District Strong on Transportation Equity

Time for a new approach: Oppressed communities come first

Transportation policy is all wrapped up in social justice. Historically it has been used as a tool to control the freedom to move or where to live and work. Highway construction plowed through black communities in the 1950s and 1960s. Train tracks divided towns by race. Redlining kept black residents confined to segregated neighborhoods. The legacy of these policies continue to cloud where this city is today. The neighborhoods with the highest concentration of poverty have the worst transit access. COVID is disproportionately striking down essential workers who rely on public transportation to get to their jobs. Transportation is not neutral.

In the second in a series of District Strong conversations dedicated to transportation, we grappled with this racist history and how to pave a more equitable path forward. Joining us were Veronica O. Davis, Co-Founder of Nspire Green, and Tamika Butler, of Tamika L. Butler Consulting. Kimberly Driggins of the Washington Housing Conservancy co-moderated with Federal City Council Executive Director and CEO Tony Williams.

The intersection of race and transportation is personal for both of today’s guests.

Veronica runs a transportation policy consulting firm. Her grandfather built a taxi company in Jim Crow-era North Carolina with only a middle school education. Her dad was a railroad engineer. Her mom’s family was pushed out of their home to make way for an urban highway. She lived in DC’s Ward 7 in the late 1990s when the city was just finishing the last Metro stops to predominantly black neighborhoods. The Green line that runs through Shaw, Columbia Heights and Anacostia, was the last to be built.

Tamika started off as a civil rights lawyer fighting workplace racial discrimination cases. When she was in law school, her dad lost his job because of racism. He was crushed by it, and so she devoted her career to fighting for people like him. But she soon learned that her Black clients wanted to talk about transportation access instead. Getting to the job was their first problem. She now runs a consulting firm focusing on equity in urban planning.

We are fortunate in the DC region to have a robust transportation system in that is a key driver of economic competitiveness. 34% of workers commute by public transit (3rd highest among large US cities) and 4% of workers commute by bicycle (2nd highest in the US). Transit also enhances affordability and mobility for residents. DC has one of the lowest car ownership rates among US cities (second behind NYC), and on average, DC households save $324 million/year in auto expenditures by using Metro due to reduced car ownership, operating, and maintenance costs. Maintaining, and expanding transit systems that allow residents to have access to jobs, education, and services without having to own a car must be a priority for the region’s short and long-term economic recovery.

To recover stronger, transportation policy should address the wrongs of historic land use and transportation decisions. Electeds and agency officials should focus far less on profitability, and instead embed equity into their frameworks for decision-making. Now with transit ridership plummeting, too many policymakers are itching to cut service as a cost-saving measure. They are looking at the wrong metrics. Europe had a better approach. Buses run every five minutes at nights and on weekends in rich and poor neighborhoods alike. Bus systems there aren’t intended to make money. When WMATA cuts bus service, it hurts essential workers and others who don’t have cars.

Resources should be allocated based on equity rather than equality. Equity acknowledges that some people who come from wealth or privilege may not need the same amount of resources as those who don’t. Equality assumes everyone should get the same resources, which does not make up for existing inequalities.

We should prioritize transportation resources the way an Emergency Room triages patients. The ER gives more immediacy and attention to “code blue” patients in life-threatening conditions. Everyone else can wait. For transportation, there are “code blue” impoverished communities that need more investments than others.

Making it happen requires will and grit from leaders at the top. It’s the same for corporations and elite institutions. If they really care about diversity, inclusion and equity, they will find a way to make it happen. If there aren’t enough applications, go out and find the applicants or train the applicants.

Achieving transportation equity also requires more authentic engagement from transportation professionals. No more siloing off conversations from racism, housing and access to opportunity. Los Angeles uses a great rapid equity assessment tool for all policy decisions. It asks a sequence of questions: “Who is this policy going to impact? How? Who benefits the most? Who shoulders the largest burden?” If the community most impacted by the policy is not at the decision table, then there is an unacceptable power imbalance.

The failed Anacostia streetcar line is an example of when a power imbalance killed an equity-focused transportation project. The first streetcar line was supposed to be in Anacostia, not H street. To its credit, DDOT spent years trying to gather support for it. But it still failed because the DC Council voted against it.

There are other examples where minority communities distrust transportation professionals’ underlying motives. They wonder if the new bike lane is for them or an enticement for young, white gentrifiers.

Communities want to be engaged and listened to. They don’t want transportation professionals to come with a pre-packaged plan to sell to them, and not every community will want the same transportation hookups. In DC, we have the opportunity at this moment to provide community feedback on the long-range transportation plan, moveDC. Please fill out the moveDC survey and share with your network before it closes on November, 14th.

Transportation planners are struggling to pin down where post-COVID commuting patterns will land. With so many unknowns, it can be an opportunity to start afresh with a new target—of equity. Our transit system has made it easy for professional in the suburbs to get downtown to office buildings during rush hour. But going across town is a struggle. Someone from Ward 8 enrolled in evening classes at UDC or at Trinity faces a grueling trip of several buses or Metro trains and long waits. It’s time these folks came first.


If you were not able to join the call, please click here for the recording.