Transportation Equity on the Agenda

An Agenda for Equity brief coverWhen multimodal mobility advocates call on City Hall to enforce traffic laws and to embrace complete streets (including bike lanes and other facilities), we’re pushing a transportation equity agenda. Researchers at USC have picked up on the grassroots fervor in a new policy brief titled, An Agenda for Equity: A Framework for Building a Just Transportation System in Los Angeles County (2014). The brief, published by the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE), sketches out an argument for making our most significant public space accessible to all users.

In An Agenda for Equity, USC researchers Manuel Pastor, Vanessa Carter and Madeline Wander provide some political and demographic context for the cumulative negative effects of auto-centered transportation policies, but doesn’t dwell on it. “This policy brief is not one of our usual efforts in which analysts..offer tons of nerdy, detailed data.” Instead this brief is a “general framework” for making better transportation policies going forward. Policy decisions that are based on equity as a value and not only interest groups or, gasp, the money.

Most importantly they identify opportunities and suggest some policy levers through which better decisions can be made in the future. “What we do hope An Agenda for Equity can do is to provide a framework to support what we see as big possibilities for the region.” That framework is normative. Socially, they call attention to the legacy of economic and social disadvantage in certain communities that they see as a product of auto-centric thinking. In their view, progressive transportation policies can be a means to achieve greater equity in wealth, employment and housing – arguably the social issues of our time.

This thinking has deep scholarly roots: resistance to postwar suburbanization in the 1960s once inspired the planning field’s most impassioned pleas for change. During Johnson’s Model Cities program, for example, academics led the charge to resist steamrolling local communities. Practitioners responded, too, with an ‘advocacy planning’ approach that would advance the interests of communities in the face of powerful actors in the planning process. Scholarly concerns about justice in the urban context have in recent years come back to the foreground. Is the time right for viewing urban problems though a mobility lens?

Equity: A Framework for Prescription

Public policy is in large part the process of allocating resources. And policy is formulated by looking through a specific lens. The authors here are out front in labeling that lens transportation equity:

In our view, transportation equity means: Equitable access to quality, affordable transportation options and so employment, services, amenities, and cultural destinations; shared distribution of the benefits and burdens of transportation systems and investments, such as jobs and pollution, respectively; and partnership in the planning process that results in shared decision-making and more equitable outcomes for disadvantaged communities while strengthening the entire region.

Their thrust is transportation but their concern is process. The message: “people matter” but no one matters more than anyone else.

Our policymakers have lost sight of equity when it comes to transportation policy, and that has marginalized both non-motorists and those disproportionately harmed by our nation’s support for motor-friendly infrastructure and incentives. Of course the particulars are well-known to many of us who agitate for change.

But PERE’s overall scope on the issues is somewhat more expansive than that usually employed by bike advocates. We define the problem in terms of road safety and equitable access to streets. And that can (and should) include federal policies and public investment. But in general we bracket out social concerns. When we rhetorically construct ‘equity’ around issues of physical mobility, we leave housing and wealth disparities – and indeed social mobility – largely on the sidelines.*

Not to simplify inordinately, however. Many bike advocates are all-around supporters of the progressive cause (if not champions on specific social issues). Some organizations, too, put social equity at the center of their mobility advocacy. For example, LACBC’s Operation Firefly limns this boundary by targeting economically-disadvantaged communities for safe-riding programs. But PERE moves these concerns to the foreground.

A Pro-Equity Agenda for Change

Among the prescriptions offered by the authors is that we need to create a more tightly-integrated mobility and growth program. That builds on long-standing calls for the greater integration of transportation considerations into land use planning. For example, the grassroots have realized that we can’t simply build an urban environment only for motorists; it’s not only inefficient, it’s impossible. At the vanguard of change these days we’re seeing new bike parking policies implemented; higher density and reduced parking minimums along transportation corridors (particularly around Los Angeles); and even dispensing with parking spaces altogether for some permitted developments. In this sense the authors are following, not leading, the charge.

