Transportation equity and institutionalized inequalities

Professor Stuart Shapiro speaks with senior research specialist Charles Brown of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center on the subject of disparities in transportation planning this week on EJB Talks. Mr. Brown, also an instructor in transportation policy and planning for the school, connects transportation to social disparities, social justice, equity, and COVID-19. In addition to considering the “pracademic” approach to these intersectional crises, they discuss why it is imperative to teach people about the links between transportation planning and these critical issues and the need to prioritize equity in transportation planning and decision making.

Stuart Shapiro
Welcome to another episode of EJB Talks. I’m Stuart Shapiro, the Associate Dean of Faculty at the Bloustein School. And the purpose of this podcast is to talk with my colleagues and our alumni about issues affecting people in New Jersey, the United States, and the world. Today we return to the world of transportation, a specialty in our world-ranked urban planning program. Today, I’m very lucky to be speaking with Charles Brown, who both works at our Voorhees Transportation Center and also teaches for the Bloustein School. Charles, thanks for coming on the podcast.

Charles Brown
Hi, Stuart it’s certainly a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

Stuart Shapiro
Absolutely. Let’s just start with some introductory material. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your work at the Voorhees Center?

Charles Brown
So I am currently a senior researcher with the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center. At the Voorhees Transportation Center I oversee the New Jersey Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center, which is funded by the New Jersey Department of Transportation. The Bike/Ped Resource Center’s mission is to motivate, educate, and empower citizens to create safer and more accessible walking and bicycling environments, through cutting edge research, education, as well as the sharing of resources. More specifically, as a self-proclaimed street level researcher and/or “pracademic,” as I’ve often been called, my interests and my work are at the intersection of transportation, health, and equity.

So some of my most recent and notable contributions to research and practice includes conducting studies on understanding barriers to biking and walking for women and minorities in New Jersey, analyzing the impact of crime on walking frequency and propensity, centering and prioritizing equity and transportation planning and decision making, analyzing barriers to access in parks and open spaces, and then lastly, serving as a course instructor or trainer for Smart Growth America, National Transit Institute, Federal Transit Administration, Federal Highway Administration, and the CDC.

Stuart Shapiro
Wonderful. I like the term pracademic. At the Bloustein School, we’re pretty much all about pracademics, trying (laughing) to teach people at a professional school to make a difference.

Let’s delve more closely into what seems to be your passion here, the relationship between transportation and equity. You listed a bunch of areas that you look at here, but sort of, at the 20,000 feet level, can you talk a little bit about the relationship between transportation and equity? Because those are not things I think that most people think of together in the same sentence very often.

Charles Brown
Yes, that’s true. I mean, you can only imagine how many times I’ve had to explain what I do, and why I choose to focus on transportation equity to my family and friends. So…

Stuart Shapiro
Now you can do it to a wider audience. (laughing)

Charles Brown
So at its most basic level, transportation is about the movement of humans, animals, and goods from one location to another. And as you know, this can be done via many different routes, whether it’s railways, roadways, airways, waterways, or pipelines. Of these different modalities within transportation, however, my focus is first on the movement of humans. So when you view transportation, particularly the movement of people or human beings through a historical and a political lens, what you quickly understand is how transportation, particularly the interstate highway system, how it destroyed many black, brown, and low-income communities across the U.S. I mean, I’ve even gone as far as saying transportation, in many ways, has been weaponized as a tool of oppression. And when you look at this oppression, and you look at the impact that transportation has had on these communities, you start to see these lingering effects; whether they be social, political, economic, or health.

And so when you talk about, what connection does this have with equity? Well, equity has its foundation in the environmental justice movement, Title VI, and many others. And so, what I like to say is there are three main principles to equity to help understand why it’s important in the transportation context. The first one is equity at its most basic level is simply trying to understand and give people what they need to enjoy their full and healthy lives. But then the second principle of equity is the presence of justice and fairness within the procedures, the processes, and distributions of resources by institutions or systems. And then lastly, when you’re doing this equity work, it requires an understanding of the underlying or the root causes of inequalities and oppression within our society. And then it also requires a consideration of the various social identities within society. So you have to take an intersectional approach. And so, the reason why they are connected is because transportation, historically, has provided access for some, but has become a barrier for many others. And so equity allows you to assess those barriers, its impact, and understanding not only from a historical standpoint, but also a contemporary one.

Stuart Shapiro
So let’s touch on the practical side of pracademics. What does considering equity in transportation planning mean in practical terms? What has to be done?

Charles Brown
In the most basic sense… So, we are planners, most of us are planners, and the APA [American Planning Association] has a set of principles, these guiding principles that all planners must adhere to. And APA itself states that, we must always be conscious of the rights of others. We must pay special attention to the interrelatedness of our decisions. We must seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognizing a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration. So, on its most basic level, planners must be, first and foremost, aware that they have an obligation to be conscious of the rights of others and to pay special attention to the decisions that they’re making, so as to not repeat past injustices. So that’s one way to kind of look at that.

