How Equity Can Help Integrate Transportation Systems

Transportation officials, at both the federal and state level, believe equity initiatives in the transportation sector are a way to not only improve access and opportunity for all communities but also address wrongs created by infrastructure projects in the past.

[Above photo by AASHTO]

That’s the general view shared during a “knowledge session” sponsored by engineering firm HNTB and held at the 2022 spring meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in New Orleans in May.

Diana Mendes, HNTB’s corporate president of infrastructure and mobility equity at engineering firm HNTB, served as the moderator of that knowledge session, which featured federal, state, and local transportation executives.

Photo by AASHTO

“Another [equity] theme is that it’s everybody’s job,” Mendes said. “Everyone has a role to play. It is not ‘stove-piped’ in some department that takes care of equity considerations. It is an organizational wide cultural commitment. And that sometimes might require organizational changes and rethinking the actual structure of one’s institution.”

She added that it is important to differentiate between “intentions and symbolic efforts” against actual outcomes. “It’s not enough to ‘intend’ to make a difference. You actually have to be thoughtful and intentional about measuring what it is that you define as success,” Mendes pointed out. “And that success comes through collaboration with partners and communities.”

Stephanie Pollack, deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, added that such “collaboration” is crucial to extracting the maximum value of equity in the transportation space.

FHWA’s POllack at right in photo, with WSDOT’s Millar at left. Photo by AASHTO.

“We all know that at its best transportation can be a powerful engine of opportunity, connecting people to jobs, education, and resources, whether they live in a big city or a rural community, or anywhere in between ensuring equity and accessibility for every member of the traveling public,” she said.

“But as we continue to advance the work of equity and opportunity, we also have to recognize that past federal transportation investments have too often failed to address inequities or in some cases even made them worse,” Pollack stressed. “And because of a piece of physical infrastructure built decades ago, many families and communities today are contending with the results of discriminatory choices that may date back generations. As I used to tell my folks in Massachusetts [Department of Transportation, where Pollack served as secretary] our infrastructure is someone’s neighbor and it is often not a very good neighbor.”

That is why Roger Millar, secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation and AASHTO’s 2021-2022 vice president, insisted it is the job of “every person” at a state DOT to make “justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion” happen.

“We are in a position to maybe make a difference,” he said. “That’s what we focus on. And that’s why everyone at the agency [WSDOT] gets training in equity,” Millar said.

Toks Omishakin at podium. Photo by AASHTO.

However, Toks Omishakin – secretary of the California State Transportation Agency – argued that, “we will achieve equity when everyone has access to what they need to” and that starts with “the most vulnerable, regardless of their race, socioeconomic status, their identity, where they live, how they travel.”

Achieving that goal means putting the data transportation agencies collect to work in different ways, he stressed.

“We are working through the process of creating what’s called an equity index to help us with better decision making in transportation,” Omishakin explained. “We are using socio-economic data, access data, and environmental data to come up with a ‘heat map,’ if you will, of where we have challenges as it relates to transportation decisions in the government space and in our state. Again, that helps us make more informed and better decisions – and we are using data to drive such decision-making within our department.”

Terry Slaughter – the chief culture, equity, and inclusion officer for the Michigan Department of Transportation – emphasized that such “decision-making” must lead to “systemic change” in transportation strategy, especially for state DOTs.

“Our first deep dive was around our strategic plan, which had not been updated since 2015,” she said. “So here we had to create an opportunity for equity and inclusion and diversity to be a critical pillar of how we do our work. We knew that in order to move forward, we had to develop new partnerships and engage with stakeholders in ways that we had not done before.”

Slaughter noted that included “broadening our thinking about who we’re engaging with and really being able to listen to communities. We also had to really think about data in terms of what data matters, what data labels we’re using, and what assumptions are within our data.”

Finally, she said incorporating equity and inclusion within transportation strategy planning also requires “slowing down our instincts, especially our ‘futurist instincts.’”

That is because it is critical to analyze whether new technologies and innovations – such as connected and automated vehicles or drones – could unintentionally “re-introduce some of our old inequities.”

Adelee Le Gran – CEO of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority in Tampa, FL – built on that theme by discussing the “equity component” within the public transportation sector.

“We are primarily a bus transit organization and, no surprise, buses run on roads,” she said. “As we do not own the roads, we need to be able to partner closely with those who do own the road system, like the Florida DOT. Therefore, it really becomes a conversation about how we leverage the dollars to create a multimodal inclusive approach to funding in those [road] corridors. We really need to look at those [road] investments through a lens of how we are connecting to people and getting people where they need to go, especially if the mode they’re going to use is transit.”

Le Gran said her agency’s challenge is getting other people to recognize the needs of communities relying on transit and having those communities “saying very loud and very clearly” what they need in order to access opportunities that allow them to thrive and to travel to visit other communities.

“What we’re saying is that we need to create an environment where transit is a viable option – and it needs to be a viable option for those who choose to drive as well as those who cannot drive or choose not to drive,” she said. “That is why we have to do a better job of communicating those transit needs and why it is important for us to look at all modes of transportation to satisfy those needs.”

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