Moving Toward Transportation Justice
Published: January 19, 2023
Researchers from the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living recently published a case study on the City of Austin’s process of dividing and prioritizing $27.5 million dollars for Safe Routes to School (SRTS) improvements from the 2016 Mobility Bond. To the authors’ knowledge, this was the largest amount of money allocated to SRTS improvements within one municipality to date. Council members chose to split the money equally across city council districts, so that improvements could be implemented across the city; however, data show that there might have been a better way to distribute the funds to more adequately address areas with greater need.
To prioritize funding within the council districts, the contracted engineering firm worked with the city’s SRTS department, and developed a scoring system which incorporated equity as one of the components for prioritization of the projects for the SRTS funding. The SRTS funding was also leveraged to further extend the reach of projects by coordinating with other programs (e.g. sidewalks, sidewalks rehab, bikeways, signals, etc.) and departments (e.g. Austin Transportation Department and Parks and Recreation Department) and city council offices (dedicated funding for infrastructure), as well as school districts. Despite these efforts, the allocation of funds was not equitable – council districts varied widely in the number of schools within them and schools with the most documented need tended to be located in council districts with high rates of poverty. Thus, it can be difficult to achieve transportation justice in communities where historical differences in equity already existed.
What's the difference: Equal versus Equitable?
To obtain transportation justice, it is crucial to understand the impact of the difference between equal and equitable, especially when it comes to resource allocation and community investment, or disinvestment in underserved communities.
Many are familiar with the meme of three people trying to see a baseball game over a fence, illustrating the difference between equality and equity (with some versions of the meme including reality and liberation / justice). Now, imagine what this would mean in real life and in a neighborhood. It’s the difference between having sidewalks or your kids walking in the middle of the street. Poorer quality infrastructure (lack of sidewalks, etc.) contributes to higher pedestrian fatality rates, which is also more common in lower income and minority communities (Handy, 2009).
Disinvestment and neglect have resulted in inequitably allocated infrastructure (sidewalks, crosswalks) for poor and minority groups. Although on the surface, it appears that the city council’s decision to allocate funds from the 2016 Mobility Bond equally across districts is fair, when the data are more closely examined, inequities in the funding distribution, such as the number of schools per district or the assessed needs of those schools, were not addressed.
Moving Toward Transportation Justice
In 2021, President Biden’s executive order 13,985 set a priority for infrastructure development in communities with the highest need. Later that year, the American Society of Civil Engineers launched a series on “Equity and Infrastructure,” highlighting the importance of this topic, especially for communities of color.
The city of Austin did recognize some of the problems with the first distribution of funds, and followed up with an effort to reach active transportation equity. In 2020, citizens of Austin passed a second Mobility Bond, which will add an additional $20 million for high priority Safe Routes to School projects. This time, the funding is not dependent on an equal allocation among the city council districts, but rather is targeted to those schools and areas of the city most in need. Other progress towards transportation equity in Austin includes the council’s approval of an Equitable Transit Resolution on June 10, 2021 (City of Austin, 2021b).