Stuart Shapiro
That’s great. So are we talking about, when we think about laying a bus route or a train route, or when we talk about building a highway, are those the kinds of decisions that we’re talking about here?

Charles Brown
Yes. So getting down to a more micro level, we’re talking about something as simple as, who has the right to exist in public space. Number one. Then number two. We’re talking about from a modalities standpoint, biking. Who has access to a bicycle, and then who has access to bicycle lanes? Who has access to public transit? Who has, is it quality? Is it comfortable? Are highway systems planned? Are we repeating our past sins by placing transportation, by placing interstate highway systems, through communities and taking away the quality of life and the well-being of those communities through those decisions. So those are just some of the ways in which equity will be considered.

Stuart Shapiro
Gotcha. Okay, that makes a lot of sense. You know, we’ve done a lot of these podcasts, and the podcast was originally motivated by the COVID-19 crises and then of course, the layering of other crises upon that has been one of our foci. Let’s connect some of what you’re talking about to the current moment. And I think the most obvious connection is, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, we’ve paid a lot of attention to thinking about racial justice. And as such, can transportation equity help us speak to some of the issues that we’re talking about as a result of these dialogues?

Charles Brown
Yes, absolutely. In the most fundamental way, what racial justice is, is this systematic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all. So when you go back to the equity principles that I stated earlier, as well as a justice framework by Dr. Setha Low from CUNY (The Graduate Center at CUNY)–and I could talk about that–what you’ll quickly understand is that we cannot achieve equity in transportation without looking through the lens of racial justice. Because when you look at the stats, the stats say, or the data as we would say, between 2008 and 2017 for instance, black and African Americans were 72% more likely to have been struck and killed by drivers while walking. And this is study done by Smart Growth America, its “Dangerous by Design” report.

Then two, looking at it from an income standpoint, people living in neighborhoods where the median household income is $36,000 or less, they too are also killed at a much higher rate than their counterparts. That extends also over to older adults who are more likely to have been killed while walking in our cities. So what this requires, going back to your question about practical matters, is that planners become aware of, and armed with, tools to assess equity and justice in their everyday activities and decisions.

And so I just referenced Dr. Setha Low from CUNY. And she has one of my most favorite justice frameworks. She talks about this idea of distributive justice, which is, you must consider who has physical access to a park, a trail, a bike lane, or public space. She talks about procedural justice. Who has influence over the design, the operation, and the programming? Then there’s interactional justice. What makes people feel welcome or unwanted in a space. Representational justice? Do people feel their experience and histories being represented in that space? And then lastly, care? How do people demonstrate their care for this space and other people in it? And so, when you tie the equity principles that I’ve discussed, Dr. Setha Low framework of justice to the current moment, what you quickly see is that low income and minority people in this country are not treated fairly in public space. And as transportation professionals, we have an obligation to ensure that they’re protected, not only from traffic violence, but all forms of violence.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, it struck me as you were talking there. I mean, you talked earlier about destroying communities by building highways. I mean, you’re talking about, I suspect, largely black and brown communities.

Charles Brown
Absolutely.

Stuart Shapiro
And when we talk about public transit and access to public transit, or crowding people on a subway train, we’re talking largely about people that need that as a mode to get to work. And those are, again, going to be minority communities.

Charles Brown
Right. Absolutely.

Stuart Shapiro
And that ties us into the other crisis we’re facing, which is of course COVID-19. Can you talk a little bit about how transportation equity ties with health disparities? And I suspect it probably has to do with, also, who has to go to work and who, like me, can work from home?

Charles Brown
Yes, that’s correct. And I should also state my privilege as well. I am privileged enough to work from home the same way that you are, even though I identify as black. I don’t know how you identify, but I think is important for the conversation, for others to know, that my identity is that of a black American.

And so when we talk about COVID-19 and its disproportionate impact on communities of color, and in particular black people, what we have to understand about these health disparities is that regardless of most of the measures that we look at around health, the people that are most burdened are people of color and low income people. So I’ve been working with health departments, all across the country. And what I’m finally happy to see is that, they’re starting to move more upstream, instead of downstream, in looking at these health disparities, and how they came about. For instance, many moons ago, they would usually start with the risk behavior of a person. Are you, Stuart, smoking? Do you have low physical activity? Are you using alcohol and drugs? And then they’ll move into talking about how that will lead to disease and injury. And then finally, mortality.

But we as planners know, and we’re starting to talk about even more so that, it’s not fair to start so far downstream at risk behaviors. It’s important to look at the living conditions, which influence risk. But it’s also important to look at the institutional inequities that influence living conditions. That is, who gets these bike lanes, who gets access to public transit, who can access a park from their home? And then, as we look at the institutional inequities, we have to then go further upstream and look at the social inequities among class, race, gender, and sexual orientation. Because public health now. finally, in their frameworks, are starting to say in order to reduce these health inequities and reduce these health disparities, we must consider the impact of social inequities on institutional inequities, the impact of institutional inequities on living conditions, and the impact of living conditions on risk behaviors, disease, and mortality.

