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2021, Jun. 17

Disseminate Tools to Update Transit, Driving Access to Opportunity

At Kaiju, we believe in the process of sharing -- disseminating -- actionable tactics and tools that boost economic and social prosperity. Here we explore grassroots and institutional efforts to foster more opportunities for historically under-resourced communities to foster sustainable growth, resiliency, and prosperous futures.

In the past century, America has not always lived up to the promise of widespread shared prosperity through mass transportation.

Since at least the 1950s, business leaders and elected officials in towns and cities nationwide have prioritized projects designed to speed transportation, and streamline travel for consumers and commerce.

Consider two significant 20th Century moments that transformed the nation’s thoroughfares from a patchwork of agrarian-era byways to a superhighway system accommodating millions of fuel-spitting cars and trucks:

  • 1956: Congress passes the Federal Highway Act, a $25 billion plan for 41,000 miles of the Interstate Highway System. At the time, it was the largest public works project ever undertaken.
  • 1969: The majority of America’s continental regions are connected by massive ribbons of concrete interstate highways (though some projects continued through the 1980s, and maintenance projects have been a continual coast-to-coast feature ever since).

Thousands of communities experienced downsides from the rapid transition to freeways and interstates. Until recently, their stories were usually omitted from the Federal Highway Act’s “success story”.

From University of Vermont’s Landscape Change Program:

Over time, Interstate Highways have become connectors of suburbs … and rural small towns. Wherever they may be, highway travelers are isolated from local landscapes and cultures on many Interstate Highways, even the services motorists need are provided only at limited access service areas.

The isolation referenced by University of Vermont researchers was most acutely experienced in urban environments, with working-class and low-income communities effectively cut off from downtown commercial districts by massive freeway projects.

As David Leonhardt of The New York Times explained:

Even as the nation’s new highway system was fueling the long post-World War II economic boom, it was doing so at the expense of downtown communities. Those neighborhoods were disproportionately Black, and many have never recovered.

By the mid-2000s, scientists identified fossil-fuel-dependent vehicles as a major contributor to climate change. States began rethinking transportation’s future, and sustainability activists recognized an opportunity to leverage coming changes, a window of opportunity to formulate innovative solutions for historically underserved communities.

Community Activists Identify The Problem: Collaborative Solutions Take Shape

Community activists and stakeholders have begun to seize economic opportunities, proposing projects that would benefit community members in multiple ways. For example, health outcomes could be improved by transportation updates that make essential services easier to access. These efforts are gathering steam in many American cities.

President Joe Biden says he intends to increase infrastructure funding and planning programs, prioritizing transportation projects that address the needs of underserved communities.

One such example is unfolding in San Francisco, where a coalition of community organizations, local elected officials, and business leaders are finding common ground in the effort to make transportation more equitable.

The San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority’s public blog regularly updates residents on the cross-sector collaboration and community involvement that informs its budget, planning, and service-delivery decisions. Specifically, the city and civic organizations are prioritizing plans that ensure inclusion of the historically Black Bayview neighborhood, an area isolated by Interstate highway construction in the 1960s:

The SFMTA is committed to delivering real projects in the Bayview that directly address the needs and desires of residents. That's why we've already committed $3.61 million towards building out the plan's highest recommendations….The community will get to decide how to spend this $600,000 grant through Participatory Budgeting: a democratic process where residents come to together to form ideas, develop them into real projects, and vote on where the money will go. All residents of the Bayview, past and present, are eligible to participate in this process. We will offer opportunities for folks to get involved both online and at our outreach events in the Bayview….

The SFMTA disseminates critical information via social media and gathers community input using surveys. This is designed to shape needs-assessment phases of its equity-based transportation project planning:

Community-defined Equity Index: To help represent those we couldn’t reach, we developed an Equity Index – a map showing the concentration of vulnerable residents across the Bayview that could be used to prioritize projects.

This is one of many similar efforts underway in U.S. cities.

We anticipate an acceleration of these efforts, including eventual tie-ins to economic development projects that welcome socially-responsible private investment. By disseminating timely, actionable information about these efforts to create better outcomes for working- and middle-class residents, the whole of our shared environment will improve.

Photo by Michael Jin on Unsplash

Amy Alexander's reporting and commentary on demographics, cultural politics, and the innovation economy has been published in The Atlantic, The New York Times, NPR, and other outlets. She lives in Montgomery County, Maryland.

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