Bringing transportation justice to the table 

This year has brought many of the inequities in our society into stark light and has caused us at Ecology Action to question what we want our role to be in making the world more just and equitable for all people. How do we build an equitable transportation system that allows people to safely move with dignity to work, school, essential destinations, and recreation while protecting individual and community health and the earth’s ecosystems? One of the lenses Ecology Action has been exploring this question through is our sustainable transportation programs, and we are excited to share some of our findings through a new series of articles on transportation justice.

Environmental and Transportation Justice 101

The core ideas of transportation justice come from the environmental justice movement. Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, is credited as the “father” of environmental justice for his early work in the field. Bullard identifies the principles of environmental justice: all communities, regardless of race or socio-economic status, are entitled to equal protection, equal access, and equal enforcement in regards to the necessities of life, including housing, transportation, employment, and recreation. “Transportation provides access to opportunity and serves as a key component in addressing poverty, unemployment, and equal opportunity goals while ensuring access to education, health care, and other public services,” writes Bullard. “In the United States, all communities do not receive the same benefits from transportation advancements and investments.” Too often, these disparities fall along racial and economic lines.

“Transportation has always been embedded in civil rights and racism,” Bullard shared in a recent interview. From the Jim Crow-era SCOTUS decision on segregated train cars in Plessy vs. Ferguson, to Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycotts, to “biking while Black/brown” and the overenforcement of traffic laws on communities of color, equitable access to transportation exists within the United States’ larger structures of systemic racism and racial segregation. Beginning in the 1920s, highways were often used by planners and regional governments as a tool to enforce segregation and the racial status quo.

Planner Robert Moses began building modern New York City in the 1920s with funding from FDR’s New Deal. Moses bulldozed Black and Latinx homes and neighborhoods for parks, and he intentionally built highways through the middle of many of these communities. According to his biographer, Robert Caro, Moses even made sure that the city’s new parkway bridges were too low to allow buses, presumably carrying low-income residents of color, to pass through. Moses’ actions proved to be the model, not the exception, for how many cities in the US designed their transportation systems at the expense of Black, Latinx, and other communities of color.

In his book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, historian Richard Rothstein directly addresses how the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) of the 1930s used highways as a tool to enforce racial segregation and disrupt communities’ of color cultural and economic integrity. The FHA clearly spelled this out in an underwriting manual, which notes that highways are “effective in protecting a neighborhood and the locations within it from . . . inharmonious racial groups.” In Oakland, planners used freeways to separate largely black West Oakland from the rest of the city and intentionally disrupted a thriving black-owned business district.

New York, Oakland, Los Angeles, and other large cities used freeways to corral or pave over neighborhoods of color. Combined with racially restrictive housing covenants and “red lining,” African American and other communities of color were forced out of the housing market and into crowded, substandard housing and were intentionally denied urban services. After World War II, whites were often able to buy homes and build generational equity with the support of FHA-guaranteed mortgages, veterans’ bonds, and other government subsidies. According to Rothstein, by the time the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was passed, it was too expensive for many African American and other families of color to buy into the housing market.

The “American Dream” of the 1950’s was predicated on the automobile, and early experiments in Levittown-type suburbs became the de facto planning model for most major cities. Highways and freeways allowed many white suburban commuters to travel via private automobile, bypassing “urban blight” and under-resourced, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Public transportation also remained effectively segregated in many communities, with trains and light rail primarily serving these white commuters and diesel-burning buses serving low-income communities.

Fast-forward to today. In the US, very low-income households spend on average over 30% of their annual incomes on transportation compared to the national average of 17%. For most people at any economic stratum, these transportation costs are associated with owning a car in order to access jobs and other resources: 79% of people in the US drive to work alone, and car ownership has been linked to upward economic mobility in multiple studies. But while automobiles may offer economic opportunity, the discriminatory land use and planning policies that bisected communities with freeways continue to harm low-income communities and communities of color disproportionately. These disadvantaged communities suffer the burden of our auto-centric system more than affluent communities, with higher rates of car-related injuries and deaths, asthma, heart disease, and other pollution-related diseases.

Robert Bullard reports that African Americans and Latinx people comprise over 54% of public transit users in urban areas, and 16% of African Americans and 9% of Latinx people live in households without a car. While the car may still be king for some, many low-income people rely on active transportation, including public transit, walking, and biking, but experience a disproportionate burden of traffic-related injuries and deaths. According to Toks Omishakin, the Director of Caltrans, while biking, walking, and transit use accounts for 12% of all trips nationwide, these travel modes represent 20% of all traffic-related fatalities. “In California, it’s even worse. Of the 10 people who are killed on our roads and highways every day, 2–3 are walking, biking, or accessing transit,” Omishakin says. This disturbing pattern holds true in Santa Cruz County, where the 8% of people who commute via biking and walking disproportionately experience 26% of the deaths and serious injuries across all modes of transportation. According to county crash data, 54% of the crashes that result in death or severe injury happen on just 6% of our streets, and more than half of these roadways are in low-income neighborhoods.

Toks Omishakin recently addressed the Silicon Valley Bike Summit as keynote speaker and acknowledged the “three pandemics” of COVID-19, unemployment, and racial injustice along with the role that transportation has played in exacerbating these issues. “For the first 20 to 30 years (of Caltrans) investing in transportation, we were building big interstate freeways through communities of color . . . and (we) blasted through, dismantling them,” Omishakin admits. “Part of reconnecting those communities is investing in walking and biking. . . . During COVID, if you do not have a car, the emphasis becomes even more increased,” he says. Caltrans recently launched an Office of Race and Equity, and Omishakin is requiring all of his Caltrans leadership team to watch Segregated by Design, a short film based on Richard Rothstein’s book, and Divided Highways, a 1997 PBS documentary on American car culture, the interstate highway system, and long-term impacts of racist transportation policies. “The future of transportation in California is not investing in big new highways but investing in multimodal opportunities for people . . . to move around,” Omishakin says.

In July, Caltrans allocated a new pot of $100 million for statewide active transportation infrastructure projects and has increasingly prioritized disadvantaged communities for Safe Routes to School funding, including bike lanes as well as intersection and sidewalk improvements. In local news, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) was recently awarded a total of $107 million in grant funding for multimodal improvements to the Soquel Drive and Highway 1 corridor, which will include accommodation for transit buses to use auxiliary lanes on Highway 1, two new bike and pedestrian overcrossings of the freeway at Chanticleer and Mar Vista, and 5 miles of protected bike lanes along Soquel Drive. “This will be the largest investment in transportation equity and safety in our community in history,” said RTC and Santa Cruz County Commissioner Zach Friend. “I represent a district with a federally disadvantaged community which earns, on average, less than half of the yearly median for the U.S. They have been disproportionately impacted by congestion challenges facing the bus system and personal vehicles, and they have also experienced a disproportionate number of the injuries and fatalities associated with bike and pedestrian accidents.”

Ecology Action acknowledges that we cannot build a thriving and sustainable community without working towards racial and environmental justice. While we still have a long way to go in addressing the legacies of environmental racism and disenfranchisement of communities of color in terms of transportation and land use, it is heartening to see local and regional agencies acknowledging and working to actively address these legacies. For those of us working on active transportation advocacy, planning efforts for Safe Routes to School, shared mobility solutions for disadvantaged communities, and electric vehicle equity, it is an exciting time to be engaged in this sphere. We look forward to sharing more of our learnings and reflections in the months to come, and we welcome your feedback and questions.

Photo credit: Denys Nevozhai