Reflections on Transportation Justice in Practice and in Outcome

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I just returned from the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals (APBP) conference in Portland last week, and it was incredible to be part of a gathering of nearly 500 other planners and advocates from across the nation who are passionate about improving communities through active transportation. Other conferences I’ve attended have focused more broadly on planning or smart growth or climate resilience, but none so in-depth on active transportation topics and issues.

That said, my greatest takeaway from the conference is one that might seem counterintuitive – that active transportation is not the be-all-end-all of solutions.

Across the nation, communities are grappling with difficult and pressing challenges around housing affordability, food access, and safety. As active transportation planners and advocates, we need to understand that transportation is not always at the forefront of people’s minds. We also need to understand the role that transportation has played – and currently plays – in racial segregation, health disparities, and displacement. Transportation should be included as a component of an integrated solution, recognizing that there are other complexities and sensitivities that need to be addressed in order to equitably improve quality of life.

In particular, anti-displacement is a major consideration in our work at WALKSacramento. We know that active transportation treatments are necessary for improving health outcomes and increasing access to opportunity in communities that are overburdened by poor chronic health conditions and high traffic injuries and fatalities. However, active transportation investments can also trigger a perception among residents that these amenities are not intended for them, contributing to displacement not just through rising housing costs but also through perceived social and cultural death.

The APBP conference created space for us to explore these topics and reinforced the necessity for thoughtful planning through meaningful engagement. Here are some of the key takeaways that are valuable for our work:

Plan with the community, not for the community. This has been our mantra for years, but was reinforced throughout the conference. Planning with communities fosters trust and empowers ownership, leading to equitable processes and outcomes. Some of the trends in community engagement include quick-build demonstration projects to pilot and vet infrastructure solutions, as well as capturing transportation stories that resonate with people’s lived experiences.

Balance planning efforts between “survive” and “thrive”. There are two types of planning efforts: work that is done to help communities survive and access basic needs, and work that is done to support thriving communities and improve quality of life. We need to balance both to help communities address pressing needs while also moving forward with a positive vision for the future.

Reaffirm social and cultural practices through the planning process. Doing so generates community buy-in and leads to more equitable outcomes. One example is the 90th Avenue project in East Oakland, which created a center lane to improve safety for youth and community members who currently bike in the middle of the street. Rather than install a two-way cycle track, the center lane reaffirms biking practices that are already occurring and addresses a need for improved traffic safety.

Catalyze equity, don’t just include it. Equitable planning starts with policy and systems change. It is our role as planners and advocates to navigate within systems and change stipulations to create a more equitable process that is intentional about healing transportation injustices. One opportunity to do this is through funding allocations, such as dedicating more funding for active transportation investments in marginalized communities and funding trusted community partners to authentically engage the community in planning efforts.

It was inspiring to hear what’s happening in the active transportation realm across the nation and to reaffirm best practices with like-minded professionals in the field. At WALKSacramento, we have developed a strategic plan built around these principals, formalizing our role as a strong voice for equitable community development in the Sacramento Region. We are excited to roll out the strategic plan this fall and work toward achieving our vision with mobility justice and equitable development partners both in Sacramento and across the state.

Alicia Brown is a Community Planning Coordinator at WALKSacramento. Alicia engages and empowers youth through Safe Routes to School programs and provides technical assistance on community-planning projects throughout the region. She specializes in engaging community members and bringing stakeholders together in order to develop effective and actionable plans that meet community needs and priorities.