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Prioritize Social Connections in Transportation Systems

By Risa Wilkerson on May 5th, 2021

Safe, accessible, and affordable transportation options connect people to jobs, education, health care, child care, social services, and other critical resources that foster social connection and advance health. However, the U.S. transportation system is designed to prioritize travel in personal vehicles through infrastructure investments and subsidies to fossil fuel companies. The result is that 87 percent of trips, even to places in walking or biking distance, occur in personal vehicles. Only two percent of all trips nationwide are made by transit.i

This creates significant barriers for those who are unable to drive, do not have or cannot obtain a driver’s license, cannot afford a car, or fear discrimination during traffic stops, among other concerns. For example, nearly three times as many socially isolated rural adults with chronic health conditions or physical or cognitive limitations delayed seeking health care due to a lack of transportation.ii In addition, the history of highway development shows a pattern of intentional dislocation and separation of communities of color, resulting in a legacy of severed social networks, polluted neighborhoods, and the stigmatization of active and public transportation options such as bicycles and buses. Furthermore, the burden of traffic deaths falls disproportionately on communities of color and older adults. For example, the pedestrian fatality rate for Native Americans is nearly five times higher than for White Americans, and the rate for African Americans is nearly twice as high.20 Fortunately, by prioritizing social connections and a sense of belonging, the transportation sector can reimagine ways to spark conversation, increase engagement, and improve health and well-being.

Community Change in a Bike Shop

For example, a bike shop in Kalihi Valley, Hawaii, has become an important venue for promoting local health and social well-being. At the Kalihi Valley Instructional Bike Exchange (KVIBE), young men and boys of color regularly gather there to learn bike repair skills. They also use the shop as a safe space to heal, connect, share cultural pride, and develop their skills as social change leaders. Advocacy for bike lanes and bike share programs have helped them transform their community. For example, youth leaders prevented a two-lane street near the bike shop from becoming a four-lane road, which would have cut through the community. Their advocacy helped preserve local culture and community safety, while strengthening social connections within and beyond their group.iii

Closing Streets to Invite Connection

Another example is the Ciclovía Recreativa program, which closes streets to cars to create safe and inclusive spaces for people to be active outdoors. The program has been implemented in four Latin American cities (Bogotá, Mexico City, Santiago de Cali, and Santiago de Chile), and has improved inclusion in highly unequal and segregated urban environments.iv In addition to providing space for health-enhancing physical activity, the Ciclovía program brings together people from different neighborhoods, including diverse socioeconomic groups. As people share public space, they have opportunities to build social capital and cohesion.

In our recently released report Socially Connected Communities: Solutions for Social Isolation, we shared three ideas for prioritizing connection in transportation system in order to initiate conversations and spur action.

Think "people first."

Invest in public transportation, walking and bicycling networks as well as appropriate supports (such as crosswalks, lower traffic speeds and volumes, air quality control, maintenance, and frequency of transit service), and ensure that these options are well connected to places people visit most often. These modes of transportation can provide opportunities for meeting others, starting conversations, and building trust in neighbors and institutions. They also enhance individual and community resilience by supporting health and well-being for people and reducing the emissions impacting climate change.

To avoid perpetuating existing oppression or inequitable investment, incorporate inclusive and just processes when designing “people-first” options. Care must also be taken to safeguard affordable housing (e.g., through rent control and mixed-income developments) when community improvements create conditions that increase market values and rent prices. Untokening’s Principles of Mobility Justicev resource describes how bike lanes and green spaces often result in “environmental gentrification as longtime and lower-income residents are displaced by more affluent populations.” Collectively building a multi-racial, multi-generational movement for mobility justice is a tool for stronger social connection in and of itself; the outcome of that work leads to accessible, equitable transportation options that continue to bring people together.

Use policy levers to promote health and equity. 