So what you’re seeing is, when you look from a historical standpoint, COVID-19 impacts disproportionately black and brown people. Because… for the same reason that transportation does, or transportation decisions do, as well as environmental factors do, is because we’ve segregated society. And we place our most vulnerable populations in the most vulnerable situations possible. And so if you’re not studying the interconnectedness of all these issues, it’s going to be very difficult to solve current day problems. It requires an intersectional approach and looking at how people are suffering. And then coming up with the solutions accordingly.

Stuart Shapiro
At Bloustein we’ve, at least in the last couple of years in particular, done a lot of focus, a lot of thought, about as you put it, the upstream determinants of health. I mean, that’s in a sense, a buzzword in a school that combines policy, planning, public health, and health administration, and the intersection of all of those issues. And the end result–particularly right now when a virus is ravaging the country–is the end result is that in order to think about who’s getting sick, and who’s dying from this virus means thinking about the structure of many things, including transportation, of course.

Charles Brown
Right.

Stuart Shapiro
It’s easy to be down, given everything that’s going on and all the things we’re talking about here. But, let me try and end on an up note and ask you, have the recent protests, the attention to racial justice, the attention to health disparities, made you more hopeful that these issues you’ve championed may get more attention moving forward?

Charles Brown
Yes and no.

Stuart Shapiro
So something of an up note?

Charles Brown
Well, I think it’s all an up note, to be honest.

Stuart Shapiro
OK!

Charles Brown
The reason why I said yes and no is because I don’t really need events, personally; I don’t need these sort of events to be hopeful. I’m hopeful for other reasons. But when you look at the recent protests and the attention to racial justice, I am indeed hopeful because of the sort of multicultural response, especially among the youth, who are advocating and protesting for the rights of black and brown people in this country. So that certainly makes me more hopeful.

Because as an old African proverb, one that I’m reminded of each morning, says that “I am, because we are.” And if that’s true, you are because I am. And on and on and on. So we are all connected. We including the animals, the birds, all of us, the environment, we’re all connected. My concern though, Stu, is, there are many people who will use this moment to be opportunistic, and they will capitalize off of black pain and struggle. And what I mean by that, I think there’s going to be a marker in history where you’re able to see who was talking about the importance of equity and justice in transportation before COVID, and then those who are talking about it after COVID and the George Floyd protests. So that’s the part that concerns me is that, some people are doing it because they want to capitalize on it financially. Whereas others are doing it because this is the work that we all need to be taking on given it’s importance.

And for me, it’s personal. It’s not just work. It’s really a matter of life and death. And I know at any point as a black man, whether I’m, you know, a colleague of yours at Bloustein or not, I always have the threat of violence against my black body, anytime I take a walk, I go for a bike ride, or get on public transit. So that’s why this matters to me and this is why I’m happy that the Bloustein School, many of my colleagues, are talking about it. And we’re starting to shine the light on its importance. So for that, I’m hopeful and thankful at the same time.

Stuart Shapiro
Let me ask one follow up though. Just to pick up on something you said there. Which is that, hopefully some of the people that are talking about these issues afterwards, that were not talking about it before, like you were, are talking about afterwards. Some, of course are being opportunistic, no question about it. Some may just be learning, though. And as an institution dedicated to teaching students and such, I think we have to maintain the hope that, we can teach people about these inequities and the ways to deal with them. And in doing so, convert them to advocating and developing policies for a more just society.

Charles Brown
Yes, I agree. The concern there, however, is that not that they will learn and be compassionate about it and want to do the right thing. The concern is that in doing so, they will, too, forget those who came before them. And what usually happens is that history is rewritten. There are many black and brown folks who have been doing this work for decades. I think is important that the new people, regardless race and ethnicity who take on this work, give credence to and acknowledgement to those people who did it at a time when it wasn’t so popular to do so.

Because as you can imagine, I’ve given keynotes all across this country. And though I was invited, I was there talking about race, and justice, things that make many people uncomfortable. So I had to, like many others, work my way through the looks, the feedback, the criticisms of people who did not want to hear about it at that time. So it wouldn’t be fair for those who are talking about it now, to not acknowledge those people. And to not… I think it’s important that they also seek to work with them because they’ve been doing this work before it became popular. So, it’s simply a matter of acknowledging those before you. And working together collaboratively towards that shared goal.

Stuart Shapiro
I am certainly a huge believer in understanding where we came from as a way to understand where we are. I think we underteach history in particular. Charles, thank you very much for coming on today. It’s been a great discussion.

Charles Brown
Thank you. I appreciate it and look forward to hopefully, one day seeing you again, in person.

Stuart Shapiro
Absolutely. I’d also like to give a big thank you to our production team, Tamara Swedberg, Amy Cobb, and Karyn Olsen. We’ll be back next week with another talk from another expert at the Bloustein School. Until then, stay safe.