Intersections of equity in transportation

By Mary Ebeling

Concern over equity in our transportation system is not new, but in 2012 the issuance of new guidance from the Federal Transit Administration increased attention to compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. This attention has sparked the USDOT, State DOTs, regional planning agencies, and local governments to re-evaluate approaches to and impacts of transportation investments. It has also drawn the attention of disadvantaged communities lobbying for transportation improvements or mitigation of harm. Agencies and advocates are asking questions such as: Does existing transportation infrastructure improve or limit opportunities, and are these benefits and burdens distributed unevenly across communities? How can transportation increase opportunities for everyone?

This renewed energy was on display at three major conferences the last week in October. PolicyLink’s Equity Summit took on the transportation equity conversation directly. SSTI attended this conference as part of its ongoing work developing a tool to assess equity in transportation investments. The tool, which is forthcoming, will allow states, MPOs, and cities to look at existing and planned infrastructure investments and select projects that more evenly distribute benefits from increased accessibility, affordability, and safety.

Both RailVolution and the NACTO Designing Cities 2015 conference also occurred over the same week as the Equity Summit, and both meetings notably held meaningful sessions that discussed equity in the transportation system.

Robust discussions at the Equity Summit revealed innovative ways transportation planners, policy makers, and advocates are raising the level of equity analysis. These groups are working in multiple sectors besides transportation to operationalize equity evaluations that influence how projects are selected and investments are made. Two recurring themes stood out, and Minnesota and California offered tools that other agencies and communities could borrow as they strive for equity in transportation decision making.

  • Influencing project selection: The MetCouncil, the seven-county regional planning organization in Minneapolis-St. Paul, has worked closely with its cities and towns to apply more rigorous equity analysis than has been done in the past. MetCouncil established an Equity Advisory Committee to work toward implementing equity commitments in the MetCouncil’s plan Thrive MSP 2040.
  • Cross agency coordination: Capitalizing on non-transportation-specific funding, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, first passed in 2006 and revised in 2012, requires that a quarter of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction funds coming from the state’s cap-and-trade program go to disadvantaged communities for projects benefiting those communities. Transportation improvements for disadvantaged communities are eligible for these funds.

Demonstrating the federal commitment to this topic, Stephanie Jones, USDOT’s Deputy Chief of Staff and Chief Opportunities Officer, spoke at the Equity Summit, offering support to state, local, and regional governments as agencies work to embed equity policies and the Ladders of Opportunity in the department’s culture.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.