Angela Glover Blackwell and Anita Cozart: How Smart, Targeted Infrastructure Investment Can Pave the Way for an Equitable Nation

January 23, 2018

As America considers how to repair and replace crumbling roads, aging water systems, outdated utility systems, and other infrastructure, the nation has an opportunity to dismantle the structures of racism and build a more just and inclusive society. Investments should create conditions that allow everyone to contribute and succeed, particularly those who have been blocked from opportunity by racial inequities in infrastructure policy and practice. Equity—just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential—must be the overarching consideration in determining what to fund and how to leverage billions of dollars in investments to deliver jobs and other benefits where they are needed most.

Many people understand that infrastructure shapes communities and powers the economy. But the impact of infrastructure runs deeper. It influences who can participate in society, who gets left behind, and whose children are most likely to advance. Harvard University researchers have found that commute times, a proxy for access to reliable, affordable transportation, are strongly correlated with a person’s chances of moving from the bottom to the top of the economic ladder (Chetty and Hendren 2015). Infrastructure inequities thwart opportunity for millions of Americans, nowhere more than in low-income communities of color.

This essay presents key principles to reverse these inequities and forge a new vision of infrastructure as the foundation of an inclusive society. We also outline how policymakers and communities can incorporate these principles into policies and investment strategies, taking lessons learned from cities leading the way in creating more equitable infrastructure systems. Their examples demonstrate that although the work is hard, the basic formula is simple. Investments must target and benefit the most vulnerable people and places, especially those harmed by the long history of inequitable and racist policies. 

Infrastructure equity is not a zero-sum proposition that forces policymakers to pit one individual, group, or community against another. Rather, it is the road to a stronger economy and more robust democracy, paved by the skills and talents of all. 

The Roots of Infrastructure Inequity

Racism shaped infrastructure policy and cemented inequities in employment, education, housing, and other essentials for success, with national economic and moral consequences. Transportation, an important element of infrastructure, provides an illuminating example.

In its 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court upheld a Louisiana law that required rail passengers to be separated according to race. This initiated the hateful “separate but equal” doctrine, which was used to justify and compel segregation in public transportation, schools, parks, and other infrastructure.1 The law began to shift in 1946, when the Supreme Court declared segregated interstate transportation unconstitutional in Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia. Ten years later, in Browder v. Gayle, the court found separate seating on city buses unconstitutional. Americans were beginning to realize that it was costly as well. The year Browder was filed, African American residents in Montgomery, Alabama, started a boycott of segregated buses. Over 381 days, it drained over $1.1 million from the city.2

While legal doctrine inched toward desegregating infrastructure, federal policy reinforced racial and economic divides. In 1956, the nation saw one of the most significant infrastructure investments in history when President Eisenhower established the US Department of Transportation and allocated nearly $200 billion (in 2017 dollars) to build 41,000 miles of roads and highways. As documented in Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, investments prioritized white families and suburban communities rich with jobs, good schools, playgrounds, and other resources, while leaving black inner-city families mired in poverty and disconnected from opportunity (Rothstein 2017).

Because communities of color had little political power and were regarded as having no cultural or economic value, homes and businesses were often demolished to make room for highways. By some estimates, infrastructure investment from the 1950s to the 1970s displaced 475,000 families, leading to losses of wealth, community cohesion, and cultural vibrancy.3 Communities of color paid a disproportionately high price for the nation’s modern transportation system, only to be denied the advantages it was supposed to deliver: easy, convenient mobility and access to opportunity.

The inequities continue to take a toll:

  • The pedestrian fatality rate among African Americans is 60 percent higher than among whites. It is 43 percent higher for Latinos than for whites (Smart Growth America 2017).
  • People of color are two to three times more likely than whites to rely on public transportation for their work commutes.4 African Americans who use buses and trains to get to work spend 36 minutes more per week traveling there and back.5
  • Households in the bottom 90 percent income bracket spend two times the amount on transportation that households in the top 10 percent income bracket spend each year.

Infrastructure, of course, is more than transportation. It includes clean and affordable energy, telecommunications, clean water, parks, schools, libraries, community facilities, centers, child care centers, and affordable housing. Inequitable investment patterns are evident in all these systems, resulting in significant impacts:

  • Fifty-six percent of residents living near a hazardous waste facility are people of color (Bullard et al. 2007).
    • People of color are twice as likely as whites to live in households without access to drinking water.6
    • The lowest 20 percent of earners pay one-fifth of their monthly income for water (Jones and Moulton 2016).

Low-income communities and communities of color are not the only ones hurt by such inequities. Everyone loses in a nation that restricts the circle of opportunity and marginalizes a large swath of the population. The International Monetary Fund has reported that when inequality is high, economic growth stagnates or declines (Dabla-Norris et al. 2015). The reverse is true as well: equity strengthens the economy.7

By putting equity at the center of infrastructure decisions, policymakers can leverage some of the biggest investments the government makes to build more inclusive and prosperous neighborhoods, cities, and regions.

These principles can be the guideposts for forging policy and investment priorities:8

  • Go beyond roads and bridges. An infrastructure system that serves 21st-century needs cannot focus only on roadways and bridges. It must include access to high-quality transit; safe, reliable, and clean affordable energy; telecommunications; clean water; parks and open space; high-quality schools, libraries, community facilities, and child care; and decent affordable housing connected to opportunity.
  • Ensure decisionmaking is transparent and guided by community needs and voices. Infrastructure decisions are far too important, impactful, and long lasting to rest solely with engineers or public officials. Local leaders from disinvested communities should have a role in establishing policy, investment priorities, and implementation practices.
  • Maintain public control over infrastructure. Infrastructure should be maintained as a public asset. Control and operations must be subject to public management and oversight. Moreover, infrastructure investments should be designed, funded, and managed in the public’s interest. Safety and environmental protections should be upheld and strengthened.