But academics are useful for nothing if not generating bullet-pointed observations and prescriptions. These authors identify six challenges to the pro-equity agenda:

  1. Follow the money to understand how it affects agency and policymaker choices
  2. Encourage ‘authentic participation’ to give people a seat at the charrette table
  3. Measure progress and demand accountability
  4. Capacity, capacity, capacity
  5. Make business a partner
  6. Translating words into action

Let’s take these point-by-point very briefly, starting with challenge #1. Among the most potentially transformative steps forward in recent years was the approval of Los Angeles County voters of Measure R, which upped the sales tax for 30 years to fund transit improvements. It passed overwhelmingly (even in Beverly Hills where 65% of voters gave it the nod in 2008). And nothing creates an opportunity for change like tens of billions of dollars to spend.

But our policymakers couldn’t resist the temptation to reach for more by subsequently proposing to squeeze that three decades of work into ten years and then just a few years after R passed come back to the ballot box for more decades of funding. Yes, accountability matters, and without finished projects to show for the obligation voters seemed in no mood to tax themselves again.

Perhaps the diminution of trust in policymakers suggests challenge #3. Over the last decade, a people’s movement has coalesced to monitor policymaker pay-to-play. What can reassure us? “Measurement matters because it clarifies communities’ expectations,” the authors say, “gives government agencies and their staff defined goals, and creates a clear-cut system for tracking and accountability.” For advocates of progressive mobility, the task is to prod policymakers to think big about density and mobility. But for others, a decidedly parochial anti-growth agenda reigns. They need to be reassured.

As for challenge #5, business is already behind transportation investment. But what kind of investment? Roads and bridges, sure; historic under-investment in infrastructure is acknowledged to impede our economic recovery. But will the private-sector see a percentage in advocating for bike facilities? The ‘bike-friendly business district’ concept holds promise, but is slow to gain traction and may hold no appeal for establishment business interests. Yet the authors remain optimistic:

We face a formative era that could fundamentally shift how Angelenos relate to and move through the region.There will be challenges, of course – finding regional consensus, implementing what we mean by equity, keeping hard fought coalitions together, among other things – but the way ahead looks promising. With a vision for just growth as the lodestar and transportation equity as one of the pillars, Los Angeles may live up to the rumors that we are forging a new path ahead for America.

To get us started, the authors offer ‘recommendations from the field’ presumably drawn from talking to advocates. In brief they are:

  1. Integrate Transportation Equity and Just Growth Agendas
  2. Know Together, Grow Together
  3. Moving from Circles of Learning to Circles of Action
  4. Fund Grassroots Base Building
  5. Invest in Community-led Planning Expertise
  6. Look to the Bay Area (yeah, we know…)

We’ll let you read the report to get the gist. We’re optimistic too about the potential for the grassroots to reshape mobility in our region. Our policymakers may not get behind an Los Angeles Airport accessed directly by transit, but they will inevitably roll with the non-motor mobility movement rather than get rolled by it. That’s not enlightenment; that’s self-preservation.

But our optimism rests in our fellow advocates and especially the riders who claim their share of blacktop. We see it as a ‘use it or lose it’ proposition: just like a driver will crowd us to the curb if we let him, by staking our claim boldly, and in accord with the law, we can begin to take back the streets. The authors more successfully embrace that spirit in their KCET post than articulate it in this policy brief, however.

This Brief and Two Bucks Gets a Rider a Cup of Coffee

As for challenges 2, 4 and 6, they disappoint precisely because we’ve all been here before. How many plans, papers and policy reports have called for building capacity and creating collaborative planning processes? Too many. This brief is only the latest university-community initiative to outline big problems and prescribe tentative steps toward a solution.

