3 Ways Transportation Planners Can Advance Equity Through More Intentional Research

Here’s how adopting a new project-level planning perspective can support equity

Alexander Levin

This image shows three people wearing masks while seated at an outdoors bus station during the day. Behind them is a map displaying the bus route.

The transportation planning profession is in the grips of reckoning with its troubled history. This history includes discriminatory highway construction and racist urban renewal projects. Many of these projects have disproportionately harmed Black people and communities of color. This not only devastated historically vibrant neighborhoods but also left a lasting legacy of health and economic impacts. The pandemic has exacerbated these issues and brought them to the forefront of public consciousness. Questions have arisen around the scope of “essential worker,” access to broadband, and the impact these issues have on transportation choices and needs.

In response to the growing consensus that something must change, the US Department of Transportation has solicited public input on how its agencies could improve equitable transportation outcomes. They received hundreds of comments and plan to publish a summary of their findings by September 2021. Many officials at the state and local levels have already made public statements or moved to incorporate equity into their project selection process to build back trust.

It is clear transportation planners have an opportunity and a responsibility to do better. This work starts by reframing how we think about equity on a project-level basis. To that end, RSG is working on a study in Central Vermont that involves designing an innovative and cutting-edge transportation system that works for rural and often lower-income households. The study is assessing implementing subsidized on-demand microtransit, ride-hailing, and carsharing services to elevate households out of poverty and provide them with tailored mobility options to meet their daily needs.

Projects like this are reframing equity analysis. Rather than a narrow assessment of impacts, it is about understanding the systemic impediments to equitable outcomes. Our work has revealed three strategies transportation researchers and planners can adopt to advance equity on a project-level basis.

Shift from a “mobility” to an “access” mindset (and tools)

Mobility is the movement of people or goods. It makes for an easy, intuitive framework to study transportation. However, mobility is just a way of organizing the “means to an end” for access. Access is the ability to reach desired goods, services, activities, and destinations. If we cement the goal of access at the heart of transportation research and planning, we will improve outcomes toward this goal. This helps us better understand impediments and possibilities and account for asymmetries that shifts in opportunity and behavior like telework create and exacerbate.

In our Central Vermont work, we asked respondents about how current transportation options met their needs for different trip purposes. We did this because new transportation options only matter in service of meeting people’s ultimate access needs. Understanding how current infrastructure fails to meet needs is critical to making sound, efficacious planning decisions.

Embed equity into new and existing surveys

Researchers often rely on what has already been done. While often prudent, current practices are sometimes rooted in past discrimination or neglect. So, in some cases, this practice can hinder needed change. Positioning transportation surveys to better embody and assess equity and access issues requires a deliberate, intentional shift in thinking. Skilled questionnaire developers (like those employed at RSG) can identify where subtle changes, major overhauls, or a completely new survey format may best meet the equity objectives of the study.

In our Central Vermont work, we created a new survey asking residents about transportation options, choices, and impediments. Through an intentional equity lens, informed by team expertise and stakeholder engagement, we developed a questionnaire responsive to issues for marginalized populations in the region’s transportation system. In this study area this included BIPOC, rural, low-income, older, and single-parent respondents as well as those working nontraditional schedules.

Find better ways to listen to marginalized voices

Standard sampling methods include address-based sampling, panels, marketing email lists, and random digit dialing. While long relied on in surveying, they have demonstrated diminishing efficacy. As a result, survey projects often experience difficulty reaching certain communities of concern, including low-income and BIPOC residents. The solution is to meet people where they are.

Strategies to address this could include more deliberate and targeted intercept surveying where marginalized populations live and work. In addition, focus groups could also be aimed at these segments. Good research does not always require talking to large numbers of people (or spending big to do so). Sometimes providing a voice to a small group of key stakeholders is just as important. In other cases, the solution could include using innovative tools and technologies like RSG’s rMove™, or employing newer sampling methods like random device engagement. Importantly, planners must continue to be creative and bold to promote engagement to inform sound, inclusive decision-making.

In our Central Vermont work, we convened focus groups that included diverse and hard-to-reach respondents to enrich the online survey data. This ensured we heard the story behind the data from people about their access challenges and opportunities in the region. A few focus groups can help make research more human-centered. They can also provide insights that affirm, or even potentially confound, what is found through traditional survey approaches.

A mix of strategies will yield the best outcomes

Achieving equity at the project level requires patience, diligence, and professionalism. It also requires going beyond the standard practice and exploring new and creative ways to engage people. These methods include shifting how we as transportation planners think about mobility, embedding equity into new and existing surveys, and improving how we hear marginalized voices. Multiple strategies will yield the greatest benefit when it comes to undoing decades of discriminatory neglect and intentional harm.

Alexander Levin

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