Policymakers and communities can take the following steps to operationalize these principles and make equity a prime criterion for determining what projects to fund and how to leverage the investments to expand opportunity and strengthen local economies.

  • Target investments to communities with the greatest need. Despite the potential of infrastructure investment to bring benefits, low-income communities and people of color have not received the benefits of those investments in terms of physical connectivity, employment, and wealth-building opportunities. Future investments should be directed to communities that have been left behind.
  • Leverage infrastructure benefits for high-quality jobs, equity, and justice. Policymakers should embed into infrastructure proposals provisions for inclusive job creation. These include apprenticeship opportunities, targeted hiring policies, disadvantaged business utilization, and high-quality jobs. These proven strategies have fulfilled the promise to improve quality of life, particularly for workers who have been underrepresented in the infrastructure sector. In addition, policymakers should prioritize infrastructure projects that advance such objectives as health, climate justice, and resiliency.
  • Establish and track equity-focused performance indicators for infrastructure projects. Policymakers should use smart performance indicators to achieve benefits for all. In Cleveland, for example, policymakers attached to the implementation of a bus rapid transit line a performance focus on shortening commute times along a corridor where most transit riders are people of color and historically had longer commute times. The emphasis on indicators resulted not only in faster commutes, but better overall economic performance in the corridor. (More details on this project below.)

Cities around the country are putting equity principles into practice, simultaneously upgrading critical infrastructure, creating opportunity in low-income communities and communities of color, and removing barriers to employment. New Orleans is leveraging transportation investments for equitable economic growth. In 2011, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority set a goal of spending 30 percent of its annual contracting dollars with businesses that have historically been shut out of city contracting opportunities (known as disadvantaged business enterprises, or DBEs). The agency eliminated waivers that had previously allowed contractors to avoid partnering with DBEs. The agency also held itself accountable for reaching these goals by evaluating and reporting on progress.

These actions required the transit agency to disaggregate data by race to analyze the effectiveness of economic inclusion efforts. Because of these initiatives, the agency increased the contracting dollars awarded to DBEs from 11 percent in 2009 to 37 percent by 2014.9

Another example comes from Cleveland, where leaders recognized that reliable, affordable public transit needed to be a key component of a strategy to revitalize downtown and University Circle. Through a partnership that included city and state officials and major employers (i.e., universities and hospitals), the HealthLine bus rapid transit system is anchoring reinvestment and new economic activity along the city’s historic corridor. Moreover, it is improving the connection between the high-unemployment, predominantly African American city of East Cleveland and the two largest job centers in Cleveland. Since it began in 2008, the HealthLine has provided service at a rate one-third faster than the previous transportation link in this community, while yielding a return on investment of $114 for every dollar it cost to build. 

In Oakland, California, redevelopment of the Oakland Army Base, which includes significant infrastructure improvements, represented a major opportunity to leverage an $800 million public-private venture to provide benefits to all people, particularly workers of color. Because of local organizing efforts, the city adopted a policy that ensured that half the work hours on the project went to local residents.10 Furthermore, 10 percent of the work hours have gone to apprenticeships for local veterans, people with conviction records, the long-term unemployed, and others facing barriers to employment. The training is good for the army base redevelopment, sets up these workers for lifelong careers in the construction industry, and helps the city fill its workforce pipeline.

As federal and local leaders ramp up conversations about how to meet future infrastructure needs, policymakers have an opportunity to leverage billions of dollars in investment to advance equity and produce stronger economic outcomes for all. Guided by principles of equity and lessons from innovative initiatives on the ground, America can break down the barriers created by inequitable policies and systems and build infrastructure that works for everyone.


  1. The Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education found that the “separate but equal” doctrine never rendered equal quality of facilities. See Lily Rothman, “The Long Death of the ‘Separate but Equal’ Doctrine,” Time, May 18, 2016.
  2. Ala. Bus Boycott Costs $3,000 Daily,AFRO, December 13, 1955.
  3. Alan Pyke, “Top Infrastructure Official Explains How America Used Highways to Destroy Black Neighborhoods,” ThinkProgress, March 31, 2016.
  4. Monica Anderson, “Who Relies on Public Transit in the US,” Pew Research Center, April 7, 2016.
  5. Analysis from the National Equity Atlas, a project of PolicyLink and the University of Southern California Program on Environmental and Regional Equity. See
  6. Bryce Covert, “Race Best Predicts Whether You Live Near Pollution,” The Nation, February 18, 2016.
  7. Angela Glover Blackwell, “The Curb Cut Effect,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2017.
  8. These principles are consistent with those of the Our Neighborhoods, Our Future Coalition, of which PolicyLink is a member.
  9. A resource that communities can use to disaggregate data, as New Orleans did, is the National Equity Atlas, hosted by PolicyLink and the Program on Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California.
  10. Good Jobs,” East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, accessed December 11, 2017.


Bullard, Robert D., Paul Mohai, Robin Saha, and Beverly Wright. 2007. Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987–2007. Cleveland: United Church of Christ.

Chetty, Raj, and Nathaniel Hendren. 2015. The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility: Childhood Exposure Effects and County-Level Estimates. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Dabla-Norris, Era, Kalpana Kochhar, Nujin Suphaphiphat, Frantisek Ricka, and Evridiki Tsounta. 2015. Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective. Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund.

Jones, Patricia A., and Amber Moulton. 2016. The Invisible Crisis: Water Unaffordability in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

Rothstein, Richard. 2017. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Smart Growth America. 2017. Dangerous by Design 2016. Washington, DC: Smart Growth America.