When it comes to talking about equitable transportation, what that really means, and making it a reality - things get complicated pretty quickly. This week a plethora of articles and reports have crossed our path on that topic and it’s gotten us thinking about this knotty issue. One thing that has become clear is that equity is more than theoretical access, access must be comprehensive and functional to be useful and really transform how people get around.
Over the past year, we’ve seen an uptick in talk about expanding transit in Miami as our public officials have recognized that expanding our roads for cars is not the answer to addressing congestion, let alone the livability of neighborhoods in our city. But undoing decades of flawed thinking about transportation and cities takes time and an appreciation for history. Before we can rethink cities in relation to transportation it’s helpful to look at how cities were organized prior to the rise of the automobile. Diane Rehm’s show this week did an excellent job of hosting a complex discussion on transportation, and one of the interviewees, Sam Schwartz, helped frame the discussion by reminding us of how the car rose to prominence and what was lost as public transit infrastructure was eroded.
Schwartz talked about LA’s excellent transit system of streetcars and how streets were filled with people, but that changed as the automobile ascended in prominence. This ascension was aided by the automobile industry buying up street cars and other transit companies so they could shut them down and make way for the car. These shady practices earned companies like General Motors a conviction for conspiracy but the damage was already done - public transit was destroyed in most cities.
Fast-forward to present day and we have a situation where the car is the central form of transportation that we design our cities around. Looking back, we can start to appreciate the forces that helped to create car culture and formulate strategies of phasing our car dominance, so that other modes of transportation can again flourish. Light rail, bus rapid transit, biking, and walking are all modes of transportation that work much better for cities and neighborhoods than solely relying on cars. These modes of getting around can reduce congestion; increase equity, health, and happiness of residents; and better business revenues.
Since expanded thinking about what constitutes transportation is on the rise, it’s important to consider how to make transportation more equitable. Safe Routes to School National Partnership talks about why safe and equitable transportation is especially a priority for low income people and people of color. Their short fact sheet illustrates why this is so important, for example, in low income areas only 49% of roads have sidewalks, while in high income areas 90% have sidewalks. This matters because low income people walking are twice as likely to be killed as those who are high income. When it comes to our transportation infrastructure and design (which includes sidewalks - walking is transportation!), poor or non-existent infrastructure and design literally has a body count in Miami.
Equity in transportation also affects women; a recent article on women only train cars highlights the unique safety issues that women face when in public: assault and harassment by men. Countries as diverse as Brazil, Mexico, and Japan have all tried out women only train cars in an effort to protect women from harassment, abuse, and assault while taking public transportation. In the U.S. at least 65% of women report being harassed on the street, and cities like D.C. and New York have launched campaigns on their public transit aimed at discouraging the harassment and assault of women and encouraging reporting. Addressing women’s safety on the street and on public transit is an essential part of moving toward an equitable system of transportation, whether it be by walking, biking, or taking the bus or train.
Examining our cycling infrastructure is yet another important aspect of expanding equity in transportation, the same fact sheet from Safe School Partnership indicates that in some metropolitan areas, low income cyclists are more likely to sustain injuries when cycling than their richer counterparts. And, in Florida, cycling is particularly dangerous, we rank the highest in the nation for bicycling deaths. With that in mind, new research on cycling signage points the way toward one aspect of safety that can be improved. In a new study published last month in PLOS, researchers found that “share the road signs” were not only ineffective, but confusing and possibly dangerous to cyclists because the message was interpreted differently by drivers and cyclists. Instead, they found that signs saying “bicycles may use full lane” was interpreted more consistently by both motorists and bicyclists. Additionally, that language increased cyclists’ feelings of safety on the road.
From just this short survey of reads from our week, it’s clear that tackling transportation equity comprehensively is a complicated endeavor, and one that must take into consideration many factors. As Miami and other cities move forward, let’s keep those issues at the forefront so that no matter who needs to move about, they can do so safely and have the option they need to get where they are going.
And, finally, here is a tumblr of transit maps from around the world to brighten your long weekend!