Building Equity in Infrastructure

How cities can improve transportation systems to benefit all residents.
April 3, 2018
David Kidd
By Lisa Wong  |  Senior Fellow, Governing Institute
Lisa Wong is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and former mayor of Fitchburg, Mass.
Race-Informed Resident-Involved

Former U.S. Department of Transportation Anthony Foxx was a champion of transportation equity and worked to create policies to correct the economic and racial injustices created by past policies. He especially wanted to mitigate the damage done when urban highways cut through low-income neighborhoods affecting mostly people of color. He estimated that approximately 500,000 households were relocated due to highway construction between 1957 and 1977. Even families not relocated were affected as highways divided and isolated neighborhoods, and increased congestion and pollution.

The jury remains out whether President Trump’s proposed $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan will include provisions to promote equity. The plan to date is light on details and only calls for $200 million in federal funding over the next decade. The decision to discontinue a pilot program aimed at increasing local hiring in 2017 is also a blow to communities where leaders hoped these policies would help economically struggling communities and support more equitable development.

PolicyLink’s 2016 report Transportation for All defines an equitable transportation system as “one that provides affordable transportation, creates quality jobs, promotes safe and inclusive communities, and focuses on results that benefit all.”

The Equity Caucus at Transportation for America is advocating for using health impact assessments to evaluate transportation project outcomes, implementing workforce training to help women and people of color access transportation careers, and investing in projects that improve mobility and access for underserved communities.

Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, provides a still-relevant perspective on approaching our built environment. While many argue that parks infuse great life and vitality into cities, Jacobs believes the opposite. It is the people that offer life and vitality into parks. Jane Jacobs warns against "frittering away money on parks, playgrounds and project land-oozes too large, too frequent, too perfunctory, too ill-located, and hence too dull or too inconvenient to be used."

“Engage early, engage often” is a good mantra when it comes to community involvement. Cities have come up with many creative and effective ways to solicit input and keep the public informed. Interactive geographic information systems (GIS) and spatial data infrastructure (SDI) are great ways to engage citizens in planning decisions. So are engaging with on-the-ground “neighborhood networks” that organize people at the neighborhood level.

Whether cities are using technology or conducting walking audits with residents, equity needs to be a primary consideration of outreach efforts. Many cities have to overcome the legacy of urban renewal projects that have torn apart immigrant neighborhoods, and a history of investments in wealthier neighborhoods that neglect infrastructure in poorer ones.

Including residents in design, decision-making and hiring processes are all important ways to create equity in infrastructure projects. The city of Manizales, Columbia, installed traffic lights that display environmental conditions in different neighborhoods. This is a very transparent way to share information with residents and to encourage accountability. As we advocate to erase the legacy of divisive infrastructure projects, we must include the voices and impact of those that were ignored in the first place.