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Why Transportation Planners Should Prioritize the ‘Silently Suffering’

Veronica O. Davis, a transportation director in Houston, recently published Inclusive Transportation: A Manifesto for Repairing Divided Communities. The book describes experiences and lessons from her career as a planner, engineer and advocate.

Davis Transportation.jpg
(Island Press)
In Brief:
  • Veronica O. Davis has spent a career working in transportation planning, with local governments, the Federal Highway Administration and as a consultant.

  • Her new book calls for transportation planning that prioritizes communities that are living with the negative consequences of planning and engineering decisions.

  • “Legend has it that I was born into transportation,” writes Veronica O. Davis in her new book, Inclusive Transportation: A Manifesto for Repairing Divided Communities.

    Now the director of transportation and drainage operations for the city of Houston, Davis has spent her career working in transportation planning and engineering. Starting as a summer intern at the New York City Department of Transportation, she’s since worked as an engineer at the Federal Highway Administration, an urban planner for Alexandria, Va., and the co-founder of Nspiregreen LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based planning firm. Along the way, she also helped start the D.C.-based advocacy group Black Women Bike, and served in leadership roles with the National Society of Black Engineers.

    Davis grew up in New Jersey, and both her parents worked in the transportation industry — her mother with the New York City Transit Authority and her father with the Urban Mass Transportation Administration and the American Society of Civil Engineers. Her father’s grandparents owned a taxi cab company in North Carolina. Her mother’s childhood home, in Baton Rouge, was seized for the building of Interstate 10 through Louisiana.

    In her book, Davis invites readers, especially those who work in transportation planning, to think about their own formative experiences with transportation. It’s an exercise that she thinks helps people set aside their own routines and think about why they make the transportation choices they make. “It can be very easy to judge people — why are you driving to the grocery store across the street? — but when you understand why you’re making your decisions, it can help you be more empathetic to other people’s decisions,” she says.

    Davis recently spoke with Governing, emphasizing that she wasn’t speaking in her official capacity as a Houston city employee. The conversation has been edited.

    Governing: You write about freedom a couple times in this book. So much of the way people talk about freedom in the U.S. is tied up with driving and car culture, but you write in your book that cars are the cause of a lot of problems in American communities and that people should have other ways to get around. Have you found that people are receptive to thinking about freedom in terms of walking or biking or taking public transit?

    Veronica O. Davis: It will depend on who you're talking to. If you're talking about a person that already uses multiple modes of transportation, they may define freedom as just the ability to choose. They can choose to drive if they want to, or bike or ride the bus. For some people it is just the freedom to drive. That has come up a lot lately. I don't know if you're following everything out of the U.K. right now with the prime minister putting out the complete opposite manifesto of mine, saying drivers shouldn't be inconvenienced. I think it depends on the person. The bigger problem is that we've designed a system in a way that in many communities, that is the only choice. That's not freedom.
    Veronica Davis

    Governing: Equity is a central theme in this book. You deliberately don’t define it, but you describe it as being about prioritizing the needs and the desires of people who are harmed by the status quo or by previous transportation planning decisions. How have you seen the concept of equity misused or misapplied? 

    Veronica O. Davis: Let me tell you, I have heard it all. I’ve heard it described as, "Because my house is a million dollars, it’s inequitable that I’m paying these high taxes and I’m not getting my equal share of investment." That’s one kind of frame. Regionally, people will say, “Oh, equity is investing in the rural areas.” It’s like, OK, but let’s not forget that in those rural areas there are poor communities and communities of color that are super-super-duper disinvested. I see it stretched in a lot of different ways.
    (Island Press)
    I was very careful not to define it because it is going to look different for every community, depending on what that definition of equity is. But I do talk about prioritization, because if we can say that safety is the most important thing, then the decision becomes very easy for where you prioritize investments, because you know where people are dying. Every community has a high-injury network. If we know where people are dying, we know where we can focus our energy. Everything could be safer, but right now, people are dying in this area.

    Governing: Do you think there’s more focus on leading an equitable engagement process than in achieving an equitable outcome? 

    Veronica O. Davis: I don’t think it’s as simple as that. I think the engagement process and the technical process just don’t really do a good job of informing each other. I’ve seen really great engagement processes that don’t lead to any type of a halfway decent outcome.

    Governing: You write about people who are “silently suffering” — people who are living with the consequences of bad transportation planning decisions, but don’t necessarily show up to meetings or have the biggest organizing apparatus. How have you found ways to either engage those people or at least to make decisions with their needs in mind? 

    Veronica O. Davis: People are just trying to live life. “They’re like I use the bus. It gets me where I need to go. I’ve learned how to adapt around it. It could be better but I don’t have time to tell you how to make it better because I’m just trying to keep food on the table and the lights on.”

    One thing which I mention in the book is having meetings that are convenient to those individuals. When I was working as a consultant in Washington, D.C., we looked at where people were most getting on or off the bus at different times of the day — not just peak hours. We focused on when they weren’t going to work, because if you get someone on the way to work, they’re not going to stop. We set up public meetings in the bus stop so there was no missing us, and we got a really great, representative sample of the broader community that was using the bus stop, compared to if we had a meeting in a typical stale elementary school gym.

    When we worked on the long-range plan for D.C. we actually had a meeting for people who provide services for different populations: immigrants, unhoused populations, low-income families. While we may not be talking to the "silently suffering" directly, we were talking to people who work with those populations day in and day out and learning things. For instance, we learned that many of the unhoused were actually paying more to use public transit because they were using tokens. Each city may have a chronically homeless population, and they seem to be the representation of the unhoused population; there’s many people who are unhoused or housing insecure that are going to work every day. Talking with people who work with that group helps you understand their needs.

    Governing: You’re in Houston, and Texas recently announced that it’s going to spend $100 billion over the next 10 years on widening and rebuilding highways. How does it feel to be trying to push your work forward in a state that is still very focused on personal vehicles? 

    Veronica O. Davis: It’s challenging. But it’s very to easy say, “Oh, Florida’s gonna Florida” or “Texas gonna Texas,” but it is happening across the United States. Even in what one may consider politically blue states — it is happening across the country. Nationally one of the things that we eventually need to wrestle with is how we evaluate what’s a good project.

    The bar for transit investment is significantly higher than the bar for highway investment. If you look at any federal New Starts project, everyone’s looking for a certain level of reliability. You have to hit the metrics around ridership, and you have to have a financial plan. There is so much that goes into making a decision on transit, but we don’t see highways the same way. We don’t say, “What’s your financial plan, highway?” At some point we’re going to have to wrestle with that in future transportation bills and infrastructure bills so that we can get better projects.

    Governing: A lot of people who might be most eager to implement some of the ideas you’re talking about here are people who are probably some of the lowest levels of transportation planning. Do you have any thoughts about how folks with relatively little power can make a difference in these agencies and push for better processes and better outcomes? 

    Veronica O. Davis: Everyone has power. It might be a little power, but it’s still power. It’s everything from how you look at data — a lot of times it’s a junior person crunching the data, but as you’re crunching the data, what are you seeing beyond the basics? How can you push through and actually present to the higher-ups, “Hey, this is what I’m seeing in the data.” And you also must be willing to step up and engage. I’ve had junior staff in different roles that I’ve had say, “Hey, I’d like to go out and walk the corridor and talk to people.” There’s little things you can do even within your small sphere of influence to help change a project.

    When you’re in a government position, whether you are a project manager or a district engineer or head of a department of transportation, you have a level of power. Even if you just change something by a few degrees, over time, you’re going to be further than where you started. Having the boldness and the courage to even make the tiniest change will have an impact over time.
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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