The blog of the Urban Institute
August 18, 2020

How Transportation Planners Can Advance Racial Equity and Environmental Justice

August 18, 2020

The Black Lives Matter protests and national uprisings this summer reinforce how anti-Blackness and structural racism are deeply rooted in the foundations of American institutions. Racist outcomes are often reproduced without deliberate intent and beyond traceable decisionmaking, making it difficult to combat these disparities without structural change. Policymakers now have an opportunity to confront the ways racism guided the development of transportation policy (PDF) and combat the racist norms that continue to inform modern transportation planning.

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” mandate that transportation agencies such as metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and state departments of transportation conduct analyses to evaluate whether planned infrastructure will negatively affect low-income communities, communities of color, and other groups the government classifies as “minorities.” These groups are often called “environmental justice communities.” However, history has shown that government regulatory action alone cannot actualize true transportation equity or justice.

Our new brief highlights approaches that transportation agencies are taking to conduct environmental justice analyses and explores their effectiveness.

How does environmental justice relate to transportation planning?

The environmental justice movement seeks to not only protect all people from environmental degradation and toxins but to also provide equal access to environmental benefits across demographic groups. Research shows environmentally hazardous facilities and infrastructure, including highways (PDF), have been intentionally and disproportionately located (PDF) in low-income communities and communities of color, where residents are exposed to elevated levels of air, water, and noise pollution. This results in racial health disparities and economic disinvestment in the surrounding area. It also means that low-income communities and communities of color benefit less from transportation system improvements and, as a result of inequitable planning, have less access to certain destinations and amenities.

But evidence shows that state and municipal transportation planners have fallen short in providing both equitable access to transportation services and equitable protection from the environmental hazards of infrastructure development and toxic facilities. Although the incorporation of environmental justice language into transportation planning documents through Title VI and Exec. Order 12898 is a notable step, this does not equate to making substantive steps toward dismantling structural barriers and racist systems. When agencies use the language of justice movements without taking the critical steps to actualize justice, they often inhibit progressive action by transformative community organizers and planners.

Realizing true environmental justice starts with centering communities and advocates

Recent research suggests that government-centric strategies (such as the MPO environmental justice analyses described in our brief) are necessary within our current system, but these strategies are insufficient in achieving transformational change without a shift in power to communities.  By law, any government agency with a transportation focus must submit a plan to reach out to the community or develop a public participation plan. Though existing MPO community engagement methods often fall short of true engagement, they can improve.

Our research identified three immediate ways that MPOs and other transportation agencies can more deeply involve environmental justice communities in transportation planning:

  1. Connect residents with policymakers. Building off the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act and the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, MPOs are providing more opportunities for residents to speak with policymakers. Transportation 4 America’s guidebook The Innovative MPO: Smart Planning, Strong Communities offers nationwide examples of novel strategies MPOs use to bolster community engagement. In existing planning processes, this could include MPOs meeting residents in their neighborhoods, paying people to participate in engagement, and covering expenses such as transportation to meetings and child care during meetings.
  2. Use local data. Federal requirements and guidance on identifying environmental justice communities—which must be able to be implemented in all locations—rely on national data sources such as the American Community Survey. However, MPOs could consider using local or community-collected data to provide more detailed information on environmental justice communities’ transportation access and barriers. Additionally, community-led data analyses can extract essential findings that would have been overlooked by outside government officials.
  3. Engage community-based organizers. When determining where environmental justice communities are located, most agencies focus on identifying census tracts with high concentrations of people who are low income, people of color, zero-car households, people with disabilities, and people with limited English proficiency. However, relying on this system alone could obscure those who live outside of identified census tracts who still face accessibility challenges or are subject to disparate impacts of particular programs or policies. Engaging community-based organizers who are deeply connected to residents can help transportation agencies better prioritize residents’ needs and more accurately understand the specific transportation inequities they face.

Though these recommendations are a good starting point, transformative action in transportation planning will require sustained, critical reflection from MPOs and other transportation agencies. The shifts of power and influence to community-based organizations, environmental justice activists, and residents is essential to realizing tangible progress on environmental justice goals. Further, analyses of how government agencies themselves play a role in perpetuating inequity can guide intentional shifts toward community power.

Reframing transportation planning to be an explicitly antiracist, equity-focused (and with greater structural shifts, justice-focused) pursuit can help drive change toward meaningful public involvement and foster the development of a shared equitable transportation agenda across diverse stakeholders.

Jason Moreno, 16, of Boston, chants through a megaphone during a rally held before an Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority board meeting to call for a reduced fare for low-income riders in Boston on July 22, 2019. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

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