An equity lens helps planners and designers see the needs of every person potentially served or impacted by every transportation decision. It’s best applied when project needs are identified, then carried into design when solutions are refined and tested.

Many of today’s transportation systems were built with an emphasis on a single purpose and limited range of users. The equity lens recognizes the full array of people present in different places – for example, not just individuals who own or operate a motorized vehicle.

Before we go any further, let’s define accessibility in this context, and the difference between equality and equity:

  • Accessibility: An individual’s ability to reach life’s broad and diverse places of daily work, play, friends, family, goods and services.
  • Equality: An even or equal distribution of resources.
  • Equity: Adjusts the level and type of resources so that solutions vary and are appropriate to the groups’ unique needs and preferences.
  • Transportation Equity: Accessible and affordable transportation for everyone in the community resulting in fair distribution of transportation resources, benefits, costs, programs and services based upon differences in income, ability and other factors affecting transportation choice and impact.

The equity lens enables transportation planners and designers to enhance city accessibility for everyone, including: seniors, people with disabilities and low income, people of color, and individuals living in underserved areas. Increasing accessibility and right-sizing resources has ripple effects throughout a community. It improves dignity in the transit-user experience, reduces pedestrian and bicyclist injuries and fatalities, and encourages healthier lifestyles.

Complete Streets Promote Accessibility for Underserved Neighborhoods and Aging Adults

According to research reported by the National Complete Streets Coalition, low-income neighborhoods are at increased danger for pedestrian injuries and fatalities. In areas where over 20 percent of households are below the federal poverty line, the pedestrian death rate is more than 80 percent higher than the U.S. average. Broken sidewalks, greater speed limits, and poor or nonexistent lighting are some risk factors, but the heart of the problem is systemic.

Historically, “redlined” neighborhoods were denied financial access and other wealth and community-building services. These areas continue to be affected by a lack of resources including disinvestments, inequitable roadway design and fewer transportation options. Many of these places have become divided by high-speed and high-volume streets, such as freeways, or arterials, making it difficult, time-consuming and dangerous for people to reach basic needs.

Continued underinvestment in infrastructure such as stop signs, crosswalks, traffic signals, roadway resurfacing and pedestrian amenities, compounds the adverse effects of inequitable street design in underserved communities.

Until people living in historically disadvantaged areas receive transportation attention including mitigation of previous impacts and increased investment, their ability to fully contribute to society, personal goals, and their family’s well-being will remain limited.

Incomplete streets threaten older adults of all income levels. According to the American Association of Retired People (AARP), pedestrians over 65 are 51 percent more likely to be struck and killed while walking, compared with younger people. Furthermore, the number of senior deaths increased 27 percent between 2007 and 2016 while other traffic-related fatalities declined.

Smart street design addresses accessible travel options for people with disabilities. Even if handicapped individuals live within blocks of a bus stop, they often can’t reach public transit resources because paths lack curb ramps and routes are unlit. Providing disabled groups with greater connection to communal spaces and transportation opportunities allows them to meet their daily needs and lets them participate in their neighborhoods independently. It also improves their basic quality of life and mental well-being by making it easier for them to engage in social and physical activities.

The right transportation design can help protect and make communities more accessible for aging adults at all physical abilities. Accessibility-based planning recognizes the role active and public transit has in an efficient and equitable transportation system. More so, it evaluates how these networks work for all residents and considers key destinations and routes people use, and barriers they have to make travel comfortable and safe. Some examples of equitable transportation design include the following:

  • Extending signal timing at crosswalks to provide slower pedestrians time to cross
  • Installing audible pedestrian signals to notify people with vision impairments when it’s safe to cross
  • Installing medians to enable people to cross one direction of traffic at a time and provide a safe place for people to wait
  • Creating and repairing sidewalks to provide a smooth and continuous surface for people to walk or use mobility assistive devices
  • Increasing the number of connections and safe crossing places to reduce barriers and circuitous routes
Accessible Ramp at Public Transit Stop

The High Cost of Automobile Dependence

Transportation infrastructure in most areas is automobile-centric, even though one-third of Americans don’t drive. Wide intersections designed around cars fail to create safe crossing conditions for mobility or vision impaired individuals. Many seniors, people with disabilities, and those who don’t own an automobile are forced to walk and bike on streets made to favor private vehicles.

Transportation design and urban planning that perpetuates automobile dependence reinforces the roadblocks of inequality and threatens community health. Sustainable development must consider every person in its design along with taking an outcome-based and complete network approach to each project.

Improved transportation access allows families to save money and lead healthier lives. Low-income households spend (on average) 42 percent of their compensation on transportation compared to the middle-class, whose expense averages 22 percent. By designing active transportation options in these areas, urban planners provide low-earning individuals better connections to jobs, give citywide access to handicapped people, and promote carless commutes by adding protected bike lanes and safer sidewalks.

Steps to Improve Transportation Equity

Equity should be at the forefront of any project, from the initial planning phase to implementation. It always starts by considering the needs of all community members – all ages, abilities, races, cultures and classes. Communal needs should drive planning ideas, design, and solutions. This means accounting for the location and types of changes transportation investments can potentially affect land use, economic activity, and public life.

Kittelson’s project prioritization frameworks incorporate equity and community involvement at the outset. A project we’re currently working on, the Berkeley Pedestrian Master Plan, has a stated goal to “achieve equity and extend transportation choices to all.” The objective is supported by a tailored public engagement plan with online, in-person, and targeted outreach using translation/interpretation tools to communicate with multiple and diverse groups of people. This multifaceted and inclusive approach gives a voice to those who’ve historically been left out of these conversations. It provides them a say in decisions that directly affect their lives.

Along with identifying the right needs to inform the specific approach for each community, it’s also important to provide resources citywide. Bike share and scooter programs must be broadly available, and not exclusive to ‘safe’ or profitable areas. Operators can increase ridership in underserved neighborhoods by offering different types of memberships for low-income and unbanked residents.

Equitable transportation solutions are those that are inclusive and consider all people as owners, planners, and decision-makers. They acknowledge and account for past and current inequities, and provide everyone with the infrastructure needed to succeed and thrive.

Ultimately, equity in transportation is not simply a concept to be emphasized. It should be the basis on which all work is done. The equity and empowerment lens is a transformative tool. Using it improves planning, decision-making, and resource allocation, resulting in more equitable policies, programs, and environments for everyone.

There’s a lot more to talk about around transportation equity and accessibility. Contact us to take a deeper dive into this topic, and to discuss your community’s needs.