Transportation policy levers offer multi-layered opportunities to improve neighborhoods, communities, and their surrounding regions. Traditionally, transportation planners prioritized “vehicle level of service,” or how quickly and efficiently cars could move on streets. There are many alternative measurements* of transportation quality, especially related to health, equity, and public

Policies about facilities maintenance are also an opportunity to promote health and equity. A process called “gender-balanced budgeting” in Sweden revealed how snow clearing practices disadvantaged women, who were more likely to walk. To address this, municipalities now clear walking and biking pathways, especially those near bus stops and primary schools, before clearing streets and highways.vii

Policy solutions can also address issues of access that fall outside of the built environment. For example, increasing broadband access and telemedicine can mitigate transportation-related barriers to social services and health care for people in rural areas. Also consider driving licenses, a standard piece of identification that facilitate interactions with businesses, government agencies, and community institutions. They mitigate isolation by granting meaningful access to social institutions and enhancing a sense of safety and belonging—for those who are able to acquire them. Policies can be updated to offer forms of identification that all residents (including children, people who are unable to drive, undocumented immigrants, and people experiencing homelessness or previous incarceration)viii can access and which accurately reflect the gender of trans and non-binary people.

Support elements that enhance public life.

Even though the transportation system is primarily focused on moving people, goods, and vehicles, its infrastructure offers opportunities to create pauses in movement that allow people to be active, think, and talk with others. For example, Safe Routes to School and walking school bus programs create greater social connection between schools, parents, and studentsix while activating walk-friendly environments in neighborhoods and surrounding schools. Play streets—a temporary closure of public streets to create safe spaces for active play—offer youth and adults an opportunity to be active, meet neighbors, and build a sense of community. These strategies have been successfully implemented in both rural and urban areas.x In some communities, play streets double as summer food service sites.xi Other activation strategies include providing Little Free Libraries at public bus stops, transforming trails into walkable art galleries, and working with community health workers to help people overcome transportation barriers to healthcare services. When designing programmatic supports such as these, consider existing assets, cultures, and histories through the lens of equity and inclusion.

There is no better time for local government leaders and policy makers to weave social connectedness and community-centered processes into every policy, practice, development, and investment that they influence. Now, more than ever, we must all create more socially connected and equitable communities where everyone has the support they need to thrive. The opportunities are endless.


*Alternative Measurements: Consider using the following transportation policies, listed as most relevant to health and equity, when determining transportation quality. 
  • Complete Streets
  • Context Sensitive Design
  • Environmental Review Toolkit
  • Green Streets
  • Health Impact Assessment (HIA)
  • Livable Centers Initiative (LCI)
  • Local Area Traffic Management (LATM)/Traffic Calming
  • Road Diets



i Daily Passenger Travel. United States Department of Transportation. Retrieved from

ii Rural Evaluation Brief: Promising Practices for Increasing Access to Transportation in Rural Communities. (2018 April). The Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis. Retrieved from


iv Mejia-Arbelaez, C., Sarmiento, O. L., Mora Vega, R., Flores Castillo, M., Truffello, R., Martínez, L., Medina, C., Guaje, O., Pinzón Ortiz, J. D., Useche, A. F., Rojas-Rueda, D., & Delclòs-Alió, X. (2021). Social inclusion and physical activity in Ciclovía Recreativa programs in Latin America. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(2), 655.

v Untokening Collective. (2018, November). Principles of Mobility Justice. Retrieved from

vi Malekafzali, S. (Ed.). (n.d.). Healthy, Equitable Transportation Policy: Recommendations and Research. PolicyLink.

vii Schmitt, A. (2018, January 24). Why Sweden clears snow-covered walkways [Web log post]. Retrieved from

viii Why states should grant driver’s licenses to all residents. (2019, October 09). Retrieved from 

ix Pedroso, M., Bogli, J., Speer, M., Bricker, S., & Thorne E. K. (2010, June). Getting Students Active through Safe Routes to School: Policies and Action Steps for Education Policymakers and Professionals. Safe Routes to School. 

x Guide to Implementing Play Streets in Rural Communities. (2019, June). Physical Activity Research Center. 

xi Playstreets: Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. (n.d.). Retrieved from 

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, simplicity seeker, and weekend wanderer.