What does it mean to live in a neighborhood where you can walk or bike to work, a friend’s house, or the grocery store?
It is not solely about infrastructure, like having decent sidewalks. It’s also about whether you feel comfortable enough to travel on foot. Not everyone has that luxury in the US: research shows that neighborhoods where families of color predominate are less walkable because of higher speed limits, fewer street lights, and more police stops.
My Urban Institute colleagues examine this expanded and more accurate idea of “walkability” in a new tool that emphasizes equity and considers how these factors and more affect people’s transportation options in Urban’s home city, Washington, DC.
Urban is applying this more holistic, equity-centric approach in our analyses of transportation policies and practices. We are analyzing how transportation challenges across the country interact with land-use regulations and access to affordable housing—all essential aspects of how cities look, where people live, and what residents experience.
Ultimately, we aim to equip policymakers and advocates with the information they need to address these interconnected issues simultaneously as they seek to create more equitable, resilient communities.
This growing body of work is housed primarily in our Land Use Lab at Urban, which is led by Research Director Yonah Freemark and sits in our Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. Yonah and his colleagues—Senior Fellow Solomon Greene, Research Associate Lydia Lo, Principal Research Associate Christina Stacy, and Associate Director of Data Science Alena Stern, among others—are pursuing questions and offering policy solutions at the intersection of land use, housing, transportation, and the environment.
For example, they have examined the following:
- shortcomings in federal transportation policy and strategies to improve it
- what rising gas and rent prices mean for families with low incomes
- the relationship between land use and greenhouse gas emissions
- local land-use regulations and how they advance affordability and equity
- how better bicycling infrastructure can help advance more sustainable, equitable transportation
- how to align federal transportation and land-use investments to create more equitable communities
- what transit agencies can do to provide equitable access to mobility, after the COVID-19 pandemic
Unequal transportation experiences
When you grow up in New York City, as I did, you experience the benefits of walkability. I was raised in the Upper West Side Urban Renewal District, in housing built for moderate-income families alongside public housing. The neighborhood in those days was majority Black and Latinx. And from an early age, with bus and subway passes provided to each student, every corner of the city was reachable. Libraries, internships, extracurricular activities, friends’ houses, and parties I was too young for—I found my way to them all.
But New York’s unique geography and infrastructure are not the norm where many young people live. The too-frequent lack of true “walkability” in Black and Brown neighborhoods is no accident.
We know that historically, federally funded interstate highway construction tore through Black communities, displacing families and upending businesses. And many of those communities never recovered. Too often, our public transit systems serve the well-heeled, highly educated, white residents far better than communities of color.
As a result, Black and Brown residents of many cities face greater barriers trying to access employment, public services, affordable housing, and amenities that support health and well-being, like parks.
A key moment for addressing transportation equity
The good news is that more and more Americans are aware of, and acknowledge, the historically racist nature of US transportation and land-use systems. Some cities, like Houston and Louisville, and states like Maine have amended their land-use regulations to advance housing affordability. These changes will make it more feasible to build affordable housing in the neighborhoods where people most want to live.
Meanwhile, last year, Congress approved an unprecedented $550 billion investment over five years in the nation’s transportation infrastructure along with hundreds of billions more in funding for an improved energy grid and the replacement of lead pipes. We have an enormous opportunity to use these dollars to advance equity and begin to repair systems that have too long reinforced injustice.
The Land Use Lab at Urban takes a cross-sector approach that holds great promise for helping policymakers, practitioners, and urban planners reimagine how communities are laid out, how residents move through them, and how to achieve racial equity through fair housing and land use.
In the coming months, the Land Use Lab team will be working with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on new research investigating the land-use impacts of autonomous vehicles; forecasting how zoning changes in the Seattle and Washington, DC, regions could produce additional housing supply in expensive markets; and convening policymakers to discuss how to leverage transportation investments to support well-located affordable housing.
We would welcome your ideas for how this intersectional approach can support more equitable communities and better outcomes for their residents.