And in the company of past university-community initiatives it might not even read as the most urgent to policymakers. USC’s (now defunct) Southern California Studies Center published a multi-part atlas titled Sprawl Hits the Wall in 2001 that diced-and-sliced the demographic, economic and even theoretical issues. And it foretold disaster. But have you ever heard of it? Was it hailed in any policy debates? The center even published an accompanying ‘action plan’ titled, After Sprawl.  It primed the pump for thinking about sprawl in new ways, but did it affect the trajectory of auto-oriented growth?

Nor is the USC Program for Environmental & Regional Equity the first well-spoken suitor to come calling with an explicit promise for a better region. Back in 1925 the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce commissioned the landscape architecture firm of Olmsted Brothers and Harland Bartholomew planners to think big about the future of the region. The resulting plan, Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region, patterned mobility upon the historic contours of the natural setting to tie together mountains, beaches and recreation facilities. At its heart was a system of ‘parkways’ and parks to connect city and country:

Olmsted and Bartholomew's Park and Playgrounds mapIn a death-knell that killed the quest for a better future for nearlythe next century, the Chamber famously shelved that plan. Why? The economy tanked and then the federal government assumed a greater responsibility for the region. In contrast to the Olmsted/Bartholomew vision, for example, the Army Corps engineering the landscape for production. It concretized the river to create along its banks not opportunities for recreation but sites for industry. The only ‘parkway’ ever constructed was the Arroyo Seco, and as recently as ten years ago, park advocates had to battle it out with a industrial park developer over the cornfields site (near downtown).

Of that Parks, Playgrounds effort, by the way, all that remains is the Los Angeles Major Traffic Street Plan (1924). It did in fact imprint a pro-motor bias on our City of Angels for the next near-century. Behold the map; it looks awfully familiar even if it has since been overlaid with a freeway system, doesn’t it?

Olmsted's Major Street Traffic Plan (1924)That’s why optimism is hard to summon. No city in history has been the subject of so many grand plans and yet been disappointed in the face of dashed expectations. Will this one be any different? We note that humorously, and presumably without irony, An Agenda for Equity itself summons the bugaboo of university-community initiatives everywhere: the challenge of translating talk to action (#6).

Yet a Rider Can Hope

Yes there’s the promise, and there is of course the need, for transportation equity. We need it in South Los Angeles; we need it in the northeast San Fernando Valley; and we need it in the Northeast and beyond. But we also need it in Tarzana, Hancock Park and Westwood. And we need transportation equity here in Beverly Hills too.

Our small town of 35,000 averages about 400 collision injuries every year – at least those reported to the police department. (Presumably more go unreported.) And nearly 10% of them on average are bicycle riders. Since fewer than 1% of road users use a bicycle, riders are over-represented among the injured by  ten times or more when compared to our actual presence on the road.

Yet our policymakers here have done nothing to mitigate collision injuries. Red-light running is rampant and traffic enforcement is negligible (as our year-end traffic report summary shows). Our transportation officials take scant notice. And if you’re involved in a bike collision, better make sure that the cops take down your story and follow-up to ensure it’s correct in the report. Why? Because here car-culture prevails among policymakers and the cops. If anywhere there was a need for a transportation equity agenda, it is here in Beverly Hills.

So we welcome An Agenda for Equity: A Framework for Building a Just Transportation System in Los Angeles County from the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE). We’ll be watching to see if it has any juice here in the Southland, where a constellation of auto-industry interests and parochial backyard concerns collaborate to keep our region as one inhospitable to those who would bike.

*Bike advocates tend to frame our own action agenda in implicit opposition to motor-mobility interests – namely the Auto Club – and their legislative agenda(s), which sometimes has them opposing sensible road safety laws like California’s safe-passing law AB 1371. (As if road safety was zero-sum!) Moreover, some bike advocates (especially self-proclaimed activists) tend to identify as a community in explicit contrast to motorists. While the binary (us-versus-them) approach is generally repudiated by the greater mobility advocacy community, life is breathed into it by policymakers who continue to have riders to battle with armored motorists.An Agenda for Equity brief back cover