In a recent post, Healthy Places by Design shared an overview of how transportation intersects with creating healthy places. Among the roundup of research were a few points that highlighted inequitable outcomes. Namely, that communities of color are exposed to traffic pollution at higher rates than White Americans1 and disproportionately breathe polluted air caused by White Americans.2
The root cause of these inequities is a transportation system that prioritizes cars overlaid with zoning patterns that, by historic design, have pushed communities of color into neighborhoods that are closer to major highways or limited their ability to move elsewhere. One obvious solution to part of this root problem (in addition to improving zoning practices) is to invest in infrastructure that supports active transportation. As outlined in the previously mentioned Healthy Places by Design post, communities across the country are already showing what’s possible when transportation planners and community leaders prioritize human and environmental health over moving vehicles efficiently. Less obvious is how to navigate the barriers to active transportation that are out of planners’ hands.
Stefani Cox, Equity Writer at PeopleForBikes, and Charles Brown, a researcher at Rutgers’ Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center, outline the Silent Barriers to Bicycling in a four-part series. The authors note, “While commonly understood fears of traffic collisions rank first in terms of obstacles to bicycling, personal safety factors such as crime and racial profiling are highly under-examined issues that influence Blacks and Latinos when deciding whether to bike or not.”
These concerns extend to walking, too, and for good reason. The Voorhees Center also reviewed five years’ worth of citations given to pedestrians in Jacksonville, FL and found that 55 percent were issued to Black pedestrians even though the city’s Black population is just 29 percent.3 Jaywalking tickets were also disproportionately given to Black pedestrians.
Silent Barriers to Bicycling also highlights how communities of color have less active transportation infrastructure to begin with. Layered with systemic discrimination, this type of disinvestment makes it especially difficult—and dangerous—for too many people of color to get from one place to another in their daily lives by biking and walking. Charles’ research also suggests that communities of color are under-represented in infrastructure planning discussions, and our organization recently spoke with planners who highlighted diversity and inclusion gaps in the planning field in general.
Veronica O. Davis, P.E., a civil engineer, transportation planner, co-founder of Black Women Bike (BWB), and an America Walks board member, offers a practical solution to these intersecting problems: co-create transportation systems with the people who will actually be using them, which she calls “community-led planning.” Planners can do this by shifting how they approach public engagement. Veronica urges planners to build relationships with community organizations by listening, engaging young people, and taking public input meetings to the streets. This means expanding the venues for public input from city hall conference rooms to places where people move through their daily lives, like bus stops, grocery store parking lots, festivals, and farmers’ markets.
Community-led planning tactics exemplify one of Healthy Places by Design’s Essential Practices, Community Engagement. Advocates and professionals must go beyond simply informing and surveying residents to engaging them in determining, advocating for, shaping, and helping implement solutions within their own neighborhoods. Only a transportation system that truly reflects communities’ needs and perspectives can begin to achieve equitable outcomes.