identifying regional inequities and transportation modes by income. It also names ways in which the LA area can help address these inequities through transportation and land-use planning over time. For those who don’t live in LA, the atlas can help spur thinking about your own regions.

What types of inequities exist where you live that could be addressed through better planning? Are over-used roads causing asthma rates to soar? Is a lack of housing forcing people to over-spend on transportation just to get to work? Are your children able to get to school safely outside of a car? All of these may be addressed through better design, which can happen if you play a part in getting your communities’ decision-makers to consider better ways.

That last part, convincing community leaders to step up and plan for healthier, safer communities, requires that we take action: educate our civic leaders, advocate for good policies, and counter the influences of those who prefer things to stay the way they are now . . . which brings us to the third bit of news this week.

The Sacramento Bee covered a dinner for state legislators held by the Western States Petroleum Association (a pro-oil lobbying force). The price tag to host 12 lawmakers and 2 staff members: $13,000. The very next day, a bill to strictly regulate hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was amended to favor the oil industry. 

These are the same lobbyists who push back on our efforts to win cleaner, more affordable transportation. And this is just one example of the pressures and influences we face in working to transform our State’s transportation and land use to better serve all Californians, especially our most vulnerable neighbors.

Together, we can continue to highlight the connections between transportation and equity in our State. We can build the power we need to win the day for safer biking and walking, and for easier access to transit and places to live and work. But it takes dedication, time, and work.

Will you help?

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About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.